Manic work

Cashiering is manic work.  You’re waiting on one customer after another.  You want to really show up for each of them.  You want to be alive, engaging, maybe even funny.  When I am manic, I am magic behind the cash register.  When I am down, I’m often really pretty lousy.

Until recently, my cashiering work has had no power to shift my down mood – if I arrived for my shift depressed I was depressed the whole eight hours.  But something has changed recently.  Several times in the last two weeks, I have gone to work a little depressed and over the course of my shift have moved into a little bit of mania – not a lot of mania, just enough to be functional in my work, enough actually to make me really good.

When I'm up, my checkout line can be an exciting place to be - fortunately, lately, not quite this exciting.

When I’m up, my checkout line can be an exciting place to be – fortunately, lately, not quite this exciting.

I can tell that it’s not true biochemical mania because on days when I am not working I immediately drop back into a light depression.  A light depression! A little bit of mania! You have no idea how encouraging this is to me!

The obvious next question is why – what’s different? I have a theory. I’m actually pretty convinced that I know what’s going on.  Let me put it in another post.

 

Put me in your blog!

Jessica, in the cafe next to my store, takes real good care of me (as do Beth and Richard the manager).  She’s friendly, attentive, efficient – and she has learned and remembers my name.  This morning she convincingly said that she misses me when I don’t come in.  I don’t totally believe it, but I believe that she’s happy to see me.  

When I told her about this blog, she got all animated (as cashiers typically do – “Wow, something about us!”).  She took that animation one step further and said “Put me in your blog”.  I said “Maybe.”  Really I was thinking “Well, you haven’t done anything memorable.”  Just typical world-class customer service.

Even I sometmes take really great service for granted.  That's not good.

Even I sometmes take really great service for granted. That’s not good.

Cashiering at its best is very personal work.  You really take an interest in the customer – you want them to have a good experience.  You’re putting a little bit of your heart on the line by not doing it by rote.  Jessica absolutely deserves a post – as does Beth, as does Richard, as does everybody who shows up to this work and takes a genuine personal interest in their customers.

All you do is make me like your store.  All you do is make my day a little better.  I, as much as anybody, ought to know that.

Yes sir, no sir….

How do you address customers?  The practice is fraught with complications – enough that I’ll do one post on the dynamics between a man cashier and a man customer, and then another on the man with a woman customer.  There’s a whole nother set of complications when the cashier is female, which I won’t claim to be able to address.  (The fortyish female cashier at the gas station convenience store today called me “bud” – a first for me.  I liked it.) And there’s another set of variables if the cashier is young, which I am not (68).  And still another one if they are a person of color.  I think I’ll let them comment on that.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address ("sir")  with an older man?  Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address (“sir”) with an older man? Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

I tend to use the fallback of “sir” when addressing male customers,, but I like it less and less.  I don’t like it when or other customer service people call me sir – maybe because I wasn’t raised in the South.  It sounds too formal – and makes me feel too old, even when I am genuinely a lot older than the cashier (like most of the time).  It hurts my feelings a little “Can’t we both just be guys here?”  My son mostly grew up in the South. One lovely spring weekend we spent the weekend in a hotel with a pool.  His buddy Bobbie spent the weekend with us.  I pretty quickly prevailed on Bobbie to stop calling me sir or Mr, Madden and to use John (my name back then) instead.  Bobbie took to this right away and i projected that he found it liberating to break out of the formal mode of address.  When we were taking him home Sunday afternoon, however, he started to hem and haw his way through, “Uh, John, when you drop me off…”  I knew exactly where he was going.  “Do you want to call me Mr. Madden?”  “Yeah, my mother would have a cow.”

But I wasn’t raised in the South and – even after ten years here – being called sir doesn’t feel right to me.  So why do I use it so regularly with my own customers?  When I worked in the gas station, ten years ago, I made such regular use of casual modes of address (which I called buddyisms) – buddy, bud, pal, man, guy – that i wrote a blog post about it, (http://authenticcustomerservice.blogspot.com/2007/03/just-corporate-enough.html).

