5 Things I Learnt from Working Part-Time in the Service Industry


I sat by myself, twiddling with my phone and running through Instagram while killing some time at Raffles Places one day in between appointments when I heard a polite, “Excuse me.”

I lifted my head, put aside my phone and held my bag nearer to me as I looked up. “Would you have five minutes?” A young teenage boy, no more than seventeen, in a t-shirt and jeans waited patiently me for me to respond. I definitely did have time on my hands and since he had asked so nicely, I decided it was no harm to let him continue.

When he saw me nod, he immediately ran into a pre-meditated, well memorised pitch. He explained that it was his school break and he is currently studying in a polytechnic (though I thought he looked much younger, like a student still secondary school). In order to lessen the pressure on both his working parents who are supporting his studies, he had decided it was only fair he went out and got a job and not take an allowance during his school break. This was all very sensible indeed, I thought to myself and I nodded along as he went on without pause.

“I’m selling these keychains at $10 a piece…”

Wait a minute. Did he just say $10? For… keychains?

Without missing a beat he went ahead, bulldozing through my thoughts, “While this is not much to you, the $10 goes a long way in encouraging me to support myself during my school break and lessen the load on my parents and it will add towards the funds to pay for my polytechnic education.”

I started peering hard at this yellow laminated card he was clutching near his chest with one arm, while the other was used to push forward his collection of dangling $10 keychains and one underlined and bolded sentence caught my immediate attention, “We are not a charitable organisation.”

I put two and two together. It was a direct sales attempt but with a nice spin weaved in. A touching story of empowerment that no one could refuse to support. That said, while I empathised with the young man, I felt that I had to share with him something sincere.

“I understand you’re doing something responsible in wanting to support yourself and I have to commend you on your efforts. However, I do not believe me purchasing your keychains would be the best way for me to show my support and encouragement towards you. If you don’t mind me sharing a word of advice,”

I waited a little and he just stared incredulously at me with his head tilted. Okay then.

“I believe it would be in your best interests to find yourself a part-time job somewhere where you can equip yourself with some precious soft skills. Your break is an excellent time to learn something that can be applied in your working life in future and you can also earn a decent amount of part-time salary. There are plenty of part-time jobs, especially in the service industry, where you can easily find a place. They are constantly looking for locals to fill temporary positions and in the long run the experience you gain will be invaluable compared to selling keychains like this. And that is why I will not purchase your keychains.”

I wanted him to know that I was not discouraging him from making a living while in school. That is commendable. It is wonderful that he has thought of this even if selling overpriced keychains is a dodgy way to make a quick buck, but he could gain so much more if he was willing to open himself to another way of working.

While direct selling skills are important, I personally find that working in the service industry is the best way to learn important life lessons that are great and transferable. I believe many of my colleagues in the F&B department or Front Office department may think I have worked in an office all my life, but I was in fact once on the ground in the service industry.

In my teenage years, I worked part-time at Ben & Jerry’s as a scoopy and those were some of the best years of my life. Prior to that while waiting for my placement in poly, I had worked part-time in another F&B establishment, serving tables. I learnt a thing or two as a part-timer in the service industry and here are five lessons I’ve learnt from that experience.

Mistakes happen all the time. It matters less what happened than what can and will if you fix it.

The thing about being in a job within the service industry is that, service is usually delivered to customers by human beings. This means that mistakes can and will happen all the time. So often, it also happens when the store is busiest. At the end of the day, the human element means that the service will never be 100% perfect, 100% of the time. It’s not that I don’t strive for that of course, it just doesn’t work that way. What can be controlled though, is how I react to the mistake. I can let it eat me up, ruin my mood and be resentful and angry that things are so messed up, or I can go and deal with the problem head on and solve it.

An angry customer is just a customer with an experience that was below what they expected and that got them riled up. What do they want? They want the problem fixed. Most of the time, once the problem is adequately addressed and a sincere handling of the problem happens, they ease off and become more empathetic. The experience may not be “perfect” at this point, but being cared for enough that someone would just take it on the chin despite the harsh words can really help some people calm down. Of course, there are impossible customers who are very mean and harp more on the problem and refuse a solution, but I’d rather adopt an attitude that allows me to MAKE A DIFFERENCE to someone else, in this case a paying customer, than to dread coming to work every day.

Some of my most demanding and pissed off customers eventually appreciated that I kept my cool despite their angry demands for an explanation or solution. It was the personal touch and that I bothered to try and make it as right as it could get that let them give me a second chance (sometimes due to a mistake I made, other times because of a problem they faced that wasn’t caused by me at all). They became extremely friendly and understanding towards me and in future when they had complaints, would ease into sharing it with me as a friend wanting help on a problem, than with shouting or insistence. Not always, but the good experiences I had was more than enough to convince me that this is the best attitude I could adopt.

