The Breast Rule

Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can
All the same old clichés, is it a woman or a man?
And you always seem outnumbered so you don’t dare make a stand

— Bob Seeger, “Turn the Page”

I consider myself a student of customer service, both as a consumer and as one who has supervised employees for a couple of decades now.  Experience has taught me that providing incredible, amazing customer service (the “wow” factor) involves more than sustained effort; it requires the right attitude.

When I began studying the FISH philosophy years ago, I was surprised to learn that one’s attitude can be chosen.  It was with mouth agape that I watched a video showing businessmen showing up at the Seattle fish market at five in the morning in suits to help the fishmongers shovel ice.  The fact is that a positive attitude is contagious.  Once demonstrated, everyone wants to be a part of it.

I used to believe that one’s attitude was fixed as a matter of personality.  I thought that, like one’s profile or shadow, attitude pretty much follows you around and there’s not much you can do to change it.  I would hear coworkers say “Ooh, don’t mess with her, she’s in a bad mood today.”

What I learned is that it is possible to adjust one’s attitude rather than resign one’s self to the vicissitudes of fate.  So, you had a fight with your significant other, your kids are a bunch of unappreciative no-goods and your car is in the shop for expensive repairs.  With so much going wrong in your life, the last thing you want is to have a crappy day.  The good news is that you don’t have to.  I like to think of work as a sanctuary where I can arrive with a smile upon my face and forget my troubles for a while.  Work can be escape from the less than wonderful aspects of life.

In the customer service world, we expect people to call in because they want to complain, because they have problems that they would like us to solve (immediately, if possible).  I like to treat those problems as challenges.  I encourage my staff to dig into their mental toolboxes and determine what resources are available to make the customer happy again.  This means that you need to have sufficient tech skills to research the issue, but more than that, it means soothing those who would just as soon take out their frustrations on you.  Success requires listening skills and being “fully present.”  It is so easy to set yourself on autopilot by making assumptions because, after all, you’ve heard it all hundreds of times before.  There are few ways of losing a customer faster.

Remember, for the customer, this is the first time.  This is the only time.  The attitude of the customer service rep, whether at a call center or in a retail store, will be the number one factor in determining the customer’s image of the business.  And there are no second chances.  Blow it and not only will the customer not be back, but the customer will tell everyone he or she knows to do business elsewhere.  I myself will not step foot inside certain businesses as a result of poor customer service that I received years ago.  Customers have long memories and, really, that’s the way it should be.

In light of the above, I will proceed to gripe about one of my all-time customer service pet peeves.

There are two words that need to be eradicated from every customer service representative’s vocabulary.  Those words are “sir” and “ma’am.”

Yes, we wish to be courteous and deferential.  But those terms are so loaded that they need to be banished to the trash heap.  Forever.  You may think that these words express respect, but in many cases they do not.

I have had more than one experience with women being offended when I call them “ma’am.”  Not only does it sound phony, but they have told me in no uncertain terms that it makes them feel like old ladies.  “Only my mother gets called ‘ma’am’,” one customer told me.

And that’s not even the half of it.  When speaking to a customer on the phone, can you really, truly tell me that you can be 100% sure of the person’s gender?  I assure you that you cannot.  I know of few ways to make a customer angrier than referring to him or her by the incorrect gender.  I cannot blame customers for taking offense at such misidentification.  Our gender is a part of our identity and getting it wrong can make an already unhappy customer unmanageable.  This gaffe can unnecessarily turn a little problem into a big problem.

If you deal with people in person, misidentifying a person’s gender is still an issue.  I know this from unfortunate personal experience.

I refer to this issue as “the breast rule.”  Some women have low-pitched voices and some men have high, squeaky voices.  So retail staff often decide whether to refer to a customer as “sir” or “ma’am” based on the presence or absence of breasts.  I realize how preposterous this sounds, but I am not kidding.  To make matters worse, it is often an unconscious process.  The way our brains are wired, we make split-second connections based on past experiences.  Hence, the breast rule.

You can see where I am going with this.  Many men, myself included, have breasts due to obesity, hormonal problems, genetic issues or some combination of the above.  Androgyny has often been ridiculed in the media, perhaps most memorably by the old Saturday Night Live sketch “It’s Pat.”  These days, I hear talk of “moobs” (man boobs) and even the “bro” (a support device that I am told is the male equivalent of the bra).  I have been referred to by many hurtful names, one of the worst being “she-male.”  It goes on and on.  But if you’re after a customer’s business and wish to provide truly exceptional service, it is necessary to stay as far away from this sort of thing as possible.

Yes, I become totally annoyed when shop or restaurant employees misidentify my gender and refer to me as “ma’am.”  I usually fight back by deliberately referring to the employee using the incorrect gender.  Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they don’t get it or just play dumb.  My poor wife has been known to pipe up “He’s a man!”

Ironically, this is a customer service error that, unlike a lot of things, is so easy to fix.  The obvious first step in this process is to scrap “the breast rule.”  Make no assumptions.  The next step is to excise the words “sir” and “ma’am” from your vocabulary.

Whatever happened to just donning a big smile and asking “How are you today?” in your most cheerful voice?

No gender identification required.

3 thoughts on “The Breast Rule

  1. I worked over 20 years as a travel consultant, in reservation centers or offices, and learned the first rule of thumb was to yse the customer’s name. Often. Thanks for an enlightening article.

    • Thank you for that, Jackie. I certainly agree, particularly in cases where the customer has filled out a form or a sign-in sheet and you therefore know her/his name. In most customer service positions, however (call centers, restaurants, retail shops), employees don’t have that luxury. I am a fan of the tried and true: “May I help you?” and “How are you today?”

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