  • But that was a low-priced gas station – this is a relatively high-end grocery store.
  • Here my customers cover a socioeconomic spectrum, but tend to be middle class.  In the gas station, my customers again covered a spectrum. (I sold gas to the mayor.  One time she asked me if I would take a check.  I said, “Maam” – I did use a formal term of address – “You’re the mayor.”)  But my customer base was more tilted towards working class folks.
  • There much of the time I worked alone.  Here there are always supervisors around.  You can’t predict when the store manager will be right behind you.
  • In the interim since the gas station, I have worked in several other more formal situations where buddyism’s would have been frowned on: two upscale resorts, one upscale hotel, a telephone call center,
Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a "retirement job".  In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a “retirement job”. In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

As I write about this, I am more inclined to move away from the formal terms of address (sir, mister) and towards buddyisms.  I realize that I have actually been moving in this direction, but not enough for me.  I want to experiment with this and see how it goes.  It does seem that the men with whom I do it tend to like it.

I will follow my intuition around when to stick with sir or mister.  This will include men of color and  very old white men. Having written this two days ago, I discovered that with a young black man I wanted to go to buddyisms. It’s all a big experiment here. I’ll plan to keep you posted.

 

Blessing their parenting

I have spent a lot of time in my life shopping in standard, big-chain grocery stores.  Now, with my health food proclivities and – let’s tell it straight – my 20% discount, I do most of my shopping in my store.  One of my bad memories of those big stores is the terrible parenting you got to see: the yelling, the threats, the slaps, the yanked arms.  We see actually very little of this in our grocery store.  Mostly the children are very well-behaved – and when they do act up the parents overall do a very good job of managing them.  I get to see enormous sweetness between parents and children.

And one of the blessings to me is the chance to bless their relationship – to hold up to parents and children just how well they are doing.  That happened for me with two particular families today.

Ira is a big, bruising guy who was so amazingly sweet with his five-year-old (I estimate) daughter – praising her in so many ways. For the way she put groceries on the belt from the cart in which she was standing: “I like the go-for-it way you stacked those boxes there” (5 high) – “they’re very even and balanced.”.  For the way she bagged the groceries: “I really like the way you put the heavy stuff on the bottom.”  (I bet he coached her on this on a previous trip.) “Hey, that was good thinking there – I like the way you did that.”  

When I said to him how much I admired his parenting, he said, “You know, sometimes I’m sleep deprived and not as good as this.  We have three-month old twins at home and it can all get kind of stressful.  But we regard each of them as a blessing and they come each of them with their own personality and we want to support it.”  He totally knocked me out – and I tried to get that across to him.  He seemed to get it, to receive my affirmation.  I think it made him feel good.

We get little snapshots of the parent--child relationship - but that picture can say a thousand words.

We get little snapshots of the parent–child relationship – but that picture can say a thousand words.

Later that same afternoon, a heavy mother came through with a likewise heavy daughter (maybe 10).  They were both really sweet – and there was such a sense of comfort between them. I said to the mom, “You’ve got a great relationship.”  She said, “Well, we like each other – we’re friends, in addition to being mom and daughter.”  It really showed that they were friends.  And they both lit up from having the light of affirmation shine on them.

No parent does a good job every moment.  There is a real tendency for us to judge ourselves based on our weakest moments.  To be witnessed doing well – and to have an outside person hold up that good moment, to be told that we are doing a good job – this can be powerful.  To have the chance to do this witnessing and affirming, this can be very gratifying.  Cashiering may often not seem like a powerful job, but here is a chance to make people feel better about themselves – now that’s power.

“I need a supervisor!!”

Sophie (not her real name – I can’t remember her real name, but would not use it here anyway) is a piece of work – demanding, impatient, self-focused, disrespectful.  Sheri Lynn had come over from her quiet register to help me bag (and to hang out with me – we do like to do that, her and I). She jumped in to help Sophie when she said “This mayonnaise has canola oil” (or something like that) – “I want one without canola oil.”  Sheri went off in search.

When Sheri Lynn had been gone for a while and a line was accumulating in my lane, I said to Sophie, “I’m going to suspend your transaction and wait on some of these people – then I’ll put you first in line when Sheri gets back.”  “No you will not.  I’m in line – I’m the next in line.  I’ve been waiting – I’m not going to wait any more.”  I caved.  I gave sympathetic looks to the people in my line and waited for Sheri Lynn.

