First jobs in customer service

Inspired by the Hotel CEOs installation of Reuters’ “First Job” series recently shared by Skift, Cachet Hospitality Group asked some of its executives to recount their memorable customer service experiences. 


Alexander Mirza



First job: Sports equipment and clothing sales clerk

My first job in frontline customer service was at age 16, for Canada’s largest sports store chain, Collegiate Sports (now Sport Chek), in the Yorkdale Mall in Toronto. I was a sales clerk selling running shoes, retail apparel, ski equipment and stringing tennis racquets.

As a student athlete I was fortunate to work in a large sports department store situated in a big mall and learn to serve all kinds of people in all age groups. Our customers ranged from new immigrants who were buying ski equipment for the first time to accomplished athletes who were fanatical about every detail and ordered custom gear. There was a lot of traffic and the place was always buzzing with energy.  

It was also a very demanding job because the hours were quite long and I had to learn to become a proficient salesman. This meant acquiring detailed knowledge of nearly every major sporting activity, inventory and pricing of all the product lines, to go along with labor-intensive tasks like tagging the products, stocking the shelves and cleaning the store after hours. 

The store manager was a colorful French Canadian guy who was a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan with a great sense of humor. Typical of 1980s Toronto, most of the staff was composed of high school athletes, including many Asian, European and Caribbean immigrants. The boss was great at motivating staff, casting people in the right departments, creating sales contests and even having us train each other. I remember training a Jamaican immigrant who was the best sprinter in Toronto how to string tennis racquets, and he taught me about the subtle differences in track and field spikes. When the boss got mad at us he would curse at us in Francophone (French Canadian) or call us back to his office (“the penalty box”) adjacent to the noisy warehouse receiving truck shipments to show us the type of work people do when they are not good salesmen. 




First job: U.S. Senate page

As an extremely fortunate 15-year-old, my first frontline role was as a U.S. Senate page working on the senate floor in the U.S. Capital.  Pages were required to learn all 100 senators by state and face and to recognize them by title. We were tasked with filing and retrieving bills, delivering messages and locating senators for votes. We literally sat at the steps of the Senate floor and jumped at any senator’s request to run errands.  

Needing to fund my college experience, I moved into the restaurant world, assuming the role of cocktail waitress at a surprisingly busy local nightclub outside of D.C. named Quicksilver. Big tips, late nights and great music kept us all inspired. Shortly thereafter I was running restaurants and put my law degree on hold.  Thankfully, my mother pushed me into hotels and I quickly found my way to a GM role at 28 years old. Years later I’m still inspired everyday by the people I meet in this exceptional business.




First job: Concierge

My first job in hospitality was as a concierge at the Westin Shanghai Taipingyang, a 500-room, five star hotel in Shanghai, when I was 23. I'd graduated from the Harbin Institute of Technology and had been working as an assistant engineer designing the autopilot system for rockets, but I was more attracted to the hotel industry. 

It was a big culture shock moving from a government institution to a hotel – from efficiency to disciplinary action to even the uniform. Back then there was basically no “service mentality” in China. In fact, tipping was such a foreign concept that the first time a guest gave me one, I was so astonished and unsure what to do I didn’t even say, “Thank you.”

We didn't have the internet at the time, so concierge was one of the busiest jobs in the hotel. I had to take care of the guests' transportation, ticketing, luggage, city tours, information and all sorts of other arrangements upon request.

In addition to being incredibly organized, the key to being a successful concierge is anticipating guest needs. For example, you need to quickly judge if a customer would prefer a luxury dining experience or a "value for money" one, or, when handling complaints, you need to be able to quickly assess what type of apology or remedy would be the most appropriate. Looking back, my career really benefited from starting in a position where I was able to experience such a wide range of customer interactions.  




First Job: Chef’s apprentice

My first job in hospitality was apprenticing as a chef, when I was 16 years old. My Head Chef, who also owned the business, was a very conservative, old-school type of industry person who believed in the need for a young cook to understand every aspect of the business. 

Much to my distress this meant 6 months of cleaning pots and pans, doing dishes, and peeling onions, potatoes and every crustacean under the sun, often until my hands were raw and bloody. All that while I was developing knife skills by having to julienne and brunoise what felt like a never-ending amount of carrots and onions. As tiring as this regimen was, however, it forced me to develop very strong discipline regarding precision and helped me to appreciate the importance of process. The result was a Zen-like respect for the rigors required to strive for perfection in this industry. 

Chef also believed it was important that young cooks or chefs experience the front of house in order to develop a well-rounded understanding of the operation. To this end I had to fill a regular shift either as a bus boy or assistant waiter, or help in the reception department of the restaurant. Looking back I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to customer service, as I was able to see the business from the ground up and began to build a strong foundational understanding of the pillars of the service industry. It was very rewarding seeing all the hard work manifest into a happy guest. These were the gifts that this very hard man gave me. 




First job: Bartender / Cocktail waitress

In order to fund my education at NYU Stern, at 18 years old, I got a job as a bartender/cocktail waitress at Amsterdam Billiards, a billiards hall in New York City (which still exists today.) I worked four nights a week after classes, usually from 5pm to 1am, though sometimes from 8pm to 4am. The job's function included making ad serving drinks, preparing simple food such as sandwiches and burgers and of course, cleaning the bar at the end of the shift.

