To touch or not to touch?

When I was running a customer service workshop recently I was asked by a delegate if it was ok to touch a customer. Now clearly he didn’t mean in a ‘current news scandal’ kinda way but it was a question that, whilst I knew exactly what he meant, posed some debate among the group.

I am not a particularly tactile person but when I think back to my restaurant days, and actually even now when I’m in a service environment, I do / did touch customers on the arm when joking with them, sympathising with them or trying to calm them down (when we had made an #EpicFail). Or on the small of their backs if I want them to move safely away from a tray of drinks.

The team in my local curry house insist on shaking their customers hands on entering and leaving the restaurant. Although it felt a bit weird / false at first I have ‘embraced it’ and now actually feel a bit snubbed if I don’t have a hand offered to me. BUT, and I have discussed this at length with my other-half, we have concluded that if we walked into any other restaurant in town where this happened it would feel inappropriate! Bizarre!?

I don’t recall any customers recoiling from me when I ‘touched them’ but then I wonder if I did make some people feel uncomfortable. I guess the fine line is judging the appropriateness of making physical contact and having the self-awareness to assess if the customer is responding in a favourable way. But then here lies the crux of it: When many waiting staff are barley trained in basic customer service standards; how can we be sure that they are even self-aware enough to realise that they could be invading personal space never-mind, using to their advantage, the subtle nuances of unconscious body language?!