The customer is always right

“…um…is there a problem?”

I finally broke the three minutes of silence between me and my cashier.

She looked up from the register, where she’d been locking her gaze and finally made eye contact.

“Oh,” she shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “It’s just that, well, this item isn’t ringing up properly. In addition to the 50% off discount, for some reason, it’s giving you another 30% on top of that, and I can’t seem to override it.”

My eyebrows rose about a mile. You can’t be serious.

She stalled my entire, multi-purchase transaction to avoid giving me an extra discount. And just like that, she established herself as Enemy Number One to me, the customer. Whatever false friendship we had shared about how cute that smock dress looked on me — was over. Talk about a rookie mistake.

“I’m really sorry about this,” she repeated.

“Is it possible that the item actually is more discounted?” I finally dared to ask. “Maybe it just hasn’t shown up yet…”

“No,” she said flatly. “We don’t have sales like that around here here — ever.”

“Should I extract the remaining items from the floor?” whispered the other cashier to my now-nemesis.

“Not yet,” she bristled back. “I just need to…it’s not letting me change anything…” she trailed off. “Let me call Mike. Hang on a second.”

The second girl did an about-face to face me, gesturing toward my other purchases and then back to the item in question.

“I mean, do you really want this blouse, anyway?” she asked me softly, in a feeble attempt to change my mind about buying it.

I looked on the counter and saw that my cashier had pulled out a piece of receipt tape and a pen to figure out the math on the price differential.

— $61.25

She circled the $26.25 with her pen three times.

“Yeah,” I said point-blank. “Yeah, I really do.”

She picked up the phone to call Mike.

Aligning incentives

All in, it remains to be the job I’ve held in fits and spurts for the longest in my life — throughout a couple of years in high school and during most summer and winter breaks while home from college. (See: This essay I wrote to all of my colleagues before I left for college if you want a good chuckle.)

There’s something important that you learn when you see customers face-to-face on a daily basis — fielding their requests, their questions, and most of all, their problems.

The era when I worked at JCP was right in the middle of the heyday of the coupon. There was always a sale and always a coupon. We made quite a show out of the coupon thing. A couple of times a year, we’d even have these things called “Sweet Sales,” where each customer would get a free piece of chocolate wrapped up in a coupon worth either 20%, 30%, or 40% off.

That’s right, we were giving out sugar highs and insanely good deals all at once. Those were wild times, I’m telling you.

But if there’s one thing I learned through this job, it was the importance of aligning incentives wherever possible. You forgot your coupon today? That’s okay, I’ll slip you one on the side. You saw a sign for a better deal than those jeans are ringing up? Let’s check it out — if it’s our mistake, the discount is yours. Why does this matter? Because the number one priority of anyone in a customer-facing role is to be on the same side as the customer.

This isn’t rocket science. There’s a lot of business strategy behind this concept. People don’t like to buy stuff from jerks, for one. Second, if you’re a pleasant person to be around when shopping, it’s more likely that your customers will spend more money. Because they are having fun.

I fall victim to this all the time. There’s a boutique on the Upper West Side that I had to ban myself from entering because I literally found it impossible to walk out empty-handed. That’s good technique.

What isn’t good technique is to openly admit to your customers that you are NOT on their side, to confess that you are actively working against them getting a better deal.

And that’s why, with that one seemingly benign comment, I decided that the war was on between me and Sales Associate #829692. I was going to stand there as long as it took to get my extra $26 off that purchase.

A better customer experience

I knew this would happen. Mike told her (essentially), well, if it’s ringing up that way, go ahead and sell it to her. I saw her pulse elevate immediately.

“So you mean, sell it to her…at this discount?!?”

She hung up the phone and looked glumly at me.

“Okay,” she pulled herself together, as if I hadn’t seen the shock and distaste that I would be receiving a “too good to be true” deal. “I am going to sell you the blouse at this price. I’m sorry again about all this.”

Once again, I was struck with her completely misaligned attitude. Rather than grin at my luck in scoring a great deal, she apologized to me.

I thought a lot about this customer service experience after I left the store.

Wouldn’t it have been better to lean into the excitement that I might be feeling? Isn’t it possible that, in my heightened joy on stealing such a deal, I might have impulse bought the necklace I’d been eyeing that was sitting right on the cash register? Might there have been an opportunity for me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey in her favor as a result of my happiness?

Here’s how I might have reframed the entire scenario from the start:

“Okay, so I’m really sorry that this is taking so long. It looks like our system is trying to give you an even better deal on this blouse. I can’t seem to override it, so you may end up with more of a discount, but I do need to run this by my manager first to see if there’s anything else I should be doing.”

And then, of course, when the deal was confirmed:

“Well, looks like you’re in luck! I’ve never seen anyone get an extra 30% off a half-off rack before. Have a great rest of your Saturday. Enjoy it!”

If you can’t put yourself in the customer’s shoes and get on their side, you shouldn’t be in customer service. If you can’t celebrate wins with your customer, you’ve got your incentives completely misaligned. And if you can’t read the room enough to recognize an opportunity to turn a situation like this on its head, you might push customers away, rather than bring them closer.

There’s some truth yet to that old adage: The customer is always right.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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