By Rachael Prokop
The jobs available to teenagers seem designed to make you feel powerless. Mechanically stuffing groceries into plastic bags. Serving food. Serving food while wearing a stupid hat.
But you’re not powerless. Think about it: When you walk into a restaurant, who is in control? Who determines how long you wait for food, when your drink is filled, and the cleanliness of the bathrooms? The wait staff, that’s who. Who keeps the lines moving at the grocery store? WHO SELLS YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED? Cashiers (unless you shop online or use self-checkouts, you Destroyer of the Job Market). When you work in customer service, you control the experience of your customers. And that is POWER.
My first job was as a cashier. I was bad with numbers, painfully shy and in no way capable of lifting bags of dog food as big as I was (but I had signed a paper that said I was anyway). This job was guaranteed to be horrible.
But what I didn’t know was that when I put on my ugly blue vest and stepped through those automatic doors, I would turn into a different person. I was someone who belonged in that store, someone who had the ability to GET THINGS DONE.
So you have a new job in some crappy customer service field? Don’t feel powerful? Read on -- because you have POWERS. For instance:
The power to get into forbidden places.
Once, at Six Flags, I (and several other members of my group, on a field trip) came down with a stomach virus. They had to ferry us by ambulance back to our bus, but there were more sick kids than there were ambulances. So I got to ride in the back of a golf cart through the staff-only area. Do you know what they keep back there? A WHOLE ROLLER COASTER. Granted, it was rusty and in pieces, but I’d still never have seen it if I wasn’t allowed past those “Staff Only” signs.
Having a job means having a special pass into places where ordinary people can’t go. Sure, most of them don’t include roller coasters, but my workplace had forklifts, which are pretty cool. We also had a second floor, which thrilled me for about a week because I’d been shopping there forever and had never noticed the stairwell. Secret offices!
And you get the experience of being in a public place WHILE IT’S CLOSED. There’s something very satisfying about going to a store at some ungodly hour in the morning, seeing a line of people waiting outside for who knows what reason, and then walking past them and going through the doors even though the store is NOT OPEN YET. This is especially fun in the winter, when your customers are so anxious about Christmas shopping that they’ll line up in the snow at 7 a.m. and you just get to go to the front of the line and WALK RIGHT IN to your nice, toasty store. Once you’re in, it’s like you’re in some secret club, getting to hang out with all your fellow employees before the customers come in and ruin the place.
The power to make a person’s day better -- or worse.
Bad customers are without a doubt one of the worst parts of having a customer-service job. But they’re not your bosses (although if you are cursed with bad customers AND bad bosses, I’m sorry). A lot of people seem to think that if they’re nasty and aggressive, you’ll give them what they want. DON’T GIVE IN. Remember, you have the power.
My store had a rule about transferring carts -- to prevent us from missing an item, we had to make sure every item got moved to a new cart, even heavy ones. Sometimes people would come in with HUGE ORDERS that they had stacked JUST RIGHT, and they didn’t want us to touch it. I’m not quite sure how they expected us to ring up their items like that, but I took a perverse pleasure in listening to them grumble and sigh as I took my time moving each of their items, one by one. Sorry, dude, I’m not going to get in trouble with my boss because YOU think the rules don’t apply to you.
But nice customers got extra help from me. If you missed a coupon that could save a couple dollars and you’re nice to me, I’ll tell you. If you’re being a jerk, you’re going to miss out on that deal. Helping customers was kind of a rush. No one goes grocery shopping for fun, and I’d get a lot of stressed-out people coming through my line. If I could make their day a little easier or more pleasant, then this job was worth it.
My favorite was cheering up and/or distracting kids. This was in no way part of my job description, but it was a ton of fun. Some kids get teary-eyed when you try to take a brand-new toy from them to go on the conveyer belt -- I was always quick with the handheld scanner when I saw that happening. But some kids want you to scan EVERYTHING. I “rang up” one girl’s personal Dora doll, and then proceeded to (pretend to) ring up the girl herself. Fun for everyone! There was one kid with autism who LOVED to be handed the receipt -- it was always a treat to see him, because that little piece of paper MADE HIS DAY.
To a kid, you’re not “just” a cashier. You’re a grown-up with an awesome job. One small girl once looked in my cash register and told me, wide-eyed, “Wow, you have a lot of money!” Then her mother and I proceeded to ruin her innocence by explaining how capitalism works. But for a moment, in that girl’s eyes, I was rich.
The power to get things done.
As a teenager, you’re probably at the bottom of your workplace hierarchy. But you’re still making a business work, and that’s pretty powerful. Without all the cashiers like me, our store couldn’t sell items. Without wait staff, sit-down restaurants wouldn’t exist. Without someone selling tickets, no one would get into amusement parks or concerts. WE ARE THE GATEKEEPERS TO THE WORLD.
When people need help, they come to you. True, they’re often rude or annoying about it, but they still think YOU have the answers, and that’s pretty cool. People generally ask easy questions, and you can feel all smart and powerful by knowing all the answers. You may even have the power to FIX THEIR PROBLEMS. Of course, you often don’t want to be bothered with questions and problems, but it’s still pretty rad to be considered an expert at something, even if it’s just making curly fries.
I’m sorry to say that I no longer work in customer service. (This is a lie. I’m not at all sorry. If you love customer service, more power to you. I did not.) While I did legitimately enjoy working with customers (look, I even wrote an article about it!), it didn’t make up for the pay (low) and the hours (unpredictable and apparently engineered to ruin your social life). So enjoy the power while you can, and remember -- no matter what job you get now, while you’re in high school, any job you have in the future is pretty much guaranteed to be even better.