Back in 1999, I was in college in Tallahassee, Florida and starting my first real job. I wanted to look professional, but I wasn’t getting paid yet. So, I headed to Stein Mart one evening to get some grown up clothes at a reasonable price. It was getting close to closing time, so I quickly gathered up some button-up shirts and knee-length skirts before heading to the checkout.
There were a few people ahead of me in line. They turned out to be a older couple from Russia with limited English-speaking ability. I grew up overseas, in Greece, and try to be very understanding in these sorts of situations. Sure they were taking a long time, but they were trying.
The cashier on the other hand was not being so understanding. Her thinly-veiled contempt was a bit embarrassing to me. People say the French are rude when we visit their country, but I’ve seen enough of these situations to know we’re at least as bad in America. So, I may have been a little riled up. Or, if you know me, about two seconds from saying something I might regret.
Having worked retail, I knew it was a tough gig. I composed myself and tried to ignore the social injustice I was witnessing. The couple finished their transaction and headed for the door. Boris and Natasha (not their real names) could not get the door open because some poorly-trained employee had prematurely and illegally locked. I presumed it was an attempt to keep new customers from coming into the store so close to closing time.
Boris and Natasha continued to try for a few seconds before the cashier-monster bellowed, “THAT DOOR IS LOCKED. YOU HAVE TO USE THE OTHER DOOR!” Of course they didn’t understand and she had to walk over and help them out.
When she returned, I had two choices. I could light into her about how rude she was or let it go. I split the difference and said, “I’m not sure you know, but you have to leave all your exits unlocked while you have customers in the store. It’s a violation of the fire code.” Musicland, my previous retail employer, had correctly trained me on this issue a few years earlier and as a former Fire Safety Week poster contest winner, I was sensitive to it. No one wants to die in a fire because some clerk is put-out about having to work until 10 pm.
And what did this holding back get me? A very condescending, “We’ll take that under advisement.” Oh really? You will? Good, because I have decided to launch a vendetta against you and this store staring tomorrow.
The next day the experience still tickled my injustice bone. I went online and found the e-mail address for the Tallahassee Fire Chief. I sent him a note about the incident. He wrote me back quickly, thanked me for my vigilance, and promised to investigate. A few days later I received another e-mail telling me that they had investigated, found that the store had not corrected their illegal door locking activity, and been threatened with a large fine if the situation did not improve. The employee in question had been spoken to.
So, my action may not have been the best way to teach that particular employee the value of customer service. But I’m telling you this story to illustrate a larger point. If you treat your customers poorly, there may be no limit to the lengths they go to harm your business. Treating customers well doesn’t guarantee they’ll jump up and down singing your praises, but it’s a far better horse to bet on.
Am I proud of myself for using the resources of the Tallahassee Fire Department in my war against bad customer service? No, in retrospect a letter to Steinmart’s corporate office might have been a more direct way to go about it. Then again, the fire code exists to protect us from death by fire, so I can still sleep at night. I just hope the experience didn’t make Boris and Natasha turn to a life of crime.