Service 101: The Friendly Incompetent, A Business Archetype

Who is the weakest link in your business?
Who is the weakest link in your business?

Regardless of what business you’re in, every line of work has its share of archetypes. You may make your living in a dining room, in the middle of a retail showroom, under stage lights, or in the center of cubicles. Where doesn’t matter. Just like a movie with predictable characters, we all encounter common personality types in the workplace.

Heroes vs Foes

Boilerplate people we want on our team are types like the fearless leader, the go-getter, the quiet workhorse, the inspirational force, and the problem solver. But no matter how great your workplace is, there always seems to be a few pernicious characters. You know the bunch. They’re the complainer, the drama queen, the liar, or even the Friendly Incompetent.

Business Archetype: The Friendly Incompetent

I recently witnessed the most astounding version of the Friendly Incompetent, a negative business archetype, at a bookstore in Pasadena.The book shop employee was a tall, good looking guy with a nice smile. I noticed him right away as he said hello to customers as they walked into the store. Just as I was taking mental note of his good service instincts, however, I began to notice a pattern of neglect. Every time he’d say hello to a new customer, he’d turn his back on them just moments after they crossed the threshold.

He would ignore needing glances and check his iPhone or push a stack of books from one side of the counter to another, like a child pushing blocks for no reason. When an inquisitive book-buyer made her way to the front desk, the tall smiling guy exited the counter in order to adjust a coffee cup display just before she could reach him. Seconds later, I watched as another co-worker noticed the neglected customer and  jumped to her aid with a great sense of urgency.

Later, the Friendly Incompetent complained loudly about the colors of the bookstore’s carpets and how disappointed he was in the state of the book-selling business. When customers asked for information about a particular item, he pointed them to a faraway shelf, rather than walk the person to the stack of books himself.

After just one hour of observing this man, I calculated he not only lost the business several hundred dollars in lost sales opportunities, he also reduced efficiency in his co-workers. In addition, he created such an uncomfortable setting of bad customer service, I had to leave.

A Costly Mistake

For many, the friendly incompetent is the trickiest of characters to identify right away.

What makes the Friendly Incompetent so hard to spot is that they are nice people who appear incredibly passionate about their work. They talk a big game about being a team player and leader, but once the Friendly Incompetent makes it through their initial training and proves themselves to be a key part of the team, they take their foot off the work-ethic gas petal and coast.

The Friendly Incompetent relies on powerful storytelling and the fine art of appearing busy, to cover up for the fact that they are not a fully contributing staff member. In truth, they are some of the lowest performing individuals on the team.

The Friendly Incompetent has no sense of urgency. They do the absolute minimum necessary throughout their shift. They frequently do sub-standard work that requires a more competent staff member to fix it.

The Friendly Incompetent’s lacking work ethic is damaging to businesses in lost sales, increased labor hours, and reduced employee morale. If an employer isn’t paying attention, the Friendly Incompetent can slowly kill a positive work environment and, eventually, the business itself.

Signs you have a FRIENDLY INCOMPETENT on your staff:

  • Staff members mention that this particular individual isn’t doing their part.
  • They do one aspect of their job well and under-deliver on every other part of their work.
  • They let others do for them what they could easily do themselves.
  • The Friendly Incompetent seems busy but the space around them is in complete disarray.  They exert themselves the least possible amount of effort without being noticed or written up by a superior.
  • They frequently have a melt down or complain profusely if they are relied upon to do the same work load of a successful co-worker.
  • Takes frequent breaks and/or complains constantly about health issues (so they don’t have to work).
  • Saying no is easier for them then to say then yes.
  • Has impeccable timing for disappearing whenever a particularly difficult or unappealing task comes up.
  • Shirks extra responsibility. Would rather be ignorant than have a useful knowledge that would make the eligible for extra work.
Sloppy work = lost business
Sloppy work = lost business

Sound familiar?

If your answer is yes, it’s important to act fast. The longer you wait, the more damage this individual can make on your business.  Without clear goals, expectations, and leadership that makes it clear that everyone on staff must meet their goals–the Friendly Incompetent will never leave. The result will be costly in the form of peaked labor costs, reduced staff morale, and lowered sales opportunities.

Whether you plan to attempt to terminate the employee or rehabilitate the individual (this is the least likely option to succeed), it’s important to act quickly in implementing a strategy to fix the situation.


  • Make sure there are detailed job descriptions for every job. Along with a good description of duties, make sure it is clear what the expectations and measurable goals are for everyone on the staff.

  • Have all staff read, understand, and sign-off on their job description and job expectations. Make sure they understand the consequences of failing to uphold the standards of the business.

  • If the employee fails to uphold the standards, goals, or expectations begin the write-up and firing procedures for your organization.

For more tips or suggestions on how to improve your business, feel free to visit my Service Coach website for details about my consulting services.


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. March 18

    From a customer’s point of view, this archetype is one of the worst because it’s the most confusing. If a server or barista is unenthused or uncaring (or even just plain rude) it’s almost more understandable because you think “yeah, she’s probably just having a day”. It’s when they act like they care and then don’t you almost feel betrayed. Anyway, great article.

  2. Daryl
    April 17

    This is not the Friendly Incompetent. This is the Friendly Saboteur.
    Friendly Incompenent to me is someone who tries, but fails due to lack of skills.
    The guy in the bookstore is blatantly sabotaging the store!

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