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How To Be Polite And Assertive When Working In Customer Service

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SFU chapter.

Whether you’re a high school or university student you are likely quite familiar with the struggle of maintaining a minimum wage job while also keeping those grades up. It might not be easy but it sure is necessary for those that need the financial support to pay for their tuition, rent, (overpriced) Starbuck dragon drinks and other much needed expenses; and as if the stress of long hours of class and assignments wasn’t enough, working in customer service certainly isn’t the cherry on top. There are countless reasons why working in customer service is difficult but knowing how to handle challenging customers takes the cake! Despite how much LinkedIn advertises the importance of having customer service as well as communication skills in your arsenal of assets, let me just say that developing those skills oftentimes requires sacrifice. Well… brace yourselves because I’ll be revealing some tips and tricks on how to be polite but assertive when working in customer service.

When I started working in a grocery store about 4 years ago, I was the average introvert with no work experience and lacking skills… very, very unlike the person I am today. I had to forsake the soft spoken tone I used when talking to customers because I quickly learned it wasn’t helpful, and more often than not, I was receiving harsh criticism that would ruin my entire day. Biggest tip for those who work in retail or any job that involves interaction with others, build that alter-ego complex of yourself! It is so much easier to rely on that alter-ego complex when your voice is high pitched, your eyes glinted, and that smile totally faked because you just know it belongs to that side of you that won’t hesitate to engage with others and say what needs to be said to prevent getting trampled in the process. One could argue it’s to make you sound and look happy because being approachable is what is expected of most jobs, but I see it more as a safety net and protective shield than anything. Don’t be afraid to experiment because without experimenting and trial and error, you can’t build that extroverted part of yourself that comes handy in countless situations !

Summarize, summarize and summarize! School may have taught us how to write a summary but working in customer service requires you to voice that summary to avoid any backlash and missing any details. When customers are seconds away from throwing the next big hissy fit (which you can tell by their body gestures), don’t underestimate the power of a summary even if it may seem scary and may not be the first thing you think of doing; politely and clearly (in a slightly louder voice, if possible), repeat everything you’ve explained or have done, and allow them to correct you as you go. In this way you’ll show them you’re listening, trying to make an effort to pacify any misunderstandings, and are very much in control of the situation… this way customers are less likely to lash out and verbally attack you.

Respect your boundaries and trust yourself. When starting a new job anywhere, nerves will likely neutralize your assertiveness because you’ll be scared to stumble and fall (totally understandable). Setting boundaries can be difficult at first because you want to appear helpful to everyone and the urge to people-please is relentless, but it is a must. Once you become settled in a routine, know the typical expected responses to give, set clear boundaries of what you cannot do (whether it be carrying their bags out or taking their card to pay for them so they bag their groceries) and communicate that with the customers or coworkers, assertiveness naturally develops; just make sure to start with politeness.

Assertiveness will likely be confused with rudeness depending on the customer, situation and tone, but don’t forget that the definition of being assertive is to be confident and bold. Becoming a bolder version of yourself will take time and many months of trial and error, but that shouldn’t make the process disheartening or unmotivating. I never liked the expression “fake it til you make it”, but it really seems to be fitting when working in customer service. 

Manpreet is a Psychology student at Simon Fraser University and also happens to be a heavy baker of anything sweet and a hopeless romantic by heart. When she is not busy reading, writing, working part-time, or drinking wine, she can be found with her high school friends planning something.