Are you the scary customer?

I cannot say I am always the nicest customer. After working in customer service for so long I have a shorter fuse. I know what it takes and now have high expectations for what a customer experience should look like. These days my husband makes the calls pertaining to our accounts. He has a lot more patience than I do, and I often am – well to put it nicely a bit too blunt over the phone.

I recently finished reading: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly. It is a good memoir of Caitlin’s experience working in retail between 2007 and 2009. She is a freelance writer, who needed income during the economic downturn, and she chose to work at The North Face store near her home in New York City. Her job paid between $9-11 an hour with no commission or benefits (since she worked part-time). She was also provided a uniform for her job (many retail jobs do not provide this for free). Her book was a reminder to me to watch how I might treat retail workers, whether at the mall, grocery store, boutique, etc. Caitlin is a journalist so she already had experience working with strangers and the public, asking questions, and connecting with them. I loved her fresh approach to how she interacted with her customers. We could stand to remember this when dealing with our co-workers, family, and friends.

“I lived for these moments. Retail, at its rare best, allows total strangers to quickly connect and converse meaningfully. It’s really, often, about trust, the merchandise and the sales floor merely the means through which two people, however briefly, can slow down long enough to discover and enjoy common ground. It wasn’t an accident that after a twenty-minute conversation with me someone would easily spend $400, or much more. That person had received my careful, individual, and undivided attention, a rarity in any store. A rarity anywhere, really.” page 86

Throughout her book she shares how the corporate offices did all they could to cut back on their sales staff to save money. The less they paid their sales associates, the more profit they made. The less associates they had on each shift, the higher their profits. Many had little to no training, and no thanks or gratitude from management or the head corporate offices. Associates were constantly on their feet, in sometimes horribly ventilated storefronts, with short breaks, annoying music, and irate, rude, and aggressive customers. This all leads to extremely high turnover. By the end of Caitlin’s 2 year stint at The North Face she says the following:

“Now, though, I also carefully and consistently thanked anyone doing a service job well, from grocery baggers to gas station attendants. I viscerally appreciated how grim it could be, how little many customers thought of them, and how hard and poorly paid was the work.” page 205

I vow to curb my frustration, whether with the store, retail worker, or with something in my own life, and not take it out on the individual working in the store or over the phone that day. If we were all to do that, we could make a change in how retail workers experience customers. They do not deserve our frustrations, anger, or scorn. Often, the retail worker has no control over the issues we may have with their company. Much of the time, store management and corporate headquarters do not want to hear the complaints or comments their sales force has heard from customers. The best way to communicate issues that might be widespread between many stores is to contact the corporate offices to voice your concerns.

Are you like me? Do you need to think again about how you are treating retail workers?

2 thoughts on “Are you the scary customer?

  1. I also work in retail, but at a markedly better store than the one referenced. Of course, it helps if the company is making tons of money and is consistently the busiest place on the street. We aren’t paid commissions and that’s a plus, because the emphasis is on producing a positive experience for the customer – and a positive score for us. However even part-timers get benefits and stock options. Nice! I wish all stores were like this, but they aren’t and not everyone can work here (we hire about 1 in every 80 applicants). But the point is still well taken: treat retail help with respect and cheer, if possible.


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