I learned a lot while working at the Sears Customer Service Counter in El Monte, California, in the early sixties while I was attending (what was then called) Cal State LA. Interacting with complaining customers was actually a kind of acting school because we were told always to be positive and sympathetic. True situation: “Oh, your new refrigerator is actually heating your food! I am sooo sorry to hear that. Let me make some notes so the manager can arrange to correct this situation.” And I took down every detail about the fridge, address, phone number and examined the receipt very carefully. Or if we suspected a shoplifter was trying to “return” items for cash, we were to display no suspicion: “We are happy to take care of this, but because you have no receipt, we have to hold these items for 24 hours before the system can issue a refund.” Often the customer would grab up the items and leave in huff. We also had lists behind the counter of items stolen from other Sears stores to check against the goods supposedly being returned. No matter how angry the customer got, we were to remain pleasant. And I really played the part. But if they were abusive or used profanity, we were to go back into the office and get the manager. Brenda was the other college girl who worked some shifts there, and there were two or three mature women also who were so kind and shared tips and tactics for dealing with the irate customers. They told me that it was important to repeat back to the customer what the problem was so they felt heard before offering a solution. That has been valuable in personal relations ever since. We also did gift wrap and that was a fun break from dealing with the stressed out people. And of course, I got a little discount for anything I purchased in the store. What fun it was to purchase a lovely black slip after I got my first paycheck. Another fun bonus was flirting with the young men who worked there loading large items into peoples’ cars. They passed by our counter from time to time and if I wasn’t busy we would exchange a word or two. One time Mick, who was especially fun to banter with, treated me on my break to a burnt almond fudge ice cream cone at the ice cream counter near our department. I wonder whatever happened to Mick? He said he was planning to become a priest, but I doubt very much if he actually did.
I have played with fabric since I learned at age 8 to sew on my mother's Singer Featherweight, and I have written poems and memories for my own pleasure, as well some pieces for the local newspapers and some magazines. I am very interested in Family History-- tracking my father's Norwegian family tree. I really enjoy the Retrospect site an Sun Magazine as well.
Babette, thanx for giving us a look at customer service from the other side!
And I certainly agree that repeating the customer’s complaint so they feel understood is a good lesson for all life’s situations!
Babette, thanks for this great description of customer service from the store employee’s point of view. So interesting to learn about how to deal with shoplifters, along with customers who did have a legitimate complaint (a refrigerator that heated their food? I hope that didn’t really happen!). I like your comparison of this job with being in acting school, because you always had to be positive and sympathetic. I’m sure that was hard at times!
You really did get great training in self-control and acting, given the circumstances you have described. I can’t believe you didn’t lose your cool. People really do try to get away with so many things. The shop-lifting stories really show a lot of balls on the part of those trying to get cash for things they stole. And how lovely that you got a discount on items and could have pleasant conversations with other works as well. Times really were different.
I love the idea of repeating back the complaint so the person felt heard. It’s a great idea for many situations. You learned some valuable, non-academic lessons doing customer service.
I love this! As your story illustrates, working behind a counter is a master class in human relations. Everyone should do it. Love also your rumination on Mick the unlikely priest. Thanks for reminding me that as a little girl I wanted nothing so much as to be the gift wrap lady at Filene’s.
Too bad about you and Mick never taking it further than the ice cream cone. Ah, the paths we don’t take…
It was great to be reminded what “the other side” of customer service looks like!
It was great to read the perspective of someone working explicitly in “customer service”, and it rang true. There is a kind of zone you can get into where you are unfailingly pleasant, and as you noted, this can really come in handy in life in general. I noticed in your description that you enjoy the Sun Magazine as well, so shout out to another Sun aficionado!