Sales clerk should keep cool

Dear Joan:
I am an employee of a major department store and my job is to work the jewelry and cosmetics departments. I recently had a customer who wished to look at some jewelry from the case. I showed her and then she left. In the meantime, another customer came and wanted to purchase a major amount of costume jewelry. I therefore rang up his order.

During this time, the lady returned and began demanding that I show her more merchandise. I said that I would if she could only wait a minute. Her temper flared and, before I knew it, she had reported me to the store manager. He didn't help the situation. After the customer left, he only replied, "The customer is always right" and as I began to protest, he added, "even if she's wrong."

He never took the time to at least listen to my side of the story. I felt like telling him to go back and hire her because I quit. After all, I make only 10 cents above minimum wage and the job is intense. So wouldn't a little sympathy from the manager help. After all, he needs me as much as he needs the customer. Or am I wrong?

There isn't a company worth it's salt today that isn't proclaiming from it's corporate castle, "The Customer is King!" From where the front-line workers sit, however, this can conjure up visions of royal heads on stakes. Dealing with impossible customers can be tougher than top rule-makers suspect. Smart corporate rulers realize that a front-line service worker needs the time, tools and training to do the job well. They also need "customer friendly" policies, quality products and managers who coach and support them.

Clearly, this customer was rude and obnoxious. You've probably run into others like her before; her needs are more important than anyone else's, no matter how many people are in front of her. She'll trample them-and you-to get what she wants and then run, screaming, to the store manager when her unreasonable demands aren't met. But does this mean you should take this challenge personally and get into a battle of wills? No.

I think this is what your boss was trying to tell you. This Pushy Patsy wasn't "right" but she still is the customer. If she wants to rant, rave, lie, accuse, that's her choice. You have some choices, too, and your best one is to stay in control of the situation. Here are some ideas to try the next time a creepy customer pours a bucket of emotions over your head.

Don't take it personally. Thinking, "Who does she think I am- her personal peon?" will only cause you to feel resentful and victimized. Instead, keep your tone and words even and helpful. Try saying, "I can see you're in a hurry, let me see if I can find someone else to help you." Then turn to the customer you're dealing with and ask him or her if they mind waiting a moment. (They'll probably be relieved to shut her up, too!)

If there's no one else available, try, "I can see how rushed you are, and I'll be with you as soon as I finish with this customer." Perhaps if the customer you're waiting on is taking a long time deliberating over some item, you can ask if he minds if you (briefly) help another customer. He may even be relieved to be left alone to make his choices.

These "Customers from Hell," as they were recently described in an article of the same name in the (February 1990) "Training" Magazine, should be dealt with maturely and calmly. Authors, Ron Zemke and Kristin Anderson conducted focus group interviews with front-line service people in a variety of jobs and asked them about their most difficult customers. Then they asked some customer service experts for advice on how to handle them. Here are some of their ideas:

Don't use phrases such as, "If you could only wait a minute..." or "You'll have to..." This will cause an angry customer to roll his or her eyes back in their heads and bare their fangs.

NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER POLICY. An exception to this might be if a customer's request would force you to break the law or cause you to lose your job. Explain it in full and give a good (customer-oriented) reason for its existence. For example, "I'm really sorry, but our liability insurance doesn't allow us to open more than one jewelry case at a time. I'll be happy to reopen any case as often as you like, however."

If a customer begins to swear or call you names, let it pass through you like a fog bank. Once you let it get to you, you've lost. Try saying, "Excuse me, is there something I've done personally to offend you? Because if I have, I'd like to correct it or apologize." This may startle the customer into refocusing on the real problem. Talk to your boss about what to do in a case like this. Hopefully, he'll agree that when a customer uses profanity you can say, "Excuse me, but I don't have to listen to that kind of language."

If a customer is foaming at the mouth, show him that you accept his feelings whether you agree with them or not. Come back with a neutral statement such as, "I can see that you're upset." or "I don't blame you for being angry." Say, "I'd like to help you solve the problem and I will do whatever I can." or "What exactly can I do that will make this situation work for you?"

Another technique is to agree with part of what he says. For example, if a customer says, "You lazy clerk. I've been waiting in line for five minutes and you can't do anything right!" Pick up on the five minutes and say, "I can see why you'd be upset. Five minutes is a long time to wait." It takes the breath out of the dragon.

These techniques will help you to stay in control and manage your feelings so you aren't tempted to tell the Customers from You-Know-Where to go back where they came from.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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