Not!  I bet this smiling, happy cashier guy would have been singing a different tune if he had to deal with Sophie.

Not! I bet this smiling, happy cashier guy would have been singing a different tune if he had to deal with Sophie.

Then I heard Sheri on the overhead speaker paging for a grocery team member.  I decided that was it – getting this help could still take her a while.

I looked at Sophie and said, “Sheri Lynn has paged for a grocery team member – I’m suspending your transaction” and I did that, as she was loudly protesting that I had better not.  By this time I was totally seeing red – and I did the very best thing I could have done, which rescued the situation, and which followed a playbook that I had learned on the job here: I hollered for help.  I said to Sophie – “I’m calling a supervisor to help with this.” I turned to face the office and with a volume that I have shaped to be just loud enough to be heard in the office, but not too startling to customers in between me and the office – though I can’t guarantee that this time it wasn’t a little extra-loud – said “I need a supervisor!!”  My blood pressure started to drop as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

Perhaps my voice did have an extra edge of urgency, because Tiffany came out of the office almost immediately.  As she approached my register, I met her part way (so as to be out of Sophie’s earshot) and said, “You’re going to have to take this over – I’m losing it with this woman.”

I grew up on the Lone Ranger.  He never lost his cool - and he always showed up just as the trouble was starting - fabulous! I've spent a lifetime trying to be the Lone Ranger.  Now my learning is to let others be that for me.

I grew up on the Lone Ranger. He never lost his cool – and he always showed up just as the trouble was starting – fabulous! I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be the Lone Ranger. Now my learning is to let others be that for me.

I gave her the suspend slip and she, with a voice that was equal parts reassuring and take-charge, told Sophie that she would take her over to the customer service desk and they would get everything straightened out.  I was still hyper-charged from the stress of being so angry with nowhere to put it, but I felt good about the way it had been resolved and my stress continued to reduce with the next few typically-nice customers.

I came away from this experience with two big insights.  The first one fell into place almost immediately.  It’s good to ask for help.  A lot of my conditioning would not lean this way – would say you’ve got be strong and self-reliant, handle your own problems, etc. – but I have learned better over the years.  Asking for help is good – and expecting that you will get that help is wonderful, and even better is believing that it will be competent help (even in the body of a 23 year old) and come without a price to pay for asking.

There’s another insight that didn’t come together for me until about 8:30 this evening, two hours after leaving work and right after Tae Kwon Do class had gotten me de-stressed, in my body and out of whatever useless strains of thinking had been still operating before the class.  I had been thinking that the worst outcome from my encounter with Sophie in the morning would have been for me to say or do something that got me fired.  And maybe I still think that would have been the worst outcome, but there’s another that’s at least a close second.

Perhaps the worst outcome would have been for Sophie to get further injured.  Nobody treats others as badly as Sophie does (and Sheri Lynn and Tiffany each shared with me their histories of run-ins with her) unless they are in pain.  A Course in Miracles says that people are always either offering love or asking for it.  Sophie is asking for it.  “Please love me even while I’m being mean to you.”  I didn’t have the presence of mind to love her in the middle of our negative encounter, but I did have the presence of mind to not say anything disrespectful or incendiary.  Holding the line with her – suspending the transaction, not making others wait unnecessarily – this was good.  Hurting her by mean language, loud tones or any kind of disrespect would not have been good.

Through the rest of the day, when staff (not customers) asked me about my day, I referred back to this encounter.  In its own funky, complex way, it definitely was a highlight of my day.

A highlight? That question.

It had been a hard day – the third day in a row of standing eight hours at the cash register.  It had been a hard month – five weeks of depression.  Not as depressed as I have recently been, and not as long as I have sometimes been, but five weeks is a long time to be depressed.  And today I was not writing.  The last two days my shift at the cash register had stimulated ideas for blog posts, which I furiously recorded between customers and on my breaks. Today nothing.  Writing brings meaning to  my job – makes me feel like I’m meant to be here.  Absent that, my cashiering time can feel empty.  All  this agonizing is unnecessary – the stuff I write when I write makes it clear that this work has meaning.

