I need to be better at customer service
June 8, 2014 10:04 AM   Subscribe

If you're stuck working retail, how do you deal with the worst in people?

To get to the point I don't like ill-mannered people who I have to encounter once in a while in my job. I seem to be lacking tact in these kinds of situations. Just a side note, I'm a pharmacist who ended up in the traditional retail setting who doesn't want to consider hospital work for the time being or until I try to fix my problem.

I've been working for a couple of years now and I've had a few complaints reported to my boss but nothing has ever come of it. Every time it does happen I seem to go into this anxiety spiral that goes from getting fired, to not having money, to not being able to get another job and so forth. I only have a small 3 month emergency fund (I still live like a college student and all my extra cash goes towards my student debt, hence the money anxiety). I would like for this to not happen at all or more pragmatically, happen less and get some sort of control in these situations.

My biggest problem is dealing with nasty people. I have this almost like reflexive instinct to treat them as they are treating me. Sometimes, even just the look on their face can lead me to not like them (often time my suspicions are correct which doesn't help anything).

One part of the problem is dealing with elderly people. I love lots of them but at least once a week I have to deal with some of the most petty grievances. I tell my tech everyday that I would kill myself if I was ever that petty. Some of them seem like they are looking to get into an argument not matter what I say or do for them.

For the most part I like my job and I get along with most of the people who I come in contact with. I understand that retail setting seem to bring out the worst in people but I'm having a hard time remembering that when they're in my face. I've considered meditation and trying to remember random things to keep me out of trouble but it never lasts and after months I forget and then I get a another complaint.

I'd appreciate any advice anyone can give me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite Jessamyn West quote is, Everyone's hardest struggle is their hardest struggle. Think of your job as making an irritated person's hardest struggle just a little easier.

When I'm confronted with someone who is upset, I ask them How can I help you? They will often not respond with a clear-cut way for me to help them and instead vent a little (or a lot). That's fine, I patiently hear them out with what they have to say, let them know that I've heard and understood them, and if at that point I still can't figure out how I can help them then I ask again, How can I help you? If you patiently repeat that question enough times, people will eventually tell you how you can help them, and then you're on the downhill slope of the interaction cruising towards a solution.

Other common adages to help you help others:

- Turn the other cheek. Show them (without judgement) that their tactic of being horrible doesn't affect you.

- Kill them with kindness. Balance out horrible people's horribleness with your own extra super sweetness.

These are easy to look past because they're so familiar, but if you spend some time thinking on them and figuring out how they apply to your situation, I think you'll see the advice in a new light. Hopefully you can take something away that's more than adage, something that'll help you in your particular hardest struggle. Best,
posted by carsonb at 10:19 AM on June 8, 2014 [17 favorites]

I take great pleasure in putting on my biggest smile and acting like I couldn't be happier to be helping them, then making snide comments about them to my coworkers under my breath.

Also, if you can blame the rules when people want something you can't do, and then offer to escalate to a manager if they still argue (whether that person is truly a supervisor or just a coworker who is on your side) that often helps.
posted by Night_owl at 10:23 AM on June 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I pretend I'm an actor playing a role, (or actually, a roleplayer playing a character, if you're familiar with D&D etc), and the character I'm playing is just the sweetest, most patient, friendly and nice and helpful lil' ol' retail drone there ever was ever! I just keep 'in character', keep that mask up, and even if the people are ridiculously rude assholes, they're bouncing off that character, not me. Your face may hurt from smiling at the end of the day, and people who know you will know you're faking it, but it will get you through the day by making it a fun challenge to keep in-character, rather than a face-to-face battle with customers.
posted by The otter lady at 10:27 AM on June 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think it might help to remember that if everything was fine, they wouldn't need to be there. You are dealing with some people who are going through the worst thing they've ever been through, whether that's an itch or heart failure or a cost they can barely afford.

