“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.

Advertisements

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.

At the movies…

Michelle, a manager at Carolina Cinemas, is my new customer service star.  (They’re everywhere!)

Me and three of my seven roommates from Lotus Lodge, along with one of their boyfriends, were in a very good mood, headed to the movies.

Lotus Lodge is halfway between an intentional community and a boarding house: 8 people trying to discover what community means to them.  For me, one thing it means is outings like this one.

Lotus Lodge is halfway between an intentional community and a boarding house: 8 people trying to discover what community means to them. For me, one thing it means is outings like this one.

None of us do this very often, so it was a big treat.  And we like each other and don’t get together as often as we would like, so we were very animated in the car riding there.  None of us knew much about Birdman – just that it had won several Oscars exactly one week ago and that it stars Michael Keaton, whom several us like quite a lot. (“How about Beetlejuice?!”  Several of us raved about that movie – agreeing that it was wacko in all the right ways.  “Yeah, and The Dream Team!?”  I stumped them with that one – nobody else had seen it.  I informed them that it’s a very good, very funny movie.)

Things quickly went south when we arrived at the theater.  The kid selling tickets had two pieces of bad news for us.  We had arrived right on time, 1:50, and he said that the show was actually scheduled for 2:30.  How could that be? Three of us had seen the time in two different online places, including the Carolina Cinemas website.  He had no answer, except to add that in addition the 2:30 showing was already sold out.

We indulged in several varieties of being bummed out.  For whatever reason, I was mostly able to quickly refocus on what else we might see.  I asked the kid, where are your movies and times listed?  “Usually on that TV screen over there by the concessions, but it’s turned off because the movie times were wrong.”  By that time, two of our members had pulled up the list of films on their phones.  The only one that any of us had any enthusiasm about was a Kevin Costner film, McFarland USA – and only me, because I had seen and liked the trailer two weeks before.

McFarland USA is kind of a classic Kevin Costner feel-good movie - and we all agreed that he had done a good job.

McFarland USA is kind of a classic Kevin Costner feel-good movie – and we all agreed that he had done a good job.

Movies like this are a good answer to my "I can't do it" voice (2/24).  You come out of there thinking. "If I want it bad enough, I can do it."

Movies like this are a good answer to my “I can’t do it” voice (2/24). You come out of there thinking. “If I want it bad enough, I can do it.”

The kid was able to tell us when the movie came on – also around 2:30.  I asked to speak with a manager.  He called one and said she would be right up.  My friends all look quizzical: “Why a manager?”  “They’ve jerked us all around – I want a discount on our tickets.”  This seemed a novel notion to all four of them, but to me when a business jerks you around, they are usually very ready to somehow make it right to keep you as a loyal customer.  I routinely send food back when I don’t like it – or have even complained about it after eating it, especially if they ask if everything was OK.  I’ll say, “No, actually….” I almost always get the food replaced, taken off the bill, etc.  And i find that if you make your complaint assertive but friendly – not defensive, just like you know in advance that they will want to make things right with you – the vibe almost never gets bad.  (OK, there have been exceptions – and those are mostly places that i never then do go back.)

Michelle showed up pretty quickly.  Watching her brisk step and air of authority as she walked across the lobby, a couple of us said simultaneously, “Looks like a manager”.  Tall, olive-complexioned, attractive, maybe 30, she picked us out right away as the customers with a beef and came up to us very graciously – giving no indication of any defensiveness or that she thought this might be a difficult encounter.  If I were to read her body language, which I do pretty instinctively, she planned for this to be a good conversation with a positive outcome.

“Hi, what’s going on?”  I took the lead, explaining how we had been jerked around.  One little bit of logic had not occurred to me (or any of us, I think) and which Michelle, if she had thought of it, had the graciousness not to point out.  As we had gotten caught up in our bummed-outedness, we never thought: “If the movie started at the time we planned, we still were too late – it was sold out.  Bad planning on our part, with a movie that won a bunch of Oscars one week before.”  So we had not thought that and Michelle showed no sign of having thought that.

I wrapped up my presentation by saying, “So we’re wishing that we could get discounted tickets for McFarland USA”.  Michelle said, “I have no way to give you discounted tickets.  What I can do is to give you free passes for a movie now or in the future.”  She was so friendly about it all that you would swear she enjoyed giving away free passes – and maybe she does.  I had said that several of us were devoted customers – though in fact it was only me, and not so much lately.

Michelle also explained to us why the times had gotten screwed-up.  On Sunday mornings they rent out one of their theaters to a church group and that group had been very late getting out of there today.  She got all kind of inclusive in telling us about it: “It’s the second time it’s happened – we have to figure out what to do about it.”  She was making us part of the team.

She even parlayed a little joke by me into a much funnier line.  I said, with a poker face, “So do we need to be prepared for some serious spiritual energy in there?”  “You always need to be prepared to encounter some serious spiritual energy, everywhere.”  Whether she really believes that (which would be very cool) or was just playing with me, either way it was a wonderful comeback and totally cracked me up.

She also went on to say that everyone she has talked to about McFarland has really liked it – including several of their staff.

Here we are (minus the camera man) - happy campers.  Well, relatively happy cuz we just got in the movies for free.  Our happiness is tempered by the fact that everyone but me is a little skeptical about a Disney movie.    Michelle, while she seemed positive about a blog post and fine with me using her name, did not warm up to a photograph.  I'm struck by how many very attractive women are hesitant to be photographed.  I think we do a number on them about what it means to look good.

Here we are (minus the camera man) – happy campers. Well, relatively happy cuz we just got in the movies for free. Our happiness is tempered by the fact that everyone but me is a little skeptical about a Disney movie.
Michelle, while she seemed positive about a blog post and fine with me using her name, did not warm up to a photograph. I’m struck by how many very attractive women are hesitant to be photographed. I think we do a number on them about what it means to look good.

 

Well, we loved the movie.  Oh, several of us loved it – I don’t know about all.  But we mostly all agreed that for the genre – go-for-it, feel good movies – they pretty much got it right.  Only one of the five of us did not volunteer that they got teary-eyed in places (and she didn’t deny it, just didn’t comment beyond saying she liked the movie).  For myself, I actually shed tears at several points.  My emotions are way near the surface when I’m manic, as I am today.

I got big points from my cohort about my negotiating with Michelle and we all went home happy – and beginning to make our plans to see Birdman.  (I talked with my friend Lynn later in the afternoon and she said that life had spared us by bumping us to this other movie and that I’d be better off skipping Birdman altogether.  I trust Lynn’s judgment, though it doesn’t always mesh with mine.  We’ll see.)