Horse (Photo credit: davipt)

For many years, I used teach horseback riding lessons. I was also the assistant director of their summer program for many years and did a variety of other jobs ranging from glorified horse babysitting to mucking stalls over the years as needed at the riding school.

No matter which role I was filling, everyone above a certain level was tasked to answer the phone when it rang. While there was an office, there was rarely anyone in it and we were often grabbing the phones out in the stable yard while doing a million things. So you had to convey professionalism and good customer service while watching to make sure the younger kids weren’t getting trampled to death and sometimes while holding a horse who was trying to escape and it added this extra level of difficulty and danger to the whole phone answering process.

Most of the calls were pretty easy but every now and then you’d get a real weirdo. Dealing with a difficult customer while sitting at a desk and giving them your full attention is one thing. Trying to smooth out a difficult situation while trying to supervise a yard full of kids and large dangerous animals was quite another.

The director of the program taught me a very important lesson one day. She told me that when she gets a really difficult customer she’d tell them, “I’m sorry. I’m just a groom.” 

The next time a crazed customer was screaming at me, I tried it. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just a groom out in the stable yard.” Which was a lie, because I was more than a groom, I was the assistant director and an instructor but I was desperate.

And everything changed. He was suddenly much nicer. He started apologizing to me! He actually listened to what I’d been trying to tell him the whole conversation about what was bothering him and he got off the phone satisfied and thanked me for my help.

I felt sort of terrible about lying and relieved at the same time. Lying feels terrible but I think we can agree that no one likes getting yelled at. And, over the years I worked there, I tried not to pull the groom card too often but, every time I had to, it worked like a charm and diffused the situation.

Here’s why I think this works: People were calling and probably thought they were getting some kind of administrative office. They were picturing The Man, someone behind a desk. But as soon as I told them I was a groom, it gave them a much more realistic picture of what was happening. They probably saw someone filthy, surrounded by horses, hay and manure which was much closer to the case. More importantly, they stopped seeing me as The Man, who deep down we all love to yell at, and as a normal person doing hard work outside, which is more relateable.

On another level, they may have also assumed that a groom was maybe dumber, wouldn’t have all the answers and felt embarrassed for yelling at what they might be picturing as a blue collar type worker.  Obviously, none of these stereotypes are true and I’m really just guessing based on the kind of prejudices we used to see working there but the fact remains: When they thought I was just an employee and not a boss, their attitude changed.

I’m telling you this story because I have used this basic idea in many other settings since I left the riding school. I never lie if I can help it but I also never volunteer the information that I am the boss. I have diffused MANY customer nightmares by giving them the impression that I am just a cog in a large machine. Do I still take care of their issue and give them what they are after? Yes. I just let them think I’m just a lowly employee as I do it because as soon as they know I’m The Boss, the situation usually goes much less smoothly. As an employee, I’m still “one of them.”

I’m not advocating deceit here, don’t misunderstand me. Instead, I’m trying to say that there are inherent prejudices against the people that we perceive at being at the top and, sometimes, pretending to be “just a groom” can get the person on the other end of a bad situation to treat you like another human instead of their idea of the establishment. It’s tempting to bust out your full credentials right from the start but, often, letting yourself seem like less than what you are can make customer service go that much easier.

Have you ever pretended to be “a groom” in your business?