Taking things personally

Saturday afternoon, while working at Barnes & Noble, I had a customer make a complaint to a manager. She wasn’t happy with my customer service.

I was in the middle of helping a woman in her early sixties who was looking for a book on vertigo. We didn’t have any in the store, so I recommended to her that she browse titles online, read their descriptions and any reviews, and try to decide on a book to order. As I was explaining this, a second woman — maybe fifty years-old and traveling with another woman a few years younger — came up on the line behind the woman I was helping.

The first woman, who it turns out was suffering vertigo, asked me what kind of books she might search for — books on cardiovascular topics, perhaps? As it turns out I know something about the subject.

I began to explain to her that my father had an episode about a month ago — he woke up dizzy and nauseous — and went to the hospital for tests. I explained also that my brother was a doctor, and from talking with him about our father and the tests the hospital ran on him, I had learned that vertigo can come from a problem with your heart, your brain, your inner ear — lots of things.

My whole explanation probably took 30 seconds.

Right in the middle of this though, the woman who had come up on line with her friend stepped forward to interrupt: “Excuse me, where can I find the Nikki Sixx book?”

I did not take this well, for several reasons. Number one, I don’t like pushy people. Number two, I don’t like being interrupted. Number three, I have some kind of responsibility to the customer I am helping — it’s not fair to let someone else steal my attention away.

And finally, there’s number four. Number four may take a little explaining.

Picture the scene. On my left I have a customer trying to find a book that might help her deal with a bona fide and somewhat debilitating medical problem. And on my right I have another customer unable to wait her turn because she had to have the lost diaries of a heroin addict from a 1980’s hair metal band.

I told the woman that I would help her in a minute. I would say that I used a fairly even-tempered tone of voice. The expression on my face, however, told the whole story of what I thought of her and her rudeness. It’s not my fault, really. It’s an occupational hazard of working in a middle school and dealing with bratty pre-teens on a regular basis.

In other words, she got my “teacher face” — and adults don’t take that very well.

The woman and her friend stormed off. About 10 minutes later one of my managers came up to me.

“Those two women weren’t happy.”

I had just about forgotten the whole thing, but it came back to me in a couple of seconds.

“What did they say?” I asked. What my manager told me almost caused me to burst a blood vessel in my forehead.

The women told him that they had asked for help only to be brushed off because — and this is how they characterized it — I was having a “personal conversation.”

On saying that, my manager had to act quickly to calm me down, because my protestations threatened to attract the attention of the entire first floor. I took a deep breath, composed myself, and calmly told him the entire story. He reassured me that he figured it was something like that.

I think my track record at work has earned me a reputation for dealing well with customers, even the difficult ones. So that was the end of it between me and my manager. I feel a little bad that he had to listen to her nonsense, but I suppose that’s why they pay him the big bucks.

There is nothing quite like dealing with the public — especially at the hourly wage paid to the average retail clerk.


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