Bob Dylan was right: You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

You're gonna have to serve somebody

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

I grew up the youngest of three kids in a typical, middle-class family. My parents never saved for college for any of us. When I graduated from high school, The U.S. was in the middle of a recession. The local manufacturer that my dad and older brother worked for was laying people off rather than hiring. So I decided to go to the local community college to “wait out” the recession.

That recession turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I developed an interest in computer programming in college and ended up going on to get a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

I learned a lot in my college days. My computer science classes taught me about different programming languages and coding principles. I also learned accounting principles, economic theories, and business strategy. That was all very valuable knowledge to graduate with. But the most valuable knowledge I learned in college was outside of class.

I was putting myself through college, mainly by waiting tables. During one school year, I started a business with two fellow students. We started a delivery business to deliver for businesses that didn’t otherwise deliver. It was kind of a precursor for Take-Out Taxi.

The lessons I learned from those jobs may have contributed more to my career than any of the lectures or homework. Namely…

People pay for good service

When I waited on tables, I learned that some people are percentage tippers. For them, it doesn’t matter how great of service you give them, they’ll tip the same. But there are people who use a percentage as a starting point. If you give them the level of service they expect, they’ll give you that percent. But if you really mess up and give them lousy service, that percentage goes down. Conversely, if you give them outstanding, friendly service, that percentage goes up.

When I started my career in consulting, I learned that clients were the same way. Instead of paying in tips, they reward you with repeat business.

For more information check out How to be mentored

You’re not too good to serve people

The delivery company that I started with my friends catered mainly to students. We delivered mostly fast food to the dorms and student apartments. Some of the students were what we called “royalty.” Daddy sent their little princess or prince to college, paid for everything and sent them a hefty allowance every week so they didn’t have to work.

I’ll admit that a lot of that was jealousy on the part of my partners and me. We were poor college students buying gas five dollars at a time and using napkins as coffee filters.

But we also knew we were learning about customer service. We had to be polite when the bitchy student called to cancel her order because it took too long. We had to act nice to the drunk guy that chewed us out for not getting enough ketchup packets for his cheeseburger.

Most of these people learned the same things in their classes that I was learning. But they never learned how to provide customer service. I ended up working with some of them after graduation. I could see them coming a mile away. Whether they were dealing with a coworker, an internal customer, or a paying client, they didn’t deal with them well.

They didn’t understand the discipline, tolerance, and basic manners required to interact with others. They might have been smart. Hell, they had plenty of time to study without worrying about getting to work. But they had poor attitudes and were poor communicators. They rarely lasted long in a service industry like consulting.

Customers aren’t always nice to you

One of my waiter jobs was at a hotel. Although most customers were friendly and easy to get along with, some were just downright rude. Some of them had just come out of a grueling all-day meeting. Some may have been traveling all day and were exhausted and crabby. Then again, some people were just naturally assholes.

I learned that part of my job, in addition to bringing them food, was to try to make them happier. I’d try to gauge whether they needed some cheering up or just wanted to be left alone.

Sometimes it put them in a better mood. Sometimes it did not. Either way, I tried to ignore their rudeness and focus on my job. When I moved into my career, I found clients and coworkers could be the same. Whether they were having a bad day or a bad life, I had to be a professional and learn to deal with it.

Not everyone is out to get you, but some people are

I’ve always believed that most people are good people. I still do. There are thieves and criminals who will hurt you for no reason. But they are in the minority.

When we had our delivery business, customers would call us and tell us where they wanted us to go and what they wanted. We would go to their requested restaurant, purchase the order, and collect the cost of the order, plus a delivery charge upon delivery.

One night, I had a customer call for a large McDonald’s order. I purchased all of the food and drove to the address they gave me. As I was organizing the multiple paper bags and drinks on the hood of the car, someone came running from behind me, grabbed the largest bag and ran off. They were gone before I realized what happened. Nobody was at that address, and I realized I had been scammed into buying someone some burgers.

I’ve seen in my career that, while most people are good, honest people, there are some dishonest folks out there too. Some are hackers trying to bring your website down or steal your data. Some of them are competing consultants at a client site who will steal a proposal you leave on your desk to get inside information to your billing rates.

I’ve found that paranoia is unwarranted. But taking some extra steps to secure my assets usually pays back in the long run.


College is a great place to go to learn. Classes, of course, teach valuable information. Students learn how to live with roommates and other people from diverse backgrounds.

But having a part-time job that requires a student to serve customers can be a valuable experience. Serving people teaches skills that can greatly increase one’s career success.

What did college teach you outside of your classes?

If you would like to learn more about mentoring between Millennials and Baby Boomers, get Lew and Jeff’s book The Reluctant Mentor on Amazon.

I welcome your questions and comments.

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