People are usually shitty out of anxiety or fear/loss of control, plus you have an increased exposure to people who just don't feel good. There's probably not much you can do to solve the problem (or you are already doing it), but just giving the appearance of listening - make sure you let them finish talking, nod and give a verbal indication that you're following along - can make people feel more empowered and therefore calmer.

Petty grievances are almost always about control. I don't know what the nature of the complaints you hear are and if they are anything you can do anything about, but consider maybe listening for some tiny change you can actually make to make them feel like they've had input - and possibly even actually improve their experience or calm a fear.

To a certain extent, though, you just have to be nice even when they are not, get through the interaction, and move on. If you need to put a happy-face sticker on the inside edge of the counter to remind yourself, do it. It's just not professional to be a shit to customers even when they're a shit to you. I've been in customer service for so long that my automatic response to people being completely awful is a huge accommodating smile and a sort of conciliatory wild-animal-stuck-in-a-vent tone. (This works against me when I am the customer, so I have also learned to take my "holy shit you're terrible" smile over to a manager afterwards if I have to.)
posted by Lyn Never at 10:32 AM on June 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

For elderly people in particular: try to keep in mind that you might be the only person they talk to that day.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:33 AM on June 8, 2014 [21 favorites]

Sometimes, even just the look on their face can lead me to not like them (often time my suspicions are correct which doesn't help anything).

If this isn't a great example of a social self-fulfilling prophecy then I don't know what is. People can tell when you dislike them, or are contemptuous of them, or whatever. They don't respond well to that.

I don't work retail, but I do deal with arrogant, contemptuous people on a regular basis, mostly engineers and other people with a lot of education. I treat every interaction using the following self-deceits:
  • This person likes me.
  • I like this person.
  • If they treat me badly, they must be having a shit day, and I don't know why, so I'll treat them better so I'm the best part of their day.
This strategy almost never fails to produce, if not a pleasant experience, at least a smoother one.
posted by Sternmeyer at 10:33 AM on June 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

When I was working technical support, my mantra was "at the end of the day, when I go to sleep at night, I still get to be me, and you still have to be you." Internally of course.
posted by KathrynT at 10:33 AM on June 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

My job is similar (clinical work), and I sometimes have to manage families who are angry. I think it helps to know that they aren't angry with *me* necessarily, they're angry at the system, they're angry that their child is ill or struggling, they're stressed and they may not know how to navigate resources, and they lash out.

If I can step back from the anxiety of being someone's target and just listen - really listen and let them know I'm listening and that I care, be empathetic to their concerns, and try to help them fix the problem (or even just commiserate), I find most times that the anger will evaporate, and I can continue my day feeling like I did something, even if it was just listen.

Of course, some people are angry at me personally, and then I just pretend I'm a robot.
posted by lilnublet at 10:34 AM on June 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The two tactics I've always used when I've been in customer- or client-facing situations and having to deal with utter asshats:

1) Kill 'em with kindness. Whatever shit they throw at you, smile more and ask them if there's anything else you can do to help.

2) Repeat to yourself inside "This person will be gone in thirty seconds and they will leave no impact on my life."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:40 AM on June 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to work as a pharmacy tech. Customers could be extremely rude. I tried to remember that they were probably not at their best or they would not be seeing me. I also realized that I was the last stop on a day full of suck where they had to wait to get checked in at the doctor, wait in the office for the doctor to see them, wait at the lab to get some type of test, wait for the results and a prescription, wait in line to drop off the prescription, then wait for it to be filled. Sounds fun, right? Top that off with not feeling well, maybe being scared, and possibly having to spend money that they don't have. Viewing customers through that lens helped me be sincerely kind despite their behavior, and usually de-escalated the situation.
posted by shrabster at 10:48 AM on June 8, 2014 [20 favorites]

Try to remember that, rational or not, those petty grievances are not petty to that person. Nothing you say or do is going to convince them that their problem doesn't matter so you should let go of that desire completely. They'll never see it your way. If you want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible and avoid giving them a negative experience (and risk them complaining about you), you need to try to listen sympathetically and objectively and try to figure out what action from you is going to give them some sense of satisfaction. Think of it as a puzzle you can solve, the result being they leave (hopefully satisfied if not happy) and you are done with the interaction. Do not take any anger personally, fight against your desire to feel superior because you're not as crazy or petty as that customer. Kill them with kindness, or at least remain confident and neutral (don't get snarky or defensive). Sometimes the only thing that will satisfy someone is to express their anger at someone (anyone!). No, it's not really fair for them to target you or any customer service person with their misdirected outrage, but if you say and do things which make them feel heard and like someone is acknowledging whatever problem they have, they will cool off much quicker.

