From The Under 35 Project: “How May I Help You?

Sophia Aguiñaga transforms the wear and tear of customer service into compassion and love for both the worker and the customers being served.

Sophia Aguiñaga22 February 2013
Photo by Tim Wright

Thank you for calling. How many in your party? I’ll need your insurance information. Our special today is lemon cream custard. Do you have an appointment? Your photos will be ready in an hour. Let me know if you need another size. Blush and foundation are on sale through Monday. These shoes have clearly been worn outside. Are you saying that you’re upset because you had to listen to someone speak Spanish before you reached a representative? My name is Sophia. I’ll find you a clean fork. How may I help you?

The twenty jobs I’ve had since I was fourteen had one thing in common: customer service. Early on, it never crossed my mind to offer compassion to the people approaching me for help. I saw each individual calling in, checking out, or asking a question as just another needy customer. On bad days they were annoyances, rocks in my shoes as I tried to get through another day. Then there were the truly angry and rude customers.

As I matured, it dawned on me: without these people, I would not have a livelihood.

Until then, my customers weren’t quite real to me. “Have a good day” was just an easy nicety that made ending a phone call or seeing a guest out of the office a little less awkward. Work is, after all, different than other basic human interactions. We can spend day after day, for years and years, serving strangers rather than ourselves or those we know and love. Where are we supposed to find all the compassion, empathy, and understanding that a fifty-hour workweek demands? How can we be sure there will still be enough left for ourselves? Reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have a job isn’t always enough.

Sitting on my meditation cushion, I’ve discovered something that I did not expect: each individual calling to lodge a complaint or trying to return a worn pair of shoes is an occasion to simultaneously give and receive. They present the opportunity to plant the seed of compassion while replenishing the supply in the same exact moment.

Suddenly the question, “How may I help you?” has a new meaning, and a new answer: I can offer you what any creation truly needs and deserves—compassion.

And, of course, I’ll be happy to get you a clean fork.

Sophia Aguiñaga

Sophia Aguiñaga lives in Portland, Oregon, and now works as an editor for a private foundation.