The best job in the world is still gonna suck if you don’t know how to create little joys and achievements in it.

The best memories I had from work were all made because of every single person I made them with had committed to making those good memories happen. Every bad situation we faced could be turned around into a funny story or bonding session as we mopped and cleaned the store late at night (sometimes even till midnight on a busy day), laughing it off. In the end, we remembered the late nights fondly and appreciated the camaraderie. What I always don’t quite remember though was what caused the “bad” day.

It was our choice as colleagues to make life in store better for all of us. We decided when we needed to work tough and when we needed to crack jokes, sing songs and entertain not just ourselves but our guests with our crazy and upbeat personalities. There were always stressful days, but the good times were also plenty. The job wasn’t the one to make that happen for us. I was. We were. We were responsible for creating a great environment at work. This is one of the most valuable lessons ever because every job has its downsides. There is never going to be a perfect job with the perfect colleagues and the perfect boss.

Don’t kid yourself, but what can go wrong always goes wrong… and then some more.

As the saying goes when it rains, it pours. Particularly so for shit happening. It just comes raining down from a motherlode of unfortunate incidents. Murphy’s Law is just always waiting to happen and if you get caught up in a bad situation, some more bad things will come your way just to beat your hopes for a better today down to pulp.

The thing is because it always happens, it’s just about adapting and working a way out of any sitch. Why build yourself up into thinking that’s the last bad thing that will happen and then get everything dashed to smithereens and be disappointed when trouble comes in pairs, triplets and quadruplets. Just breathe and ready yourself for the next challenge.

No one wants to hear how many letters you typed a minute over a great service recovery story

I think especially in Singapore, people tend to forget that the service industry is so challenging that the stories and lessons gained from working in it will really be more valuable to employers than say, 3 months in doing part-time data entry. Not unless you’re applying for a data entry role.

In one of my early jobs as a coordinator in a swim school, I worked a lot with customers. Other than office duties, I also had customer management in my job scope. Those days were tough times. I often felt underpaid and overworked but at the same time I loved the opportunities I was given. I loved meeting people (even though I did have days I was so sick of work too) and I loved solving problems for others. I gained a lot of satisfaction.

When I went for interviews after that job, I noticed that while I never got myself degree from a prestigious university or a good job to kickstart my career in, the numerous great lessons I learnt made for fantastic conversations during my interview. Those stories of how I managed to solve problems and come up with solutions is highly transferable to any job because every job will be fraught with them.

It doesn’t matter how right you are, people should be treated with respect.

This is the one most important takeaway any service person should learn. It is the ability to treat our fellow human beings with basic respect. You don’t have to be nice, you can be firm in fact, but don’t demean someone else because you think you’re bloody right.

You know what ticks me off? When people who have never for a single day in their life worked a job which requires them to serve others, go on a tirade, scream or make demands at a server. It pisses me off even more when people who HAVE had the experience, but choose to intentionally make life extremely difficult for service staff.  I have told off a few friends for this and I don’t hold back. I think it is something I need to make a stand on.

It’s a tough job out there serving countless of faces each day and to fully appreciate good service you need to know what it really takes to make it happen. I learnt that as angry as I am about the way I am treated at a restaurant, diner or store, I will always give them the benefit of doubt.  The company pays these people their salary and it is the company’s prerogative to decide how to discipline their staff. It is not MY JOB to get them fired even if I think I paid the money for my meal that goes into their salary.

Reality check: What I pay for hardly covers any overheads and even if it does, I can choose to go to spend my money elsewhere, but I definitely don’t have to torture everyone with my self importance. Want to make things better?

As a customer, if you’re truly concerned about the standard of service you received, you can provide your feedback every single time you visit a restaurant, hotel or retail outlet. But how I do it is I measure my tone and provide my feedback constructively but firmly, never like a self-entitled twat.

All in all, I am very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to work in many service jobs part-time with understanding employers. My time as a part-timer in the service industry has made me who I am today and built the foundation for my ability to perform in my role today as a Marketing Manager. I never regret that I didn’t get a “better job” or a “head start” doing something more “significant”. I look at my roots as a service staff fondly. The most resilient people can be found in the service industry and I’m glad I had the chance to work among them and learn their ways.

2 Responses to 5 Things I Learnt from Working Part-Time in the Service Industry

  1. Za September 20, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    YES. I make it one of my life goals to educate ppl who are unreasonably rude to service staff, before first attempting to understand the situation. I miss my time at B&J’s too! Batch 20 ftw. ♡ And loved that you offered your 2 cents to Keychain Kid! I’m curious though…how did he react? (:

    • Carrie September 22, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

      He just scurried away pretty quick. I guess he wasn’t expecting that!

      And yes… forever missing those good ol days!

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