I really don't recommend allowing yourself to make snide comments to your coworkers, making fun of customers when they leave, or reveling in a sense of "you're better than them" as coping mechanisms, as a couple other folks have recommended. This is toxic thinking and just sets you up to approach every customer interaction with a negative attitude, making it more likely you and they will end up frustrated. Of course you can recognize how unfortunate it is that some people are just so disagreeable/stubborn/mean or you had a shitty day, and vent your feelings but do it outside of work with the goal of letting it go quickly.
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:59 AM on June 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

You can disarm them by actively empathizing with them - I used this all the time as a server. Someone says the service is too slow? "You're right, the service is really slow today isn't it. I'm so sorry you had to wait - how can I help?"
The key is to not get defensive, passive aggressive, or irritated. Just try to find the truth in what they are saying (no matter how petty there's always a grain of truth) and let them know that you see where they are coming from. This works for even the most argumentative, persistent complainers. People just want to feel heard and validated, and you can find compassion knowing that they live their lives with little things upsetting them so much, and with most people disliking them for it. Just try to get on their side and things usually turn around.
posted by whalebreath at 11:07 AM on June 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

two suggestions...

the look. about five seconds long. not angry, or happy, or smiling or frowning. i know this will be hard to pick up on in a text-based forum like askme, the closest thing i can reach to describe it is if your SO drags you to an art museum, but it's a genre/period of art for which you have no affection or interest, and he/she stands you in front of a painting and asks "what do you think about THIS?" and you look at the painting...

the non-sequiturial question. "so, billy, what do you think about the nfl dropping roman numerals for super bowl 50? wouldn't super bowl L have had a sort of awesome coolness, besides which, we need to teach kids roman numerals somehow, or in one generation, nobody will know how to tell time on an old-fashioned clock?"
posted by bruce at 11:33 AM on June 8, 2014

I'm just going to quote Judith Martin's Miss Manners Rescues Civilization:
In the standard exchange involving a person making a complaint and the person receiving the complaint, usually on behalf of a commercial establishment, there are, Miss Manners has observed, two obligatory roles. One person must say something along the lines of, "This is the most outrageous thing that ever happened. I can't imagine how anyone could be so stupid. I'm going to find out exactly how this came about, and believe me, I'm going to do something about it right away." The other must say, "Look, mistakes happen. This is just not all that important. There's no use getting upset, because these things happen all the time. It's not really anybody's fault."

Now here comes the peculiar part: The person at whom the complaint is directed gets to choose which role he or she wants to play, and the complainer has to take the other. That's right. Although the complainer always starts out making speech #1, the complainee may also make speech #1, in which case the complainer is forced to respond with speech #2.

Miss Manners realizes that this is a difficult concept. It must be, because those who are obliged to receive complaints, either occasionally or as a wearisome way to earn a living, don't seem to have caught on to the possibilities of the switcheroo. It can't be pleasant to have someone screaming at you, but nevertheless, here is the way the standard exchange goes:

Complainer (in a more or less normal voice, with just a small edge to it): "This is an outrage."

Complainee (in a bored tone): "Oh, calm down. It's nobody's fault, it just happens occasionally. It's really too late to do anything about it."

Complainer (shrieking): "You mean it's happened before? Is everyone here an idiot? I've never seen such bungling in all my life. Well, it just so happens that my cousin is a lawyer, and you haven't heard the last of this. There is no excuse for this, none whatsoever."