But today I wasn’t getting that bit about the meaning.  The guy in front of me was big and muscular in ways that I profile as not sensitive in ways that would make them open to my blog – or to my standard question, “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  I don’t know what prompted me to ask him anyway – maybe I was getting a little desperate to inject some meaning into this day.

His answer blew away my preconceptions.  “The highlight of my day?  Having you ask me that question.  That you might care about my answer.  Some days you just need a dose of that kind of energy.”

Sometimes asking someone what was a highlight of their day can be itself a highlight or even the highlight of their day.

Sometimes asking someone what was a highlight of their day can be itself a highlight or even the highlight of their day.

Suddenly it all had meaning to me – the blog, the question , the job.  I was on fire.  The rest of our relatively brief transaction (he didn’t have a lot of purchases) had a positive charge: I told him I would write this exchange up in the blog, then said I would do it that night.  I started it that night, but am not finishing it until today.

In the next two hours – the end of my shift – I jotted notes for three more blog posts, based on further encounters I had with people.  I came away from my day with three principles:

  1. When things seem meaningless, a meaningful question can turn things around.
  2. Don’t profile people – you don’t know what may come out of them.
  3. We need each other – what helps one may simultaneously help the other,

Pickles and chips

When someone orders a sandwich in our deli, the workers there automatically offer them a little sleeve of bulk Kettle-brand potato chips – pretty good chips.  Or the customer could substitute a pickle, though I don’t think that option is automatically offered each time.

When a customer pulls a pre-made sandwich out of the cooler directly across from the pizza/sandwich station, they are equally eligible for a pickle or chips – but there is nobody there to tell them this.  When I was telling a friend about this situation, they recommended that a sign be put up next to the cooler.  There’s a lot to recommend in this, but I wouldn’t support it.

I want us cashiers to be the one to tell them!

I do have to clarify to people that the chips being offered are not the ones in the fancy packages.

I do have to clarify to people that the chips being offered are not the ones in the fancy packages.

They're bulk chips in little paper sacks - but I make a point to say that they are Kettle brand, a good label.

They’re bulk chips in little paper sacks – but I make a point to say that they are Kettle brand, a good label.

I have for the past several months been on a personal mission to tell people about their pickle and chips – because it’s so satisfying to do this!  When I tell people, “You know you can get a pickle or a little bag of chips with your sandwich?” they very seldom do know this.  They usually respond to my offer in one of three ways, in relatively equal proportion:

  1. They have no interest. “I don’t like pickles and I don’t need the chips.”  I think sometimes they still like being offered – they get it that the store is offering them a little treat for free.
  2. They like the offer, but don’t want it today. They’re in a rush or not in the mood.  Here’s where that sign by the cooler seems like a good idea, but I don’t think it outweighs the pluses of the cashier conveying the info.
  3. They really like the idea – they get enthused. They want to go right back and get their pickle or chips.  I have to slow them down:  “Lets finish the transaction first and then go back.”

To the extent that they have even a little fleeting positive response to this offer, let’s pair it with a human face – maybe even someone they already like – rather than just a sign on the cooler.

And let’s give the cashier the chance to offer something nice to the customer.  We recently cut way back on our discounts to seniors and military, now offering each just one day a week instead of every day.  Even if I believe the company line that this step is taken in service of keeping prices low across the board – every day for everybody – there’s no getting around this move being a loss for cashiers at least as much as customers.

  • We empathize with their loss..

    Who feels good about seniors losing their discount?  And while we're at it, what's up with all the Google Images for seniors being smiling couples or groups - no singles and nobody not smiling.  I chose this Google image because they were less posing for the camera and less attractive than most of the shots.

    Who feels good about seniors losing their discount? And while we’re at it, what’s up with all the Google Images for seniors being smiling couples or groups – no singles and nobody not smiling. I chose this Google image because they were less posing for the camera and less attractive than most of the shots.

