What Washing Underwear Taught Me About Customer Service

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My first ever job was born out of necessity. I needed the money or I would starve! It was my first semester at the University of Houston and of all semesters to arrive, I choose to come in the spring semester where the temperatures were treacherously low. Sadly my first job was to referee soccer games outside in the blistering cold! The job was wretched, I hated it and felt sick almost everyday from the merciless weather. At that time I could not afford proper winter attire so I made do with whatever I could lay my hands  on.  I was able to routinely manufacture winter gloves by placing several latex gloves over each hand, but this did little to mitigate the cold sneaking through my fingers!

It was a relief when I finally got a  job that required me to work indoors. I was assigned to do inventory management at the University gym. It was 10 times better than freezing in the cold and I even got to watch TV during downtime! The only problem was the inventory, which included various sports uniforms and equipment. This was not really an issue until I realized that I had to wash them also. So people would dump their sweaty uniforms and I had to cart them off for laundry dispensation. If that was not bad enough I came to find out that  I also had to wash a certain item called jockstraps. The first time I heard about jockstraps I was confused I thought they were some type of shorts. In a way I was right but they were more than shorts…they were male underwear used to protect the male genitalia during sports and other vigorous activities. I stood  rooted in confusion when I realized that they were part of the repertoire of uniforms I had to wash! Somehow I had gotten  a job as an underwear washer!
I never understood why people would wear jockstraps, but I did not complain because they ensured I had a job and better yet that I stayed warm. So I plunged into my menial role laundering and distributing jockstraps for the next 3 months. But something peculiar happened during that period, something that I totally did not expect…all the customers were nice to me. They respected what I did despite the fact that it felt like a menial job.
As I reflect back on my days in the gym I begin to realize that the problem of poor customer service in a lot of cases originates ironically from the customer not respecting what the employee is doing. You have some customers who feel that the employee is some sort of slave sent down from hell to do their every bidding at a whim without a whiff of complaints. In situations like this, the employees are seldom smiling or happy and who can blame them. They spend half of their time being yelled out by people (some reading this article) who feel that they (employees) are merely an extension of that houseboy or servant that they left at home. They fail to see the dignity of their job and if there was any dignity in it, they strive to destroy with loud yelling and finger snapping. The lack of disrespect can be tracked to the never-done-it effect. You see, in developed countries almost everybody has done some form of a menial job as a kid. It could be as a server, or as a cleaner or laundry assistant. But for the most part most people have gone through this…so they respect others in similar positions. They look at them not as door mats but as legit people, because they have gone through the same thing and understand how difficult the job can be. Unfortunately the same cannot be said in countries where the low employment rate does not allow for people to be exposed to jobs like that. The average American has a way higher chance of flipping a MacDonald burger before his first real job than a Nigerian grilling chicken at Sweet Sensation. This lack of underwear washing, burger flipping type experience leads a gap in respect in several customer interactions and is ultimately a trigger for poor customer service. If we are to tackle customer service we have to start with ourselves…we do so by respecting people around us. They could be drivers, cleaners, shop attendants…no matter what they do they deserve respect.  Because people feed off respect and respect like most things in life is almost always returned.
But the employees cannot be fully exonerated as they are just too critical to the equation. They are the face of an organization and are the first point of contact with the customers. A positive attitude decorated with a smile is an absolute necessity in the whole customer service process…I learned that from my co-underwear-washing-worker Alex Tchaikovsky (can’t remember his last name so I made this up). He was a big burly Russian that had been working at that particular gym for about 2 years. Despite his intimidating look Alex had one unique trait and that was that he was always smiling. Rather than complain he found the little positive aspects of the job and enhanced it, he was able to convince me that the job actually had great benefits. For instance he would boast about how we could do free laundry at the gym. Although free laundry was nothing special, his enthusiasm made it feel special. His positive attitude rubbed off on me and I actually looked forward to going to work and showed up with a similar attitude as him. With both of us smiling constantly we were able to create an atmosphere of fun at our work place and customers warmed up to us.
Sadly the same cannot be said for all institutions. So many times I have walked into establishments (names with-held) and have been greeted with frowning faces from employees. Instantly all form of excitement drains from my face, because inevitably what follows next is a display of bad service.
But then there are those rare occasions when I walk into a place…as chaotic as a marketplace with people yelling and screaming and there in the corner is that rare employee, who just smiles through the chaos. These are the magical people who make it worth it, because no matter their situation, their job or their circumstances, they do it to the best of their ability and with a smile.
If every employee smiled just a little bit more and put just a little bit more effort, we would begin to realize the real truth about customer service. It was the same truth I realized while washing underwear for 3 months and that is that great customer service, begins with a great attitude! But employers fail to realize that and instead focus on training courses or ignore the whole situation completely. Who can blame them though, attitude is very difficult to quantify and teach. But like most things in life, it begins with us whether we are the customer, employer or employee…we have to strive to have a great attitude in everything we do!
I leave you with the words of Martin Luther King…

