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.

 

Charm their pants off

At work this week, we got news that sounded on the surface like bad news: some of our popular customer discounts were being reduced.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The very popular senior discount is now just one day a week.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week - and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The equally popular military discount is also going to just one day a week – and is being cut from 10% to 5%.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

The student/teacher discount continues at one day a week.

When I worked at Greenlife a couple of years ago, they had recently been taken over by Whole Foods and the very popular senior discount was discontinued.  I’m sure nobody ever determined how many  seniors took their business elsewhere (including to my current store), but certainly some did – and some stayed but harbored resentments.

So how do you deliver potentially bad news in a positive way?  The company gave us some talking points.  The strategy is to not get rid of the discounts altogether, but to move towards optimally low prices applied to everybody.  I feared people would respond to that one with cynicism – “Low prices, sure.”  But they mostly seemed to accept it.

It will make it easier to focus on the discount of the day – new people may learn that they are qualified.  I’m disturbed by how often people tell me, “I’ve been coming here for years, but I never knew there was a military discount.”  Now on Thursdays we may poll more thoroughly for it.

My strategy is just to charm the daylights out of them.  Really go after them.  Let them know we want their business and their loyalty.  If there is any part of me that genuinely loves my customers (and there is), then lean into that part now.  We have a community of staff and customers at our store – and I don’t want that community ruptured.

I personally happen to think this is a positive way to go.  I am influenced by the young people who complain “I’m way more broke than the average senior citizen – I think it’s unfair that they get a discount but not me.”  Parents of young kids say similar things.  And nurses wonder why they don’t get a discount. And firefighters and police officers.  And students and teachers have wondered why their discount was just one day a week – now there is more parity there.

I had mixed success today trying to use that argument with customers.  Two of them together said, “Our young adult children are way more affluent than us on social security”, while others seemed to accept the fairness argument.

We're the face of the grocery store.  This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk.  Let's pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business.  It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

We’re the face of the grocery store. This is a brief period where the goodwill of some of our customers is at risk. Let’s pull out the stops to let them know we value them and their business. It could be practice for going after people we care about in our lives.

I think a little apology is fine – this is a disappointment, we want to show that we understand that.  But not to come across with an apologetic attitude.  Stay proud of the store and of our commitment to our customers.  Lean into whatever positive gambits you usually use with customers.  I have been working in my stock “What’s been a highlight of your day?”

Some customers may go away mad – probably not for good (our primary competitors don’t offer these discounts any day of the week).  But there is the risk of them leaving – or at least of their enthusiastic connection to the store being diminished.  It’s a critical juncture here – time to pull out the stops for their loyalty.  Time for me to get out of my comfort zone – really show them we want them.  This could be really good for me – may transfer to other relationships where I want to pursue someone, want to show them I value them, want to come from my loving heart.

Why not? Otherwise you’re just swiping groceries.

Thursday evening p.s. Today I ran into a few people who were determined to be mad about this change, but many more who were susceptible to charm.  I had some who responded to my fairness gambit by saying things like “Well that makes sense”.  Most of the people I dealt with who are adversely affected are seniors.  I developed a whole patter about that change: “Man, I’m disappointed.  These are my peeps (I’m 68) and I’ll be missing them because I don’t work on Mondays…It will be like a seniors club in here on Mondays…We’ll play mahjong and bingo in the cafe”, etc.  Lots of people who started out bothered, worried, etc. walked away seeming at least content.

Who are these people?

A short post (it’s late – and I work at 9) after our staff holiday party – grocery stores don’t party in the big push before the holidays.

Who are these people?  Getting to know them outside of work, hearing their stories, they become much bigger – surprising, yet I kinda knew there was going to be lots more when I got a chance to know them better.  And I know that I have just barely scratched the surface.

  • Katie talking about her twin passions – painting and cheese.  I ask, “Could you hook me up with some new cheese?  I’m a little bored with my regulars.”  Her eyes get big.  “I’d love to.”
  • Charles talking about his passion for Kung Fu – especially exciting for me, because I’m going to start Tae Kwon Do (a related martial art) on Friday

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

  • watching Cierra, our team leader, get down and have fun
  • seeing Harlen, the toddler of our previous team leader Emmalea and her husband James – back to party with her old team – released from the shopping cart and running, dancing, being overall mesmerizing
  • Hearing A lay down some really great music
  • Charles (older than the kids), Tom (way older than the kids) and me (way older still) bust some moves on the dance floor that open some eyes.  I was half-way down the stairs to leave when I said to myself, “You left without saying goodbye to anybody – what a depressive thing to do.  You go back and say some goodbyes.”  Then the sight of Charles and Tom jamming combined with A’s beats lured me out on the dance floor –  first in my heavy winter coat, then with a couple layers stripped off.
Dance - between staying away when I've been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven't danced for three weeks.  And I still cut loose!

Dance – between staying away when I’ve been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven’t danced for three weeks. And I still cut loose!

And this old fart left at 10:30 – with another 90 minutes of party left.  I could regret the opportunities missed, but in this moment – still typing at 12:39 – I will not regret leaving early.  I had other work I needed to do at my computer before writing this.  I think I have just energy enough to pull up a photo or two (I hate to post just straight words).  Now there’s some kind of snag – I think a Word Press thing – with uploading photos.  And backing out of that it looked like I had erased this whole post.  I’m thrilled to have it back and am gonna go with straight text.  It’s not even amazing prose, but I’m posting it.  Hope it gives you a little glimpse of our party.  (And then – at 1:15 – the photos finally did work.  Geez, I gotta get to bed!)