  • We bear the brunt of their upset – though, honestly, lots of people have responded with tremendous poise, or blow off steam once and then seem over it.  (Some of the nicest people have responded by being especially bitter about the change.)
  • It is a loss for us because it feels really good to offer people discounts.  I used to really enjoy asking “Do you have any coupons or discounts?”, because there was a much better chance of a yes answer, maybe with a little clarification of what the discounts are.  Now there is much less likelihood of a yes and it’s hard for me to even ask the question.

So let’s not miss this chance to offer something to our customers.  It shows that we care about them – we go out of our way to offer them something nice.  It feels good to do – it takes us beyond just swiping groceries.  What a cheap way to boost the customer’s mood – and ours – and build their loyalty to our store.  And get them to like us cashiers more.  It’s a win all around.

Killing the bat

“I ain’t givin’ you nuthin’.”  I thought this immediately and unabashedly towards the nasty man next in line at my checkout today.  Immediately after greeting the lovely young woman who was right in front of me, I turned to greet him as the person next in line.  I’ve been taught that it’s good practice to let them know that you see them and are looking forward to serving them, especially if they have been waiting a while and the order in front of them is somewhat extensive.  But greeting this sixtyish guy – well dressed, neatly trimmed beard – did not apparently serve the desired purpose: he only scowled and snarled some words that I couldn’t make out.

This threw me off center. My mood had improved over the course of the day from pretty depressed in the morning .  But my more upbeat mood felt fairly vulnerable – dealing with this hostile man could throw me way off my game. I immediately devised a plan.  I would pay as little attention as possible to this nasty bird, instead focusing all my attention on the lovely young woman.  I would milk as many good vibes as possible from connecting with her – and be filled up with good energy when I needed to deal with him.

The first leg of this strategy went well.  The girl was totally charming and the connection between us was very positive.  I did think, with some measure of delight, that seeing the sweetness unfolding between us might rub this guy’s nose in his own sourness.  By the time she finished up and left, I did feel solid and ready to do battle with this codger.

But the battle I had prepared for did not materialize.  The guy was not mean or nasty – more just limp and self-involved. I followed through on my plan of giving him nothing: I did the basic business questions: “Do you have a frequent shopper number or coupons or discounts with us?  Are you a student or teacher?” (student and teacher discount day)  He answered a glum “No” on all counts.  His order was small and processed quite quickly – then he was gone.

What had happened?  This guy who had started out so hostile, when he reached the head of the line presented just quiet and maybe a little defeated.

About 35 years ago, my wife and I lived in a cute little farmhouse on the shore of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.  It was sweet living in the country, but there were elements of country living for which we were unprepared..  One of these was the bat in our house.  One night, well after dark, my wife ran to me in the living room and somewhat hysterically announced that there was a bat in our bedroom.  I felt a swelling of male bravado and went to the kitchen where I picked up our broom, christened it Excalibur and headed for the bedroom.  But my challenger was not easily dispatched.  I missed him again and again and his attempts to elude me had him sometimes flying just above my head.  Had you asked me, I would probably have denied that I also had gotten kind of hysterical – but it would have been pretty much the truth.

Why have bats been such an archetype of danger in the night?  Why are we so quick to think that a stranger is dangerous?

Why have bats been such an archetype of danger in the night? Why are we so quick to think that a stranger is dangerous?

I had closed the bedroom door so that the bat could not escape to other parts of house, but there were moments when I regretted the intense battle to the death.  I really did not think that the bat had the wherewithal to kill me, but who knows what impact all those vampire movies were having on me.  Finally I landed a direct hit, crushing the bat between the broom and the ceiling, and he crumpled to the floor.  I pushed him around with the broom and he seemed to definitely be dead.  Killed him with one blow – attaboy Majo.  (Never mind the couple dozen missed swings.)

And what was the most salient element as I surveyed my vanquished foe?  How very, very small he was – a mouse with wings.  So fragile that one good shot with a broom killed him.  I felt tremendously sheepish for how much anger and anxiety I had directed towards him.  What kind of threat had he actually ever been?

And so what of my would-be nemesis in the grocery store checkout line?  To what extent had he ever actually been a threat?  What about his scowl and snarl from half-way down the line?  Were they actually directed at me?  Did I read his non-verbal signals correctly at all?  Did he simply have gas?  Or did his mood mellow as he moved towards me?  Did he ask himself, “Why am I so angry at this cashier?”  Did watching the lovely dance between me and the young woman in front of him have some kind of impact?  It could have increased his depression, if that’s what we was wrestling with.