And so on and so on and on.

Here is the same situation, except that the complainee has decided not to take abuse, and so has preempted that function.

Complainer (same voice): "This is an outrage."

Complainee (with a note of abject desperation): "It certainly is. I can't imagine how this could have happened, but you may be sure I'm going to do something about it. I feel terrible because it must be our fault. I can't apologize to you enough. We pride ourselves on getting things right, and this is intolerable. Please give us another chance. Let me see what I can do to make it up to you."

Complainer (grudgingly at first, but warming up to subject to counter threat of Complainee continuing in the same vein): "Oh, that's okay. We all make mistakes."

What makes the switch work is the impossibility of two people keeping up an argument in which both are carrying on from the same point of view. Miss Manners is astonished that so few people avail themselves of this simple technique to neutralize what is otherwise a nasty exchange, sometimes even with later consequences. Perhaps they are aware that they will never hear from the lawyer-cousin, who is used to hearing highly unreliable accounts of so-called outrages, and doubtless fed up with being asked to do petty tasks for free.
posted by cirocco at 11:36 AM on June 8, 2014 [65 favorites]

I do customer service stuff too and second all of the comments made here so far!

For me I think the key to these sort of interactions is being cool, calm and constructive which seems to work for a lot of these sorts of scenarios.

It sounds pretentious but I definately adopt a persona in dealing with customers, calm, professional, unflappable, even if I'm tired, grumpy or aggravated my tone of voice and mode of expression never lets this show.

Keeping the interaction focused on the job in hand, is also really important and I agree that how can I help you? is the key question to ask and to respond to, summarize and reflect back to the customer and let them feel that they've had a chance to express the problem, you've listened and responded with an appropriate action.

Nine times out of ten this works perfectly, but for those that are more difficult I'm upfront about telling them what I can do and offering this, or escalating this when I can't without any further ado with a clear conscience, and always being prepared to end a discussion if the other party is in any way abusive.

I think the thing to remember is that you can't please everyone, and some people are awful, but that this isn't anything to do with me, or my problem, and I absolve myself of any feelings of self criticism knowing I did my best to help, and that "god loves them so I don't have to." Which helps a lot in certain situations!
posted by Middlemarch at 11:44 AM on June 8, 2014

In a lot of jobs, I've ended up being the person who deals with everyone's rude customers (or pretends to be the manager, or for a couple years was actually the manager). This is partially because I actually like working with people and solving their problems, and partially because I was good at defusing bad situations.

1. Miss Manners's advice is SPOT-ON. If someone is furious with their insurance or illness or doctor, be furious with them. Sympathize. "You're right, that's really awful. How can I make this better for you?/Let me see how I can make this better for you." Then, you know, do what you can to make it better for them.

2. Smile as a default. My first job was at a toy store where this was drilled into us, and it's stuck. When I'm in a customer-facing job, my default facial expression is a smile (in contrast to my usual grimace). This puts me in the right mindset for dealing with people, whatever their mood.

3. Remember that when you are nasty to people - even if they were nasty first - it only makes your day, job, and life a little bit harder. Being nice costs nothing. A lot of people are miserable all the time, and you might be the only person who is nice to them that day. (A library patron said that to me once, and it broke my heart and re-committed me to good customer service.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 12:07 PM on June 8, 2014

I love lots of them but at least once a week I have to deal with some of the most petty grievances.

Maybe re-framing this as, "I'm so glad I only have to deal with this once a week. I don't know how Sys Admins (or whatever ) do it!" would help.

Some of them seem like they are looking to get into an argument not matter what I say or do for them.

In addition to the other excellent comments above, keep in mind that some of the elderly people may have reduced capacity and may not really know what they are arguing about, either. The "What can I do to help or fix things?" advice is great for this situation.

I tell my tech everyday that I would kill myself if I was ever that petty.

I'm not sure if you're being serious? Venting* with your co-workers is an important release valve and can even be a bonding experience, but it's also extremely draining to have a co-worker who is constantly complaining, especially in such a dramatic way.

