Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Customer is Never Wrong, and the Guy Who Signs Your Paycheck is Always Right

Working in a retail or restaurant chain, the policies are simple.  Employee conduct is outlined in a handbook of some sort, aided with classes, and more often than not hammered home with badly-performed, outdated videos.  Customer interactions are even broken into handy bullet points.  When dealing with a dissatisfied customer, follow your ABC’s.  Acknowledge the complaint.  Believe we can do better.  Conclude with a solution.

The frontline employees, the cashiers and the customer service reps, their job is act like service bots.  If they don’t follow the rules in all situations, the handbook also has detailed descriptions of the disciplinary action they’ll face.  

If the clerk can't make a customer happy, enter the supervisor.  Usually hourly, making only a buck or two more than the folks in the trenches, a supervisor / lead employee / key holder backs the employee up, reiterating the company’s policy.  The dissatisfied customer must then re-state his or her complaint more vehemently.  This allows the supervisor to override policy, to a point (see Employee Handbook, pg 75).  

If the customer still isn’t happy, it's time to bring in the heavy artillery.  The retail manager's job is to undercut everything his or her employees have done so they look like assholes.  Depending on the nature of the complaint, this may involve rebuking the customer service person, the supervisor, or both, while the customer smugly looks on.  

We're so used to this ridiculousness that we barely notice how ridiculous it is, like Auto-Tune or Paris Hilton.  

At an indie, the employee handbook is the wit and whimsy of the owner.  Nothing is ever written down.  When it comes to customer satisfaction, there's rarely any behavior you can't play off.  Instead of a clearly delineated pay system which rewards X-number of cents after Y-period of time, you need to beg and crawl for every raise.  For employees, the environment hinges on whether the owner got a good night's sleep or had a decent breakfast.  For customers, you're always King (at least if the owner is around).  

 In fact, there are always dozens of customers who enjoy "special" treatment.  Sorry, we don't sell eggs by anything less than the dozen, or hold books longer than two weeks, or give discounts over ten percent, or hold newspapers, or make sandwiches with more than 3oz of meat, or allow refills . . . except for Mr. Zamuda / Mrs. Griggs / The Fallons.   You could be putting in 40+ hours for two years before you meet a "special customer" who's "here all the time" and "deserves special treatment," but God forbid you don't recognized him or he'll be forced to tell your boss how things have gone to shit since they hired you.  

Often, the demands of these "special" customers are so strange you wonder how they came about.  Two and a half packets of Equal for Mrs. Sanchez's coffee, heated precisely to 185 degrees... really? Mrs. Vollmer can keep a stack of this bestseller on hold for her book club behind the counter for six weeks?  Really?  Mr. Conner can keep his personal stash of frangelico behind the deli counter for us to mix into his order of rice pudding?  Really? 

I used to shop at a bagel place with this sign hanging behind the counter: "The only joy more exaggerated than the joy of parenting is the joy of owning your own business."  I think of that quote all the time when I see the way customers suck my boss dry, one sip at a time.  Every waking minute of his day is devoted to someone else.  

Miraculously, he doesn't seem to mind. 

Isn't that we want in a small business?  A tired but charming personage behind the register with kind eyes, one who sees we're a few bucks short on the total, then smiles and says, "Close enough" before bagging our purchase and inviting us to come again?  Someone who successfully carries the heavy weight of ownership, embodying the dream of entrepreneurial success, yet at the same time shows us how difficult it is, so that we never lose our heads and quit our stable jobs?

When you work for a small business, you trade a thousand corporate-hairball policies for the approval of one person.  I don't know which is better, but I do know I've stayed at Books & Books longer than any other.  I know when I had my car accident and laid in bed for six weeks waiting for my bones to knit, my paycheck arrived in the mail every pay period.  I know when my bike got stolen, Mitchell gave me his.  He offered to guarantee a down-payment to our landlord so Becky and I could move in.  He lent Becky the money for her Pigeon tattoo, then decided it was a bonus when she tried to pay him back.  I know he's helped get one employee's daughter into a good school, and instilled a love of basketball in her which changed her life.  

I've also screamed at him like I've screamed at no one in my life.  I've walked for blocks while tears streamed down my face, wondering how I could possibly go back to work.  That was years ago, when I put in way too many hours and had no life.  I've seen others burn out, though.  When you're given certain tasks but are allowed to make up your own rules to accomplish those tasks, the only person you really answer to is yourself.  Some crack under the pressure.  I found my balance.  

As much as Becky and I struggle with bills, it would take a lot more than money to get me to interview someplace else.   It's tough to imagine another job out there where I could be myself, every day, all day.  

My awesomeness is not in any handbook.


  1. Love the quote: "The only joy more exaggerated than the joy of parenting is the joy of owning your own business." That's a new one for me. I was just at Books and Books tonight, fighting the urge to purchase 20 books at once and feeling appreciative for such a great bookstore. I am one of those people whose awareness (of the importance of supporting indie stores) you have single handedly raised and I thank you for that. Now next time I come by I'll definitely remember to drop off my personal stash of Kahlua for my afternoon coffee and request my 'tuna stuffed avocado' recipe be incorporated into the cafe's menu. :)

  2. Great post Aaron. I enjoyed reading how you feel about what seems like a great place and gives an insight into how frustrating - and rewarding {even if not financially} - it can be to work for someone who is by turns worthy of the biggest hug or strangulation.

    And how ridiculous peoples concept of 'service' can be.......

    I hope he appreciates you {both}


  3. Thanks, Moxxi. You are uniquely qualified to evaluate the "only joy" quote. Your entrepreneurial spirit has always impressed me. I don't think your Kahlua would last a shift in our cafe, though.

    Thanks, Al. Books & Books is amazing, both as a venue and a place to work. It took a few years for me to find the groove - it's scary how corporate structure can get inside your mindset - and now we've mostly put the strangulation phase of our boss-employee relationship behind us. He does appreciate us, in his way.