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well. ~Martin Luther King


Ofili is an award winning motivational speaker, author, success coach and entrepreneur who blogs about life, success and entrepreneurial excellence. Follow him on BB pin:32A137F8, twitter ,facebook or subscribe to his blog for more success TIPS!” His latest book is titled HOW STUPIDITY SAVED MY LIFE, to find out how it saved his life click ofilispeaks.com/read-book


Wishing You Extreme Success,

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Author: Ofili

Words by Okechukwu Ofili of ofilispeaks.com
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20 comments on “What Washing Underwear Taught Me About Customer Service

  1. Edidiong on said:

    I would never look down on or yell @ anyone just because of their job, not even my house help, because I believe in the dignity of the human person. However I still get given a very rough time by customer service personnel, sometimes I wish I would yell in the first place! As the loudest customers seem to get good service. I think that apart from what you have said above, three other things contribute to bad customer service – poor remuneration, poor orientation and the derth of personal accountability. For as long as the pay of these lower rung workers cannot feed them decently, and the establishments they work for do dot orient them properly, and they are not held accountable for their actions or inactions, poor customer service will subsist. Unfortunately all these are the responsibility of employers. Business owners take note.

    • Edidiong: you are so so right “poor remuneration, poor orientation and the derth of personal accountability” are all key factors. I actually tackled that in my article but had to reduce the article so it would not be too long. But it will added in the book when I get done.

  2. Olabombshell on said:

    Being someone that has worked in multiple customer service jobs, I have a great appreciation for customer service providers and make an effort to commend great service. It is so easy for people to complain or talk about bad service, but rarely do we talk about GREAT service. I totally agree that if you’ve never been in the role of service you would not know how to receive good service. But in the words of 9ice, “respect is reciprocal.”

    • Hey Bombshell…thanks for the comments and support as always. What are some of the institutions with stellar customer service, that you have encountered?

  3. Talkovert on said:

    I came across your blog bout a week ago and i must confess, am hooked! I am working my way through them all now, and am having so much fun………

    This is so on point, one thing a lot of people don’t understand is that “I am not what i do”. That a person is a cleaner does not make him any less a person than you, and the sooner we realize that, the better for us. A good way to go about this is to treat people the way you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed, that way, you can at least try to be courteous at all times.

    Good work Ofili, you never fail to get through to me.

  4. Donovan Strack on said:

    Many companies these days are outsourcing help desk support not only to minimize the expenses but also to redirect the focus of the business to more important revenue generating activities. Help desk is an important part of the business as it provides support to the customers of the company. An effective help desk support can improve business efficiency, customer retention, and can be a good marketing factor that a company can use in attracting customers. This articles aims to help everyone understand the function of help desk to the business and the advantages of outsourcing this activity. ^-

    Ciao for now

  5. A lot of us don’t understand what work ethics and dignity of labour are about. Respect for people should not be based on status or wealth alone, but on the humanity and individuality of the people. Thus, we respect life. If we understood this, we would treat the street-sweeper with respect; not just the bank executive. Great article Ofili.

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