There’s a lot to bemoan about the state of customer service, but one particularly disturbing trend I’ve noticed is a growing number of employees complaining in the presence of customers.

On numerous recent occasions, I’ve been waiting to be seated at a restaurant or in line for checkout, only to overhear an earful of employee gripes. The subject matter varies from cutting remarks about fellow employees, to whining about schedules, to the travails of having to deal with the public, but the common thread is that all of these conversations are audible and inescapable.

It’s especially evident in today’s retail and service industries. The success of everything these companies do, from their multi-million-dollar marketing budgets, to their carefully designed facilities, to their product and service design, all rest upon a single interaction between an employee and a customer.

As I wait patiently for my restaurant table, the hostess and a server blather on about whatever or whoever is ruining their lives that day as if I’m not standing there, forced to hear every word. While checking out my groceries at the oh-so-hip store, the cashier can barely be expected to acknowledge me, as she and her next-aisle-neighbor rant about having to wait another hour for their tofu breaks.

I’ve had the same thing happen in “professional” offices and all sorts of companies while waiting for appointments, as the receptionist and a fellow employee kvetch about one of the bosses.

Parents who handle carpool duties for tweens and teens quickly recognize that they become invisible to their passengers. School bus drivers have told me of a similar phenomenon. The young folks discuss all sorts of things one would expect them not to say in front of adults, because they seem to forget that a grown-up is in earshot. (Hint to parents of future teens: volunteering to drive may be a pain, but it’s a great source of intelligence as to what your kids’ circle of friends is really up to. Just don’t try to intrude into the conversation.)

I see these frontline employees in all sorts of settings do the very same thing. They appear to be completely oblivious to the fact that someone who’s not a participant in their conversation is within listening range. Either that, or they just don’t care that this person is an involuntary observer of their gripe session. That’s dangerous, especially when that individual is a prospective customer or business associate.

We all know the importance of making a great first impression. That’s why companies with fairly dull offices frequently splurge on the reception area. It’s why many of them seek to put a higher value on the role of the receptionist, with clever titles such as “director of first impressions.” And then they hire people who seem to lack the most basic discretion or social graces.

In today’s tight labor market, employers often hire with an aura of desperation, and that may be part of the problem. If line employees don’t have to worry about losing jobs because of bad behavior, they don’t have an incentive to act differently. And I’m sure several employers who are reading this will point to the difficulty of finding good help.

I’d grant them that excuse if there weren’t examples of companies that always, absolutely always, deliver stellar customer service. They’re the businesses large and small that you choose over their competitors largely because of the way you’re treated when you walk through the door. I can give you three examples right off the top of my head: Crew Carwash, Trader Joe’s, and Chick-fil-A.

I’ll drive past other car washes to go to Crew. The quality’s great, but I really appreciate the alert, unfailingly polite employees who treat each vehicle as though it were the first one they saw that day. The team members at Trader Joe’s are always up for a friendly, intelligent conversation, and will drop whatever they’re doing to help me find what I’m looking for, without ever making it seem like an imposition. And I can’t think of any fast-food chain that even approaches the genuine courtesy and desire to serve I regularly encounter at Chick-fil-A.

So I have to conclude that the real problem isn’t a dearth of “good” employees. It’s the culture of their workplaces and the attitudes of their managers. When expectations for service, politeness, and discretion are low, guess what kind of results a business is going to see? Perhaps the real problem is farther up the org chart.

Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing.

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