The Seattle Freeze: How customer service differs by city

There are lists for the best cities to start a business and  the best place to be a pet.

But when I tried to find a list of “Best cities for good customer service” you know what I found? Zip. Nada. Survey geeks, get on this. Would be useful to know.

Why, you ask? Because I recently moved from Seattle back to the San Francisco Bay Area and I’ve had a massive epiphany about how customer service differs from region to region.

We’ve always inherently known this by which cities have the friendliest people. Having grown up in both Queens, New York and Columbus, Ohio, I saw first-hand how people carry certain stereotypes based on city. Most people tend to think Midwesterners are kind, honest, friendly and that New Yorkers are brash, loud and rude. There are some kernels of truths in this, but I’ve also seen the exact opposite. I guess when you’re classifying “good” versus “bad” customer service it also depends on the vibe with which you personally are most comfortable.  Personally, I like directness when it’s helpful to my decisions. I hate passive aggressiveness or saccharin sweetness because I view it as fake.

Lately, I’ve seen in sharp contrast the differences between customer service in Seattle versus San Francisco. And I’ve had this discussion with numerous people so I know it’s not just all in my own head!

I really liked living in Seattle. Truly. But one thing that always bothered me was the customer service quality in restaurants, shops, and supermarkets. To me, the service mantra seems to be one of tense tolerance rather than true customer appreciation.

This attitude can make a customer feel like you’re “bothering” them. When asking a waiter for Splenda instead of sugar, I could sense the “Really? Are you going to be that kind of customer?” Or walking into a boutique and asking for recommendations and being told, in a “well, duh” tone of voice, “It kind of just depends on what you like.”

I swear these are not one-offs. I had this experience over and over again, no matter how kind, patient or little trouble I tried to be. It actually seemed to get worse the nicer I tried to be – maybe that was irritating!

Some folks attribute this to a phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze. Won’t explain it here, but check the link. When I learned of this about two years into my residence there, it was like something clicked. “Yes! That’s it! That’s what the strange under-the-surface tension is!” People in Seattle are indeed fun and kind – and I have a ton of great friends back there that I miss terribly and to whom I mean no offense. But customer service in Seattle often made me feel like I was in the movie Mean Girls or something: rolls of eyes, looks of slight annoyance or standoffishness and always wrapped with an exterior of passive-aggression and faux helpfulness  – so I suspect that when the tape was played back, I wouldn’t be able to really prove any specific wrongdoing. “What? I did what she asked and even smiled!” would be the defense, I’m sure. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen: The attitude is “have a nice day, somewhere else”.

Am I paranoid? Ridiculous? Maybe. But again, I’ve spoken to many folks who admitted the exact same feeling. Customer service reps seem to do as little as possible for you. There is no engagement, no connection. Just spend your money so I can get back to the more important thing I was doing before you arrived, seems to be the message.

Contrast this to where I am now. It’s been like releasing a huge breath I’ve been holding in for so long. Look, I’m not a Chatty Cathy and I like expediency when checking out or ordering food more than the next guy. But engage, smile, ask me something about my dog or my scarf. I feel like I’m surrounded by a hundred new friends every time I explore a new café or check out a new boutique. Maybe it’s the sunshine and abundance of Vitamin D or something, but people seem genuinely happy to help and it shows when they serve customers. Even if they may hate their job – or you – you might never know it.

Am I generalizing? Heck, yes, but really not by much. I’ve had more baristas, clerks, waiters and even office receptionists offer me a delightful experience in the month I’ve been back than in my 4+ years in Seattle. Up there, it was not hard to have your business stand out with friendly, engaging customer service – the bar was set pretty low. Here? There are so many positive vibes that if I have a bad customer service experience, it stands out as the exception, not the rule.

So what’s the point of this rant for you? No, it’s not to bash my former home which I still adore fondly. It’s to prove that you need to be aware of your competition across every vector and find ways to stand out. What is the customer experience for your target audience like among your competition? Ask people, do research, conduct a survey. If you live in a city known for dreadful customer service, this could be the easiest way to stand out from the pack.

By over delivering in an area of low expectations, you can really set your brand apart. Tweet this!

Photo Credit:

What do you think of customer service in your city (or Seattle!) How do you use customer service as a key differentiator? Please share in the Comments.

Learn More With Maria

Ready to join the revolution?

Find out how empathetic your brand is RIGHT NOW, and join our newsletter to start shifting your perspective and transforming your impact.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.