A few thoughts on customers

Most of us have had the pleasure of working in retail or the service industry. Some of us even have the joy of owning their own business, and most of us can agree that one of the more difficult things about maintaining sanity when working in the service industry is customers. While all customers are members of the same genus, there are several species which bear further delving.

Customeris perfectus. The perfect customer is extremely rare. It is suspected that they may have been hunted to extinction in several habitats, particularly New York and San Francisco. As an endangered species, it is imperative that all members of the service industry dedicate themselves to rehabilitation and breeding of perfect customers. As we all know, they are a joy to work with. They can turn a bad day totally around, and they are the reasons that business owners start businesses in the first place.

Customeris annoyicus. The annoying customer is a fairly common species–mostly through no fault of their own, they can drive any well-intentioned clerk to the brink of insanity quite easily. Often they are quite sweet, which makes things even more difficult. You know them. The customers that can’t decide what they want to order at your restaurant, the customers who want an in depth and scientific description of this product vrs that product when you have six people in your line, the customer who won’t stop talking. Only when they move in large packs do this species really cause problems.

Customeris entitledus. These customers are growing increasingly common, and I think this may have something to do with modern childrearing. There isn’t a lot you can do for these customers, other than trying to ignore their snobby behaviour while you think with joy about the day their fake boobs fall off during a White Stripes concert.

Customeris difficultus. You know who I mean. So I thought I’d take a few moments today to go over my (usually) foolproof guide for dealing with this particular species.

