or HOWTO survive in retail

For several years I worked in a major high street store in the UK1. We sold the kind of product that everybody wanted, regardless of their social/cultural status. After working behind the counter in several different locations, dealing with several different types of clientele, I eventually met most forms of customer relations problems. I never had a customer leave the store without feeling as if they'd won; I never had a customer who made me feel as if I'd lost. Think about it.

The following advice will help anybody working in retail to keep hold of their sanity. As for self respect, you're on your own.

There are two types of explosive customers;

  • Customer A - has a genuine, simple complaint but (thanks to their power hungry personalities2) will still act as if you just insulted every generation of their family that ever lived and won't be happy until they've made you a quivering wreck and demonstrated the size of their wrath.
  • Customer B - has a completely unfounded reason for complaining but will make something up so that they have an excuse to make you a quivering wreck and demonstrate the size of their wrath.

If not handled with care, both can explode in your face; and as any bomb disposal expert will tell you, if the explosive goes off, it won't be questions about whether it should or shouldn't be there that'll be going through your mind. It'll be the shrapnel. Both these customer types can be disarmed using the following techniques:

1. be aggressively submissive:

Customer A, who has been wronged but is reacting in a manner completely unnecessary relative to the scale of the wrongness, can be disarmed by being aggressively submissive. By reacting submissively in an equal proportion to the level of anger directed at you, a dynamic equilibrium is achieved and, like a well transposed mathematical formula, you cancel each other out. Thus;

Customer: "I want to complain about this bird I bought not half an hour ago in this very boutique!"
You: "Certainly Sir, I can see straight away that it has shuffled off it's mortal coil and that you'll be needing a replacement. Norwegian Blue3 was it not? Here you go, Sir. Have a nice day and enjoy your Parrot."
Customer: "...."

Customer B can be recognised quickly by the way that they approach the counter. Usually at speed, whilst gesticulating in some form. They're the kind of people who, if they had their words transcribed, WOULD HAVE TO HAVE EVERYTHING WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

Whilst the opening gambit is launched at you, use these early seconds to confirm whether you believe they deserve to be cancelled out with a carefully targeted blow of submission. If the nature of the complaint makes it clear that they are undeserved of such humane treatment proceed thus:

  • stand up - this is the single most important factor. If you're short, stand on the foot rest of your seat (a neat move that can be done without making it too obvious).
  • almost imperceptively, gently lean forward over the counter and put your hands down on the counter top.
  • look them straight in the eye and tell them firmly what the solution is going to be.

Explain things methodically and at some length, the closer you both get to single syllables the closer you are to violence. Ask any psychologist. It's crucial as you continue the conversation that you never raise your voice or allow you emotions to show. Also, think about your body language and avoid crossing your arms. As time passes you should see a change as the customer starts to realise how ridiculous they look relative to your calm, firm composure.

If you're unfortunate enough to get a customer who responds by getting more and more irate, remember that most stores have a panic button or a manager that can be used to remove yourself from the situation. If you're a manager, call your area manager and so on. Repeat until fade.

2. employ a faceless automaton:

Always ensure that there is a third party involved in the transaction that can be blamed for any problem that might arise. Preferably a non-human one that can't be conversed with. For example;

"I'm sorry Sir, but I can't replace your ex-Parrot. The computer says the Norwegian Blue has been discontinued."

3. move fast, think slow:

There are only 30 minutes of shopping time left before Christmas and you've got a queue of people that runs out the door and down the street. Placate those in view (and the customer you're serving) by exaggerating your movements and speeding up everything you do. Open the till faster, put things in bags quicker, start serving the next person at the same time as handing back the change to the last one. All the while ensuring that your thinking at exactly the same steady, rigorous pace you would do if the shop was empty.

4. be a social chameleon

Learn how to judge a book by it's cover and build up a stock of healthy prejudices. The time it takes the customer to cross the shop floor and reach the counter is ample time to complete a full assessment of a persons character. Adjust your demeanour from the very moment you greet them. It's no good talking to a lawyer like you would an artist, a plumber like you would a gynaecologist or a communist like you would a fascist. Body language is again important here.

Technique numbers 5 and upwards are simply subtle combinations of the previous 4. Go sell.

1. I've also spent time working in an amusement park in California, USA - the following comments are equally applicable to customers outside of Europe
2. for more on power hungry personality traits see 'The Celestine Prophecy'
3. for the original, unaltered version of this and other similar arguments see the sketches of Monty Python

Tip o' the hat to isogolem for advice on improved formatting.

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