I work retail. I work in a photographic retailer – a single-store outlet for a vast variety of photographic gear. We handle expensive as well as cheap goods, and our clientele ranges from working professionals to the veriest amateur. We serve in the shop 5 or 6 days a week – 8:30 to 5:30. it is not an easy job, though it might seem so from the outside.
You see we deal with suppliers on one side and customers on the other, with the added contact to the transport industry to add to the confusion. Our business is in competition with two other pro shops and a dozen or more chain stores and camera departments in major retailers. We also face competition with the internet suppliers, both full and part time.
We also deal with each other – our staff relations are, for the most part, good. The management figures occasionally get their orders out of sequence and pursue staff members with three separate commands where one would do, but we forgive them for this as we understand that they are groping their way through the darkness as much as the employees. Outside advisers occasionally appear but this sort of visiting control only lasts a short period of time and can mostly be ignored.
Every day, however, I have to deal with the customers over the counter and over the telephone. I try to succeed, but sometimes fail – I need to study each week to see where improvements can be made. To help me with my customer relations I have tried various experiments:
1. Plain normal behaviour.
Good as far as it goes but in many cases the customer’s desire for cheap goods or cheap thrills means that they play on this to dominate me and to rob the business of the correct price. Gentle people will react to normal treatment in a kindly fashion but there are many wolves out there.
2. Jeeves the butler.
This is an act, but a good one if I need to keep a distance between myself and an opportunistic customer. ” How may I be of assistance, Sir?” is a very good opening, and if I can keep a dignified demeanour throughout the conversation it sometimes smooths the deal. Orientals of an age and a class react well to this if they are in company with another person, as it forms a basis for their own “face”.
3. Brother Stein.
I attended a meeting house while in the sixth grade that was a place of worship for the Society of Friends. They were the silent type, and it was interesting to see what eventuated when they did stand up and speak. Wonderful dinners in the basement of the meeting house, and I will always remember the meatloaf. Oddly enough I encountered the same meatloaf while visiting an Army base so I wonder who learned from whom…
Anyway, there are times when Quaker plain speech and plain dealing are just what is needed. No bargaining – a fair price asked and if they wish the goods they pay it. Addressing them as Friend, and using the plain speech “thee” is sufficiently different in their experience to short circuit the sort of sly bargaining that is so common nowadays.
This approach means that the price has got to be fixed beforehand and must be fair – in some cases I have had to correct the shop price as excessive.
4. Oy oy oy…
The fact that a number of us are Jews is well known. The community sometimes calls in to our shop as first port of call – they can equally do it to one of our rivals. It is quite common to be told that the customer knows the owner. Call me an old cynic, but I have this unholy desire to ask the customer who is sniffing about for a discount if he knows the names of the owner’s children..being such a friend, you see. I suppose there will always be personal friendships and commercial friendships – but I generally don’t like to be a broker between them.
If I have just met someone I generally refer to them as Sir, or Madam, or Friend ( see above ). I generally do not require their first name until the end of the transaction when the warranty card is filled out. In most cases they do not require mine, unless I choose to give them my business card to assist them to re-call me at a later date. I am not their best mate, nor are they mine – I am a professional assistant in a technical subject. I can get my own buddies.
6. Doctor Stein.
” WHO AM I TALKING TO? ”
Imagine this in a South African accent when I answer the phone by saying ” Good Morning, XXX firm Sales Department. ” It will be a brusque voice, if not downright aggressive. The caller will force the question into my ear and keep on forcing it into me until I bow to their will. They might have had to run away from their former slaves in Johannesburg but they are safe from them here in Perth and there is nothing to stop them from recalling the good old days by shouting at lesser individuals over the phone. Some of us might be coloured and then they’ll have revenge.
Or they might find they are talking to Doctor Stein. Doctor Stein demands THEIR name and writes it down slowly, then repeats it to make sure it is spelled correctly. And he is careful to never get flustered by the angry voice, which may rise to a fever pitch the longer the conversation goes on. Doctor Stein insists that they refer to him by his title and his name, and always says both their first and second name whenever he speaks to them. Doctor Stein is hard on the nerves – almost makes them long for the old country.
7. It’s me again.
Indeed it is. I saw you coming through the door and everyone else is serving another customer so today I get the duty. Go ahead – start talking. I will be as kind as I possibly can over the next hour until your next thought matures and you lurch out the door. You have been sent by God to remind me that I have received His grace. Mind the road, it gets busy.
Please note that none of the above is intended to take anything away from the customer. Indeed in some cases I am trying to give them a dignity that they otherwise have cast into the gutter. I cope daily with the sly, the aggressive, and the dishonest – I don’t want to be the same as they are. Admittedly there are times when sales are lost but in honesty is preserved. It is a good choice.