You don't say where the complaints are coming from, but be aware they may not be exclusively form your customers.

*Not to be confused with dahliachewswell's excellent advice against making snide or personal comments about your customers.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:43 PM on June 8, 2014

The one point I forgot: it is no skin off your back to be sorry about something, even if it's not your fault and you can't fix it. Nobody's going to take points off your license or wait you make an extra 10 minutes to get into heaven just because you said you were sorry that someone's insurance company is dumber than a box of bags.

Being sorry is one of the great lost arts of customer service, I think. Those people who have the really petty complaints, just agree and say you're sorry things are that way. If you make a little effort, you'll find it possible to even mean it but that's not a requirement. Just be sorry that it makes them unhappy. And when they're unhappy about a thing that's the law or for their safety, don't launch into a long explanation (or sympathy for another offender) unless they're actually asking for one, just say something like, "that's a safety requirement now, but I know it makes everything that much harder, I'm sorry."

And if it is your fault, put your ego aside and be sorry you screwed up. The customer is not interested in your feelings being hurt because you got called on a mistake. Own it, feel bad about it, get it fixed.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:45 PM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the end, you cannot take it personally if a person is dumping on you; they are a stranger and who are they to say or mean anything to you? So just remember that this person's nasty attitude has nothing to do with who you are. THEY are in a bad mood.

Maybe leave a little picture by the cash register of someone smiling or a statue of Buddha looking serene. Just as a reminder to stay with that mindset.

If you are interested in spirituality or growing to your higher self at all, then you can come to embrace these kinds of experiences by thinking things like:
- what button is this person pressing in me that is causing me to react?
- how can I engage my higher self at this moment and inject love into this situation?
- how can I transform this person's negative mind into a positive one, and bring out their higher self?

Old age is the point in life where people have either made piece with how their whole life played out, or they are bitter and full of resentment. So just remember that. They're staring death in the face, maybe in chronic pain, feeling obsolete or whatever, and dammit they've put up with shit their whole life, now they're gonna get what they want while they're still able to. Unfortunately some of them deal with it by turning into jerks. Maybe a little dementia has set in too. It doesn't make it right, but it may help you develop some patience.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:57 PM on June 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

As long as you consider yourself "stuck working retail", this will never get better.

Great customer service boils down to being genuine and real, from the get-go. Customers are people. People are customers. In my 15+ years managing in retail and service roles, I've found that most people who have trouble with what you're describing are way overthinking the exchange.
posted by marmago at 1:19 PM on June 8, 2014

It might help you to practice the narrative art in your head in order to foster compassion.

Everyone behaves the way they do for a reason that seems completely justified to them. So what's the problem customer's reason, do you think? Are they dying, or do they think they are? Can't pay the mortgage? Tough fight with the spouse? Has the spouse died and they're alone? Maybe their children won't call them anymore, or are in jail, or are abusive. Maybe they're in deep chronic pain and can hardly keep it together to drive to the store, and this interaction is the one last little thing they couldn't soldier through today. (You know about Spoon Theory, right?) There could be any of a hundred, a thousand stories of suffering and despair that make the customer's temper or sourness seem only natural.

So tell yourself the story of why a person might behave the way they do, and even if you're not on target as to the underlying reason, you've persuaded yourself that there is a reason beyond They Are An Asshole Here To Make Your Life Harder. And that will, in turn, affect how you behave as well.
posted by Andrhia at 1:37 PM on June 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Playing this song in my head has helped me so many times.