My best buddy Monty (RIP 1/10/15)

Monty was an individual - his gift was being true to himself.

Monty was an individual – his gift was being true to himself.

Monty (Montague Sam) Berman has been my best buddy for 35 years, but we have not lived near each other for 30 years – until last June, when he moved here to Asheville after living in the same house in Ithaca for 15 years.  Moved here at age 85 (I’m 68, but Monty thrives on close connections with younger people), knowing no one but me.  Came here hoping that he would somehow get more opportunities to teach than he was getting in Ithaca – and that maybe we would get a chance once again to teach or lead workshops together.

Monty could be very difficult at times - and could also be full of joy.  He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life - and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other's sense of humor.

Monty could be very difficult at times – and could also be full of joy. He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life – and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other’s sense of humor.

 

Monty and I led men’s groups together 30 years ago, before they became so popular.  He loves to tell the story of the one group where he played the good cop and me the “shit detector”, who would call men on their shit when they weren’t being really honest.  That’s a lot different from how I had facilitated before – or ever again did after that group.  And maybe the last time this irascible and challenging character Monty ever played the good cop in a personal growth group – maybe that’s why it was so much fun for both of us, because we were each going way outside of our usual personas.

Monty was incredibly smart - and largely self-taught.  He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru - but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop.  He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly  he wanted the insights to come out of himself.  Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

Monty was incredibly smart – and largely self-taught. He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru – but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop. He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly he wanted the insights to come out of himself. Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

When a new doctor asked Monty yesterday what brought him to Asheville, he said “My best buddy John”. (I’m still John to all my pre-Asheville friends.)  Maybe he moved here so I can help him die.  I have thought that thought several times since Monty’s lab studies and MRI’s over the last few months have showed his long-time prostate cancer to now be wildly out of control – moved probably to his bones, definitely to his liver.  The most recent prognoses have ranged from 1 – 1 1/2 years (his primary doc) to 4-5 years (his oncologist, who is very impressed by the new drug he put Monty on).  The new doc that Monty was talking to yesterday was the ER doc at the VA Hospital, who examined him, listened to his symptoms (a ferocious new pain in his side, which she thinks is bone cancer), went through all his records – and told him he may have just weeks to live.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life - and sometimes quite harshly.  And nobody has ever admired me more.  Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life – and sometimes quite harshly. And nobody has ever admired me more. Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

 

She referred him to the VA hospice unit, with a promise that if he gets stronger he can go back to his apartment (or maybe better an assisted living apartment).  Monty and I have a tentative date to run a workshop at Jubilee in February: “The Case for God”.  Led by Monty (a devout atheist) and me (a non-theistic mystic), I think it will be hot.  Let’s all picture him being strong enough for it.

Monty adding his own vision to the "Before I die" wall on Biltmore Avenue - photo taken August 22nd.  Monty said that he didn't like some things about himself - like how judgmental he was of others - but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty.  I don't know how he pulled this off - I couldn't - but I believe he did.  When he walked through that final door, I'm sure he did it with no regrets.

Monty adding his own vision to the “Before I die” wall on Biltmore Avenue – photo taken August 22nd. Monty said that he didn’t like some things about himself – like how judgmental he was of others – but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty. I don’t know how he pulled this off – I couldn’t – but I believe he did. When he walked through that final door, I’m sure he did it with no regrets.

I wrote this post Friday afternoon, but didn’t have any of my Monty photos in the laptop I was using so didn’t post it.  Monty died Saturday morning at 5 a.m. All photos courtesy of Maureen Simon, who very quickly brought forward and captured so much of Monty’s spirit and depth and aliveness – and who I think kind of fell in love with him, which was maybe why he let himself shine for her. 

Stickers for seniors….

The 65ish couple in front of me were full of fresh energy.  They had observed the excitement that unfolded with the family before them – a family I know well and have great connections with mom and both kids.  They heard me tell the mom that my interaction with them was just made for a blog post.  (Looking back on it later, absent the excitement of the moment, it doesn’t seem so.)

“So what do we need to do to make it into your blog?”

“Ah, something interesting.”  Kind of sassy from a customer service person.

“Like what?  A song and dance or something?” Not really cranky – more playful.

“I don’t know – we’ll see.”

This baby's mother told me, "Just put the sticker on her cheek - she likes that." A sweet moment for this old guy.

This baby’s mother told me, “Just put the sticker on her cheek – she likes that.” A sweet moment for this old guy.

At the end of their transaction, I got it.  They had watched me give stickers to the kids in front of them.  “You two need stickers!”  “No”, laughing.  Their laughter gave them away – they liked this idea!  So I pursued.  “Yeah, you gotta have stickers: do you want the planet or a star?”  Big giggles now and I knew we had hit pay dirt.  They finally got their stickers and they temporarily shed about sixty years in the process.  They left my line lighter and happier.

This interaction briefly spawned a new initiative on my part – “Stickers for seniors” – but it didn’t stick.  I didn’t remember to do it, I ran into one man who got genuinely irritated with the idea. I made the mistake with one guy of identifying it as my “Stickers for seniors program”: “Oh, that’s just what I need, it to wear something that identifies me as a senior.”

As a program, I think “Stickers for seniors” is a bust.  But in that one interaction it was perfect. A program is attractive – spot a senior, I know what to do.  I guess I don’t get to have it be that easy.  The right response will come out of that unique encounter.

I do get some leads out of that interaction: See them as interesting.  Be open to something memorable happening.  Have a preferential inclination towards play and lightness – maybe especially with seniors.