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How to survive a customer service job when interpersonal skills are not so much your forte.

One Socially Awkward Server, Coming Right Up

Waiting for Good Dough

How to survive a customer service job when interpersonal skills are not so much your forte.

By Jill Phelan, Saint Vincent College


My coworker asked me once if I was alright (with a chronic case of Resting Bitch Face, I get that a lot).

I told her I was fine, to which she remarked that I always seem quiet and upset.

“No, I just can’t really make conversation very well,” I said, “and I tend to keep to myself unless I have something to say. I’m kind of awkward I guess.”

“Well then why the heck are you a waitress?” she responded.

I don’t remember what answer I gave her (I probably stuttered something obscure and then laughed awkwardly), but I do recall going home to my mom that night and ranting about how offended I felt. So maybe I’m not your typical “people person,” but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to have a job in customer service.

Yes, I’ll admit it—I’m not a great waitress, but I like what I do. And even though I’m not a model server, I still manage to get by with some nice tips—most nights.

I’ve been in the restaurant business for almost two years now, and while I’m still improving, I’ve come a long way from where I started. As a socially awkward person in an intensely interactive job, here are some of the techniques I’ve learned for pleasing customers without having to schmooze them.

1. Slow and Steady Wins the Tips 

Although I’ve gotten faster at gathering drinks and prepping the food that comes from the kitchen window, I’m still not very speedy.

I’m not what you would call a quick thinker either. I like to take time to think everything through, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing in the restaurant world.

One Socially Awkward Server, Coming Right Up

On the one hand, taking your time helps you remember to get everything you need, reducing the number of trips you have to make to the kitchen. On the other, customers aren’t always the most patient of people.

Usually, guests aren’t too worried about how long you take to get back to them, as long as it’s within reason.

Some people are just downright rude no matter how nice you are, and there’s nothing you can do about that (other than secretly hope that something horrible happens to them). But as a rule of thumb, if you take twenty minutes to get drinks then you can probably kiss your tip goodbye.

Still, customers are more likely to get upset if you keep forgetting the things they asked for, so thoroughness pays off even at the expense of speed. When I take the time to be more diligent, I’m more likely to get everything that I need to in one trip, something that the guests appreciate and often reflect in their tip.

2. Chatty-less Cathy

I’m not good at talking (I’m a writer, not a speaker). Chatting with strangers definitely makes me nervous, and when I get anxious, I sort of lose control sometimes.

You know how you black out when you get really drunk and your body goes all crazy while your brain is napping? That’s what I do when I start talking with strangers; my brain just kind of shuts down and my lips start spewing nonsense.

When I walk back to the breakroom, my brain wakes up all dazed and confused asking, “What the hell just happened?”

Well, if you’re prone to your lips assaulting you, then maybe you’re just not one of those employees who should be trying to make small talk with the guests. It’s OK, I’m not either.

I’ve found that it’s best if I just keep the chit-chat to a minimum, and one of the ways I do that is to stick to a routine and relax, even though I know that remaining calm can be hard at times.

As weird and robotic as it may sound, I find that some phrases just roll off the tongue easier for me, such as “Can I get you started with some drinks?” or “If there’s nothing else I can do for you, I hope you have a great day.” If I stick to what feels comfortable, I’m not as prone to a hostile takeover from my mouth.

That’s not to say that altogether I avoid the gibberish bombs, though. Occasionally, I still say something stupid.

Just last week, one of my customers expressed that he was so happy the food had finally arrived because he was starving.

I responded “Well it’s a good thing you have your food now so you can eat it and not be hungry anymore.” Good job, Jill, real clever.

The point I’m trying to make is that some people aren’t the best at thinking on their feet, and if that’s the case, it’s best to be as prepared as possible to avoid any mental roadblocks. Thinking of phrases ahead of time can cause me to feel more relaxed in the moment, making it less likely that I’ll look like an idiot.

3. Turn That Frown Upside-Down

For those of you that struggle with Resting Bitch Face (RBF), there is hope, although it’s going to require that you resist your natural instincts.

Looking unhappy, even if you are not, gives off bad vibes—and no customers want their smiles infected with your frowns. I have to make conscious efforts throughout my workday to make sure my face isn’t completely relaxed or else I’m left looking like a grouch.

There’s nothing worse than my managers watching me walk back into the kitchen and saying “Smile!” in that upbeat way that’s supposed to coax a grin out of me (it usually ends with me shooting them an exaggerated cartoonish smile).

It does, however, remind me to focus on my appearance to the customers. But that doesn’t mean I want to walk around smiling from ear to ear all day long (because that would be exhausting).

For people who share my illness, just try lifting your mouth and cheek muscles a little. You won’t be smiling per say, but it’ll help compensate for the fact that the corners of our mouths naturally turn downward. This way, you’ll look more pleasant without looking like a toothpaste spokesperson all the time.

RBF aside, it’s important for those of us in the customer service industry to come across as cheerful and courteous. In fact, it’s probably the most essential part of being a server (especially if your interpersonal skills are anything like mine).

My point is, you can be likeable without necessarily shooting the breeze with every guest that walks through your workplace. Just being positive and polite can be enough to make your customers feel satisfied. So what I lack in swiftness and people-skills, I can make up for by just being a pleasant person.

At the end of the day, you can get away with making some mistakes so long as you’re apologetic and respectful. Most guests won’t treat you like garbage if you are nice to them and humble about your slip-ups.

Even if you’re not a natural people-person, there’s still a chance you can make it in the customer service business. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can.

  1. Oh my! I can relate to you so well! You perfectly put everything I’m feeling right now into words and it’s relieving to know I’m not the only one who feels this way… I just started my first waitressing job at 21 and I have much to learn since I’m a socially awkward/nervous butterfly. Thank you for writing this article.

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