Because the venue was not a high end restaurant or a traditional bar, I didn’t earn a lot of money. But I didn’t care. I ended up working there for three-and-a-half years (throughout my college years), mainly due to the loyal patrons whom I came to know, the regulars who come after work, on weekends as well as the celebrities such as Black Widow, Allison Fisher, and Kim Ga-Young... What an incredible and unforgettable experience!

Working in the one-and-only New York City, it's difficult to sift through my memory bank and select my favorite. There were just so many! As a bartender/cocktail waitress working in a dense, richly cultured and diverse city, I interacted with so many different people, personalities, different backgrounds across all types of situations, both good and bad. The key to creating happy customers is recognizing them. Whether they are loyal customers or new ones, customers deserve to be recognized through simple ways such as remembering their names, giving them discounts or drinks. From the venue’s perspective, it doesn’t cost operationally to expense a tea bag or cocktail and the gesture goes miles and will not be forgotten. And personally, I just found it incredibly rewarding to seeing their smiles.




First job: Summer Intern at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo

The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I interned in the Consular section of the United States Embassy in Tokyo, where I assisted the staff in managing the thousands of people hoping to gain entry into the U.S.

Hearing the conversations going on around me, I got to see just how everyone’s lives differed and how varied their plans and dreams were. My time there helped solidify for me what a privilege it is to interact with and help such a diverse array of people. It is a privilege I am fortunate enough to still have today.  

My first paid customer service job was four years later, as a college sophomore waiting tables on the weekends at the International House of Pancakes in Champaign, Illinois. To this day, my sister calls IHOP my alma mater if we happen to drive by one on the road. There, I learned how to hold five scalding plates of food at once, upsell O.J. (never orange juice), manage the ornery chefs, and handle customer complaints without crying. I also discovered what it was like to be on your feet for 12 to 15 hours a day and come home smelling like pancakes and eggs. It isn’t as nice as you might think.




First job: Bookstore Sales Clerk

My first part-time service experience was as a 16-year-old working in Wellington’s largest bookstore Whitcoulls, on the main shopping street of Lambton Quay. In the months leading up to my first term of Anthropology, a friend asked me to join him on a one-off weekend stock-take. It was a great weekend working with a friend taking turns counting stock and recording inventory at the 3-story shop in the heart of the city. 

The weekend came to an end, but I wasn’t ready to finish working there. Though there were no positions available, I continued to return and badgered the store manager until he caved in and offered me a job working weekends. From then on I learned the ropes by rotating through the different sections, from the main cashier desks to videos, books to stationary, and lastly, office equipment. I enjoyed becoming familiar with the products and understanding the organization and planning of the store, but mostly I relished the customer interactions. The camaraderie among the large, diverse workforce that included different ethnicities and age groups was also exciting.

I ended up based in the video section because I found it had the happiest customers. Helping those patrons find the products they were looking for, ordering them from across the world, gave me great satisfaction. Many people became regulars, which allowed me to get to know them and anticipate what they were after. As a hotel general manager, this remains key: to provide a product and service, anticipate customer needs, and create happy experiences.




First job: Sales Clerk at a Butcher Shop

My first job in customer service was in our family’s chain of butcher shops back home in Germany, when I was just 6 years old.

Every day after school, I helped my parents serve customers in their multiple outlets. My parents even allowed me to use the cashier system because I wasn’t so bad with simple arithmetic and I could calculate weight versus price per unit.

Even at such a young age, it became very clear to me that I would continue to work in customer service, as I found it very interesting to figure out how to please patrons and how to react and respond to their different personalities and needs.

By the time I was 12, I was able to handle the weekend operation alone in one of our shops and was tasked with training new sales clerks. I was also allowed to help with and learn about production, which helped me to sell and recommend products to our customers in a more informed manner.

To this day, my experience working at the butcher shops helps me in many aspects of my day-to-day work, and I’m happy to have been exposed to what would later translate into a career in an industry I enjoy so much today.




First job: Waitress

My first job was waitressing in a busy cafe on my university campus, Huazhong University Science and Technology, Wuhan. I was 19-years old at the time, and my parents hadn’t allowed me to have a part-time job; they were both professors on the same campus and traditionally, me working as a waitress would reflect poorly on them.  Of course, my parents were also concerned a job would affect my studies.

I was eager to begin learning something practically, however, and I quite enjoyed those early days. Normally I would take afternoon shifts, which were from 3PM to 10PM. My customers were mostly university students, professors and the project teams working under the various management faculties. It was a good chance to communicate with different types of people and practice my English as well.

It was my first time wearing a work uniform, holding a tray, taking orders and using popcorn and coffee machines. The team even taught us the nuances of tasting coffee and wine, wonderful skills that have remained useful throughout my life. I found on-the-job learning was a great alternative to reading and listening to lecturers. Dinner breaks were also really fun, as I got to chat with my fellow staff and the handsome restaurant manager who always brought nice food from the kitchen to share with us. We would sit together trading funny stories that happened during our shift, describing interesting customers we had met, and sharing our future dream careers.

One of the more thrilling experiences came when my dad visited the cafe with his colleagues while I was working. He glanced at me, and I quickly moved into another section of the café. Later in the evening he laughed and mentioned he saw someone in the café who looked very similar to me. My dad now accepts the part-time jobs I had during university, understanding that they helped to create a well-rounded daughter.