Dying to be Seen

I’m told by a friend’s adult son that I (a lot like my current computer) am now a veritable dinosaur, since I embarrassingly expect store clerks or salespeople to be knowledgeable about the products they sell and to attend me when I come to shop in their stores. He patiently explained that “good customers” are expected to do their research on-line first  and then come in knowing exactly what model and brand of merchandise they need, from computers to cars, as well as the price they should expect to pay.  The salespeople, he said, are only there to direct customers and ring up purchases; they aren’t required to have any knowledge of the merchandise.

I found his remarks both dismaying and shocking, yet I couldn’t quite argue. The dictum “the customer is always right” has swung like a pendulum to the far side of the metronome of commerce. And in recent years I’ve experienced exactly the scenario the young man so patiently explained.

Perhaps six years ago, I ventured into one of the big electronics stores to buy a new computer—the very laptop, in fact, on which I am typing this post. And, yes, I had done my research beforehand, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. Speed was not really a consideration for me, as I do not game.  I wanted a full-size keyboard.  My vision is poor, so I preferred a large screen.  But, as I use a computer only for word processing, spreadsheets, reading the news and watching an occasional fluffy-kitten-or-cute-dog video, I really didn’t need anything fancy. Still, I came to the world of computers via typewriters both manual and electric; my understanding of technology is limited. I preferred not to buy a laptop on-line, without first seeing the darned thing and then talking to a living, breathing, knowledgeable human being.

And so, the big box computer store. It was a Friday night, and extremely busy, but eventually I snagged an unoccupied clerk, a young man probably in his 20s, and explained the features I wanted in a new laptop.  He listened impatiently, and then, walking away from me, said, “We don’t have anything like that.”

I probably stood with my jaw hanging open for a full 30 seconds before intentionally closing my mouth and storming out of the store.

In essence, I understood what had just happened. I was obviously not a person highly knowledgeable about technology—not a nerd, a geek—and the young clerk would have been forced to take the time to provide explanations on the features of any computer he recommended.  I was a middle-aged woman, not a hot young chick, so there was no visual compensation for the time he would have to take with me.  I had not mentioned how much money I was prepared to spend, so if he was working on commission, that factor was uncertain.

I was simply not worth the young clerk’s time.

And yet…eventually that evening I landed at another store, where another clerk, just as young but far better trained (or perhaps just in need of that commission), took a great deal of time with me as together we chose just the right laptop for my needs—along with a lot of minor paraphernalia, including case, mouse, surge protector, and software. With an additional fee added for sparing me the trouble of loading programs onto the computer, I went far over my budget, but the young man even downloaded a free antivirus program and presented me with a fully-working, excellent computer.  And though it is now as venerable a dinosaur as myself, I continue to use it.

But I’ve encountered this same experience more times than I care to count in recent years, especially in one large chain hardware store–one which I now refuse to enter, even though it’s conveniently located to my home. As I complained to the manager there after an especially egregious event, I felt that I could have died in the aisle and not even been noticed until the janitors came in that night to sweep my cold, dead body out of the store. (Happily, I will note that I’ve become a customer of a different hardware chain, one where customers are still noticed as well as valued and appreciated.)

Attitudes change. Despite the once-popular slogan, the customer was not always right, not by a longshot.  But it is also true that the customer deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of attention, courtesy, and respect, and to be tended to by salespeople who are at least minimally knowledgeable about the products they are expected to vend.

And no one, middle-aged or otherwise, should have to die merely to be seen.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.