Archived Story

Respectful help earns customer’s gratitude

Published 10:32am Monday, June 18, 2012

“Please see attendant,” the readout on the gas pump in Osceola, Iowa, told me. I walked over to the store with growing anger, because I had carefully followed the sequences of steps posted and had done it three times with the same results. What angered me the more was the many times I had gone through this at gas pumps in many states. I have learned to control my anger so as to direct it effectively and, so, mustered the calmness to inquire, “Why do I need to see the attendant for Pump Two?”

In relieved contrast to what I anticipated from experience, the women looked at her cash register readout and said empathetically, “I have no idea; let’s go and see.” She watched critically as I repeated the steps with the same results. She said, “The pump lies; let’s try another pump.” She stayed with me until she could see it was working and then left with another apology and a promise (which I easily believe) to report it.

She spoke and acted exactly as she should, the opposite of my usual experience and the cause of justifiable angry frustration. This is the point to which I have been moving.

Often retail employees who have direct contact with customers fail to recognize problems reasonable customers have with products or services and treat the paying customers with inexcusable contempt. Often it‘s not a simple failure to recognize but aggravated incompetence that is tantamount to abuse that merits being fired.

Flash back to many previous scenarios at other service stations. In one, the sign stated, “Follow instructions carefully. Enter your ZIP code.” I entered my ZIP code and nothing happened. I walked to this Chicago store and explained the problem politely to the inattentive attendant. He said impatiently, “It says, ‘Push Enter,’” No, it does not. It says, “Follow instructions carefully. Enter your ZIP code.” I followed these instructions with complete literalness and entered my ZIP code. The sign does not say “and then press Enter.”

Now with unrestrained contempt, he shot back: “Well, you should know that!” But not when I am sternly warned to follow instructions carefully. I am to presume or assume nothing, just do exactly as told.

Of course, I have seen this same wording in other distant locations and now, from the first experience, know what to do thereafter, i.e., Disbelieve the printed instructions and do something they don’t tell me to do.

These are incomplete instructions; others are self-contradictory. One attendant just shrugged his shoulders, “Oh well, they just changed them and left the old ones on the pump. You just read the new ones.”

One of these days I’m going to say: Look, little man. This is probably the only job you’re qualified for, and you have been told what the instructions mean rather than what they say. Now you think everyone knows this intuitively (if you understand the word) and that every gas pump in the wide world operates the way the two in your very little world operate. Get with it. Learn how the rest of the world lives.

Alright, I suppose I never will, and that’s one reason I write this, i.e., so service station attendants — and other retail clerks — wake up and recognize how perfectly intelligent and competent customers must perceive your products and services. If the clerks are too… (well, I won’t use their language), their employers and supervisors should train them to do better.

I’m actually more understanding than this sounds. I understand we get so close to the immediate job we are doing, we have genuine difficulty stepping back from it and putting ourselves in the customer’s place. It’s like having a thought and then thoughtlessly expecting others to read our minds.

For every customer who has the nerve that I do and reports such attitudes and behaviors to supervisors, there are many others who never say a word because they never return to your business.

Business owners seldom learn why former customers now refuse to do business with them. I will tell you: this is one.


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  • bluehawk

    Mr. Alcorn, I work as a “lowly” clerk, and I do understand that sometimes the directions are unclear, but after someone has been yelled at about prices, or blamed for a customer losing so much money on scratch tickets that they picked out, we clerks can lose our patience, even though we try not to. Good for you for reading the instructions, you are a rare breed. Most people want to be told what to do, rather than reading what to do.

    Respect is also a two way street, for the most part customers treat us with some courtesy, but others scream at us, or use vulgar language, or even throw their money at us rather than handing it to the clerk like we are lepers. I like my job, for the most part people are good and decent. Many times the clerk may be the only employee in the store at the time, if they rush to do something for you, it is not that they are rude, it is just they are trying to get things done, so that they can help the next person.

    Your comments about this being the only job we are qualified for is off base. Personally, I am working on my masters degree, I spent 10 years in the US Army, I am a combat veteran, I speak two languages, and take care of my elderly father. I do this job, because it gives me flexibility to pursue other avenues. So from the tone of your article, you look down on us. We are just individuals trying to earn a living. I am not alone in doing this sort of work to either pick up extra income or to stay near family members.

    Yes, clerks should see things from the customer side, but also the customer should see from our side also, we can’t chat everyone up, especially when there is a line of people waiting to be helped. We are there to be helpful, but not take abuse either.

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  • skunkhollow1964

    If inconvenience at the gas pump is a cause for anger, you are a fortunate person. Honestly, who cares? New Creation…my bottom.

    I think HyVee here in town provides an absolutely wonderful teaching opportunity to our kids. At least every other time I am there I am behind an older woman at the checkout that is slowly counting change out of her coin purse or calculating the total in her checkbook just before very carefully tucking it back in her purse. That is followed by tying on her bonnet etc… I scan my card and am done in 10 seconds.

    These situations make me smile and hope that the person behind me in not that many years will smile at me as well.

    Relax Wally.

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