Taming the beast: A tale of customer service

CIMG7799A very sweet student confessed last week, “Sometimes I wish I had a good reason to punch someone in the face.  I think it would be really fun.”  After an initial double-take on my part, we went on to discuss how we love those scenes in movies where the girl hauls off and slugs someone who really deserves it, often a big clueless guy who never sees the swing coming.  The best scenes are when the gal has accidentally slugged the wrong person–or smashed a vase on his head– and then has to repair the relational damage.

I  am no advocate of punching people in the face, but my sister and I have been known…ahem…to verbally explode, sometimes in public places.  I was going to credit/blame this trait on our father’s choleric temperament, but upon reflection, Mom has done this a couple of times herself and we have cheered her on. Dad’s explosions were like a constant barrage of fireworks.  Ours are more like the explosion that results from a very long slow steady gas leak.  And the person holding the match gets blown to smithereens, usually with a pithy quote.

Some of our classic “punch” lines:

  • “I’m not just buying a toaster oven from you people!” (This was me in the appliance section of Montgomery Ward over the delivery of a houseful of major appliances.)
  • “I am appalled!!!” (Me again, at a restaurant in Cape May.  This is my mom’s favorite.  She’s been quoting it back to me for twenty-five years.)
  • “Don’t ever buy a vacuum cleaner from this store!” (My sister to everyone in Best Buy.)

And the latest (by phone): “I don’t expect you to fix it.  All you can do is listen to me yell at you!”

I’m also not an advocate of yelling at people in lieu of punching them.  Arrogant people who bully others to booster their feelings of self-importance are really annoying.  After all, a person’s a person no matter how small…or stupid…or incompetent.  And who’s to say who has had a worse day…the customer or the employee?  But sometimes explosions happen.

Here’s a tale from Friday. It has a happy ending.

It’s the end of a five-day week that felt twice that long.  I drive to the new Harris Teeter grocery store across the street from school.  My mission: to buy kid-sized Adirondack chairs for my granddaughter.  While there, I pick up some things for dinner.  Three weeks away from total hip replacement surgery, I keep swearing off shopping, but I still find myself in the grocery store.

I  get in the checkout line behind a woman with a large order.  I am really feeling the pain, but have the cart to lean on.  An employee says she can assist me through the self-checkout.  Now, I don’t like self-checkout.  I want a person to check the items, put them in bags and, in an ideal world, put them into the cart for me.  Harris Teeter’s checkout lanes are uniquely designed to facilitate this ideal world.

But I follow the helpful employee to the self-checkout lane.  I do not yet have a Harris Teeter “VIC” card.  The employee says she will scan my items while I go to customer service for a VIC card.  Fine.  Step by tortured step, I hobble over to the service desk and get a VIC card.

Would they have been so friendly if I weren't a Very Important Customer?

Would they have been so friendly if I weren’t a Very Important Customer?

Meanwhile, back at self-checkout, my items are scanned and bagged, but not loaded into my cart.  Furthermore, the helpful employee has gone off to be helpful somewhere else.  A different person handles my payment.  I begin to leave but realize that only the kiddie chairs are in the cart.  I grab my two bags from the bagging shelf and head home.

Thirty miles and forty-five minutes later, I peel myself out of the car, stretch out my locked-in-position hips and drag my body up the three steps into the house.  I plop two bags onto the counter.  Finally, I’m home.

“You can light the grill!” I call to my husband.

“What did you get?”


This water bottle apparently couldn't share a bag with a steak.

This water bottle apparently couldn’t share a bag with a steak.

I go through the bags.  The first bag contains one item– a water bottle.  Really.  From the other bag I  pull out cheese, a baguette, olives, and tomatoes.  There’s no steak.

There’s no steak.

I have driven thirty miles and there’s no steak.   I’m not driving back.

I had grabbed two bags at the store.  Why would you need three bags for an order that small???  If Helpful Employee #1 had stayed on task, she would have said, “Excuse me, ma’am, here’s a third bag.”  Helpful Employee #2 didn’t know there were three bags because she arrived at the end of the transaction.  I didn’t know there were three bags because I was off getting a VIC card instead of supervising Helpful Employee #1.

This is a classic example of multi-tasking gone awry.  Can we please, as a society, learn to carry one simple task to completion?

So now I’m tired, in pain, and angry.  John heads off to our local grocery, just five minutes away, to pick up a steak.  I call the Harris Teeter store and speak with the manager, who just happens to be Helpful Employee #2.

“We want to do whatever we can to make this up to you,  ” she said.

That’s when I tell her the only thing she can do at this point is listen to me yell at her.

Then she says, “We will drive the steaks over to your house.”

It’s thirty miles the back way to my house.  The normal way–the Beltway–is thirty-five miles and it’s a Friday evening.  It could easily take an hour and a half to get from Ellicott City to Hereford.  I tell the manager that it is a ridiculous idea.

“No, really, we will do it.”

“Ok.  I accept your offer.”  I feel guilty for about a nano-second for the employee who is going to have to sit in rush hour traffic for an eternity and a day.  But I accept the offer because waiting until Monday to go back into the store for a refund will keep me annoyed until at least Monday and even then I will probably be hesitant to ever again stop in at Harris Teeter on my way home.  And I want to stop at Harris Teeter on my way home.

(Those of you who are wondering why I can’t just stop at the store five minutes from my house do not understand the effects of a long commute on the body.  By the time I am five minutes from home, I want to be home.)

So, Helpful Employee #2, a.k.a. Manager, says that hopefully the steaks will arrive by the time the grill is hot.  My husband and I know better.  Sure, enough, when the car comes rolling down the driveway, we are finishing our meal.

I was 90% satisfied when the manager offered to deliver the steak.  It was such an outrageous offer.  With the arrival of the assistant store manager I am more than 100% satisfied.  And then she goes completely over the top.  Instead of one steak, there are two–for my aggravation.  And a rotisserie chicken, because someone realized that dinner was going to be really late.  And a cake, to sweeten things up.  And flowers, to make me happy.

And it worked.  When I look at the flowers I think, “How lovely!”  When my in-laws got a gift of some steak they thought, “How thoughtful!”  When we eat the rotisserie chicken I think, “How helpful!”  Next week, when I pull the cake from the freezer to celebrate my daughter’s new house we’ll think, “How sweet!”

Will I go back to Harris Teeter?  Absolutely.  Will I check to see that I have everything when I leave the store? Darn tootin’ I will.  Will I let the manager send someone all the way to my house again?  No.  They’ve already proven that they go the extra mile.

As for me, maybe I should wear a count-down to surgery button, just to warn people in my path.  Or maybe my husband should do the world a favor and let me avoid grocery stores for the next couple of months.