  • I. Assess
    • A. Who is this person?
      1. A customer to whom you were rude first. Don’t look at me like that. We’ve all done it, and we all should stop doing it, but there it is. Unfortunately, this customer has a rightful reason to be indignant.
      2. A customer who is upset by a policy of your workplace. Not uncommon, these customers come a wide variety, and if you can head them off at the pass you still may come up with the upper hand. But don’t expect a positive result.
      3. A customer who is just an asshole. Maybe they were looking for a fight today, maybe they had a bad day, or maybe it’s simply in their nature to treat you like shit. Either way, you lost out.
    • B. Why are they angry?
      1. Something which has been said or done has irritated them.
      2. They aren’t getting what they want.
      3. You have no idea, but you wish they would leave.
  • II. Solve
    • A. Kill them with kindness. I mean it. Every single subtype really is much easier to deal with if you are almost nauseatingly polite. Don’t be obviously fake, but don’t be combative. Think of yourself as a giant wet wool blanket being applied to the flames of indignation. If you refuse to play the customer’s game, they have nowhere to go with it, and may give up entirely. You are the duck and the customer’s invective is the water. Just let it flow right on by.
      1. “I’m so sorry to hear that you feel that way” is much better than “well fuck you too.” “I will relay your concerns to the manager immediately, unless you would prefer to speak with her directly? (see below)” Even if the customer is being totally unreasonable in your book, don’t let them know that. “I totally understand where you are coming from with this, and let’s try to work together to get a solution that works for everyone, ok?”
      2. If you feel yourself losing your cool, please walk away from the confrontation. Summon another coworker or manager to deal with the problem if at all possible. “I am not the best person to discuss this with” is a reasonable thing to say. Exit gracefully, and then go into the walk-in and chew on a log for awhile, or whatever you need to cool down. Don’t be afraid to ask for a respite from the floor either, so that you don’t end up tangling with another customer in a snowball effect of misery. While it sucks to be short a body for half an hour, it sucks more to have a parade of infuriated customers, and every single manager understands this.
    • B. Subtype 2’s are often the easiest to solve. “I’m sorry, it’s our policy here not to give out robes to tubbers, not to split the check more than four ways, that you must have your child on a leash, that used underwear cannot be returned, that we have a 24 hour cancellation policy.” It helps to have policies clearly stated, and for this you need well trained staff who inform clients of things like cancellation policies at the time of booking, and also to have printed notice of your basic policies readily available. In some cases with subtype 2’s, it’s a good idea to fall back on the law: “I’m sorry, it’s California State Law that you cannot enter a supermarket without shoes.” However, being flexible is a good trait for someone in the service industry. If it’s a policy that can be bent a bit, do it. Depending on their natural temperment, they can be coaxed, especially if you have some autonomy within the business “normally we’re not really allowed to do this, but for you I’ll make an exception.” Then the customer ends up pleased and you don’t have to eat too much. If the manager isn’t there, make sure to leave a note explaining what you did. If you are the manager, bully for you.
      1. In a situation where the customer request violates state law, make that clear. For rapport purposes, you may choose to emphasize with the customer “dude, I would totally let you sacrifice and flame a chicken at your table, but the fire marshal would fine us big time.” Unless the customer is highly knowledgeable about the law or plain argumentative, they will usually be agreeable. Or offer a comprise: “I’m sorry, I can’t rent an M-Rated game to you, but if your parent wants to come in and rent it, I would be happy to do that.”
      2. In a situation where accommodating the customer would place an unreasonable burden on the business, don’t be afraid to say so. You don’t need to go into extensive details. “I’m sorry, I would be happy to allow you to play rap music at your birthday party here, but I’m afraid it would disrupt other diners. Are you perhaps interested in our rates for large private parties? You could rent out the whole restaurant and have your way with the sound system!” “I’m sorry, but we can’t allow you to bring in outside food or drink to our business without paying a corkage/cakeage/foodage fee because of the inconvenience it places on our staff and servers.” The customer doesn’t need to hear “well we could do that, except that then Marty would have to come in for an extra hour and guess we could move the photon-inhibitor and then maybe one of the girls could…” Keep it simple.
      3. As I say, if you can accommodate the customer with a minimum of fuss, do it. Then they will have a positive image of your business, and will probably tell their friends–“gosh, that girl at the clothing store was just so nice about this complicated return, I wish everywhere was like that.” Especially in a small town, sometimes it’s good to eat a little for the greater cause.
      4. Don’t be afraid to blame “the man.” “I know, I think it’s a silly policy, but that’s the way the owner wants it.” If you are the owner, blame the other owner. Also don’t be afraid to blame “the system,” as in “oh I’m so sorry, but the computer won’t let me do that.”
    • C. Don’t be afraid to call on “the man.” Often a customer is complaining for various deep internal reasons of their own. It’s immensely satisfying for them to feel vindicated and listened to, so make this possible for them.
      1. “I see that I can’t meet your needs–I think you should talk directly to the floor manager.”
      2. “Clearly you are dissatisfied with my service. Perhaps you would like to talk to my manager?”
      3. “I would prefer that you speak directly with the owner about this so that there can be no confusion.”
      4. One of the few cases when it’s nice to be a lowly clerk is that you can play pass the buck. Don’t be afraid to refuse service or to refer someone to your higher-up. In addition to removing the burden from yourself, it also gives the customer satisfaction. Several times in dealing with subtype 3’s, I have defused a potentially explosive situation in referring them directly to my manager. It is imperative with subtype 1’s that you pull out the manager card–partially an admission of wrongdoing on your part, it also allows the customer satisfaction. If you are a good and valued employee, there is no good reason not to call on your manager–I once had a manager throw a customer out because he was being so rude to me. I had another who dealt with a meth-hopped psychotic for me, and promised that I would be “written up at the least, if not fired” because of my perceived transgression. Then we all went to the back and finished the pizza we were eating and laughed over it. Often a customer who is in the wrong will back off when presented with the manager option. (Particularly if you have an infamously evil manager, as I’ve had in the past.)
    • D. If you have a subtype three or an intractable situation, sometimes there is no solution. Please remember that this is probably not your fault. You have done what you can for the situation, especially if you have pulled out all the stops for the customer. If you were working alone, and you tell your manager what happened, they will probably agree with you. These situations do suck, no doubt, but try not to take them to heart. Just move on. If it meant you lost business, ask yourself if that’s truly business that you wanted.
  • III. Say goodbye. And forget about it.

Remember kids: when you’ve got a difficult customer, think “ASS”, and don’t let them ruin your day.