Nostalgic for Nice

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Many years ago, in the forgotten kingdom of kindness, there lived a friendly call center employee who, for some odd reason, answered the phone like she gave a damn.

Although it smacks of a fairy tale, this scenario did play out fairly regularly some years ago. These days, though, it’s a different story.

Should an article about customer service really be a nostalgia piece?


It’s easy to say, “This Gen Z-ish person behind the hotel’s front desk does not want this job or, so it seems by her demeanor, any job.” But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know historically that the greatest impact on any generation is the one before it. So, what could I possibly have done to ruin Shelby and her outlook on humanity?

For starters, I probably taught her in kindergarten that life was fair and that she’d be responsible for fixing the ruined environment. I also told her everything that happened before 1995 was terrible and should never be repeated. Then I told her she could be her own individual unique person, while also telling her that she could live with me forever and implying that growing up was kind of optional.


So the problems that we have with people who didn’t grow up in a customer service culture is that we (and by “we,” I mean people who often cannot control the volume on our iPhones) positioned them to struggle to provide the service that we now so impatiently expect.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Shelby stands behind the hotel front desk, seemingly uninterested in the guests checking in. The echoes of our teachings of self-care and “me time” reverberate in her head. And this goes beyond Shelby; it’s a generational phenomenon. The values we instilled, the contradictions we presented, are now rearing their disrespectful heads.


Customer service has evolved over the years, transitioning from a simple transactional interaction with a smile to a Ritz-Carlton–style white-glove service. But there was always a high expectation of what customer service was supposed to be. Come to think of it, what white gloves really do well is detect dirt! So maybe the high standard we have aspired to was destined to end in disappointment.

It feels that friendly customer service is now a distant memory, replaced by a hurried, digital world where personal connections often take a backseat to doing what it says on your screen, even if it makes actual humans miserable. Shelby and her peers, armed with a conflicting upbringing, find themselves navigating this complex terrain.


The concept of customer service culture is pivotal in understanding the dynamics at play. It’s not merely a set of rules or a script to be followed; it’s a belief system, a way of approaching interactions with an empathetic and often sympathetic eye for what people need in the moment.

People of any generation understand this intuitively, but somewhere along the way, the essence got lost in translation. And when I say translation, I’m not talking about a generational language barrier involving Gen Z terms like “that slaps” (it’s good) or “that’s mid” (it doesn’t slap); it’s the idea that someone who doesn’t know you could understand the efficiency you’re providing to them even though you have no detectible level of caring.

As I ponder Shelby’s lackluster approach, I can’t help but reflect on my role in shaping her worldview. Did my well-intentioned advice or potentially offensive dad jokes inadvertently contribute to the decline of customer service standards? Have we, as a society, failed to pass on the importance of genuine connection and service excellence?


The problem extends beyond individual actions; it’s (I’m going to use the “S” word now) systemic. The educational system, parenting styles, and societal norms all play a role in shaping attitudes toward customer service. Perhaps we didn’t emphasize enough the value of putting oneself in the customer’s shoes, of treating others the way we would like to be treated. People can’t really give to others what they were never exposed to.

To address this, we must go beyond blaming the younger generation and take responsibility for the culture we’ve collectively fostered. (These days, “fostered” is often code for “screwed up.”) Organizations need to invest in comprehensive training programs that not only teach the technicalities of the job but also instill a customer-centric mindset. The forgotten kingdom of kindness didn’t crumble overnight from an attack outside castle walls; it eroded gradually from within.


Moreover, redefining success for the newer generations is crucial. It’s not just about personal achievements; it’s about contributing positively to the community, be it through excellent customer service or other acts of kindness. Success should be synonymous with making a difference in the lives of others. If this sounds like I am getting on my soapbox (yes, I’m aware that Shelby doesn’t really understand the origins of the soapbox metaphor), it is because I absolutely am.


As we strive to rebuild the customer service culture, let’s acknowledge that change starts at home, in our schools, and within the family. Encouraging open conversations about the importance of service, empathy, and human connection can reshape the narrative for future generations. It’s not about abandoning progress but rather infusing it with the timeless values that underpin exceptional customer service.


In conclusion, the tale of Shelby and the forgotten kingdom of kindness serves as a reminder that the legacy we leave behind shapes the world we inhabit. Nostalgia shouldn’t be a lament for what’s lost. It should be a call to action for what can be regained.

Conclusions like this one aren’t terribly valuable if they don’t also suggest what the call to action should be, so here I go bandying about another “S” word. A sacrifice will likely have to be made on both ends of the situation. Shelby will have to try to show more compassion one interaction at a time, and the customer will have to deal with her “service with a smirk” style for now as she improves.

Ultimately, this call to action boils down to willingness. If you are not prepared to sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice. And let’s be honest: what we all want is service from someone who doesn’t leave us feeling as though the act of providing that service is causing them to lose the will to live. 

Garrison Wynn is a best-selling author and personal influence advocate who for the past 27 years has helped organizations create a culture of leadership, safety, service, and change. He has spoken on five continents to almost all the Fortune 500 and their industry associations.

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