I want to remember this story in a package with my bat story.  I want to not respond with hostility or aggression towards supposed foes who may actually be no threat at all.  I want to observe my own anxiety and see if I can ground myself, discover a peaceful place in myself.  I want to ask myself “Does this person need to be my enemy?”

I want to remember the coaching from A Course in Miracles that every person is always either offering love or asking for love. Including each customer.  Including me.

“Have you checked your eggs today?”

That’s the most stupid, useless, beat-off question I ask customers – and I do it many times in the course of an 8-hour shift.  It’s stupid and useless because most of our customers check their eggs – and if they haven’t, there is seldom a bad egg in the carton.  And doubly stupid and useless because it often interrupts a meaningful conversation.  So we go from a useful conversation to “Have you checked your eggs today?”

i did get one funny reply to the question, from a 40ish guy who said, “Not since my shower this morning.”  That pretty much cracked me up – and I think it was a highlight to my comedian customer to make me laugh so hard.

So, even though it’s mostly a useless exercise, I still do it because once in a blue moon there actually is a bad egg, but even more because it shows the customers that we care about the quality of their food.  They frequently will thank me for asking.

They may be answering my stock question, "What's been a highlight of your day?" and then I interrupt them to ask if they checked their eggs - it sucks.

They may be answering my stock question, “What’s been a highlight of your day?” and then I interrupt them to ask if they checked their eggs – it sucks.

For me cashiering is in part about making human connection with the customers – but it is just as much about the details of selling groceries.  Asking people about their eggs is very grounding – it remind me that what we are about is selling groceries, including helping people get those groceries home intact.

When I started writing this post about a month ago, I remembered that Alex, when he was breaking me in, suggested that I ask the question only if the customer has more than one dozen eggs – and for just one dozen to just go ahead and do it myself.  Somewhere along the way I got lazy and started to ask the customer all the time.  That’s part of why the asking of the question got so repetitious. Since realizing that a month ago, I have gone back to doing the egg inspection myself if there is only one dozen.  Occasionally a customer will fuzz at me, “I did that already”, but I’m projecting that mostly they feel good about me doing it.

I still am bored with asking the question, still amuse myself about the one wise-ass customer’s funny joke – and reassure myself that this is just good quality control.

A missed opportunity

Bertha at Charter Communications – the cable company – missed a chance today to give me a good feeling about their company.  I was returning Monty’s computer router.  Whe she asked why I was returning it, I said that he had died.  That was the moment where she could have reached out for some genuine human contact – just a sincere “I’m sorry.”  I like to think that I do that consistently, even if someone is referring to their loved one passing a long time ago.  It pretty much always seems to create that human touch. But Bertha stayed buried in her computer screen, typing away.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk - anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

It could have been a customer service slam dunk – anything like a human response has me leaving their office feeling better about the company.

I have heard a lot of criticisms of Charter.  This was a chance for Bertha, in this one instance, to soften that impression. Now why did Bertha not respond with human touch, in a situation where that would be so natural and appropriate – and where there was no apparent time pressure (no one behind me)?

  • She may actually be under some time pressure – lots of these computers can time a call – or, I’m sure, a face-to-face encounter.  I had a job as a call center operator where my supervisor consistently said, “You’re great with the customers – tops – but you’ve got to speed up your calls.”
  • She may have recently been told by a supervisor that she’s too chatty with customers, that she should keep it more to business.  This also happened to me on another job.
  • She may be having a migraine that is making it hard for her to even stand up.
  • She may have lost a loved one lately – or is on the verge of losing one – and my mention of a deceased loved one really triggered her.

I could go on and on – there are so many reasons that a customer server could be unresponsive to us.  And so many ways this could be helped.  It’s a truism that customer support people tend to treat customers as they themselves are treated. Give them respect and compassion and they tend to give it to their customers.  That’s not the whole story – there are some bad apples out there – but it’s a good place to start.  Helping your managers and supervisors treat others with more respect and compassion has got to be a win all around.