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.
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,
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.