Also remembering that at leas I'm not married to this person. I don't have to roll over every morning and think "what has my life become?".
posted by Solomon at 3:05 PM on June 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, this.
posted by Solomon at 3:16 PM on June 8, 2014

Cut your loan payments down to the minimum until you have more savings. Loans are low interest and you can't borrow that money back if you need it. You'll be much less anxious with 9-12 months expenses in savings.
posted by MattD at 5:07 PM on June 8, 2014

Sometimes there's a real problem that's easy to solve, and if you fix it, that's good for you, the customer, and the business. Respect and well-being all around.
posted by Baeria at 5:25 PM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you find that a lot of customers are complaining about things beyond your direct control, learn to spell out customers' options. Then ask them which option they'd like to choose in moving forward. For example:

You: That'll be $124.92 for the prescription beginning with CE, sir.
Disgruntled Customer: What do you mean, $124.92?! I've never paid that much before!
You: Have you recently changed your insur-
Disgruntled Customer: That doesn't matter! This is ridiculous *angry ranting*
You: I can imagine this is quite a shock, I'm sorry! But at this particular moment, you can either pay the $124.92 for the prescription and follow up with your insurance company, or wait until you've called the insurance company so that, if necessary, we can adjust the price according to your policy. Which would you like to do?

During their outrage, I might ask them to wait a minute, and then go check additional information on their transaction. It doesn't matter if I already know what the problem is - it buys me at least 20 seconds to chill out and clear my head, so that my tone is completely calm and professional when I return. If you have trouble composing yourself in the blink of an eye, this will help tremendously.

Your customers may not always leave happy, but they'll have an action plan that is entirely of their making. At the least, this cuts down on the number of corporate-reported confrontations you encounter. Everyone else has better advice about how to handle customers who are just nasty for the hell of it.

Source: I am a manager in a retail pharmaceutical store.
posted by Ashen at 5:29 PM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found this book to be useful: When I say No, I Feel Guilty
posted by astapasta24 at 6:16 PM on June 8, 2014

I loved my grandmother very much, but holy cow could she work a person's nerves. She could be judgmental, impatient, surly. Worse, she was extremely hard of hearing and would often make comments she thought no one else could hear. Mostly she was just generally cranky about getting old.

She was especially like that in situations just like yours where it was important to understand what was happening but she couldn't hear, or she just wasn't getting what the person was saying.

In the 15 years I worked in retail, when I dealt with irritable, surly, or just unpleasant customers - especially the elderly as you point out - I would think about how this person is someone's grandmother, and they should be treated as I hoped people treated my grandmother when I wasn't with her.

That might sound hokey, and I'm not usually that way, but that seriously helped me though many a season in retail.
posted by lyssabee at 6:29 PM on June 8, 2014

Know that you are not the first or the only pharmacist with this problem. However, from a business (i.e. your employer's) perspective it is a problem. The most likely reason for a patient to have a poor opinion of an organization is because of a poor interpersonal experience. So my suggestion to you, in addition to all the good advice above, is make this your employer's problem, not just yours. Ask them if they would pay for training on how you and your techs can improve the "patient experience". There are systems out there for learning how to deal with difficult patients, especially with some of the new regulations related to the ACA which link Medicare reimbursements to patient satisfaction ratings. Many hospitals in California use the Beryl Institute's programs. You might also see if you could seek out a "patient experience" representative from your local hospital or large healthcare provider and see if they'd be willing to give you training on what their system is.
posted by sarahnade at 7:15 PM on June 8, 2014

When I was working technical support, my mantra was "at the end of the day, when I go to sleep at night, I still get to be me, and you still have to be you." Internally of course.

Exactly. I'd always remind myself that any assholes I dealt with would have to live with themselves for the rest of their lives. It's not as sympathetic to their needs as some of the other suggestions here, but it worked for me and god damn if doesn't make you feel great!
posted by Chutzler at 8:37 PM on June 8, 2014

If you're working at a retail pharmacy, do they have any customer service training you can take (in-person or online)? I manage a large team that does a lot of customer-facing work. At first I was skeptical of formal customer service training, but I've found it really does help anyone who is struggling.

I think many people are answering this from a personal "How to Deal with Difficult People" angle. However, there is a whole separate art and skill to dealing with tricky customers (versus tricky aunt or uncles or neighbors). As sarahnade notes, I would approach your employer on this--or at least look for resources on your own that are designed for people in formal public-facing customer service roles.

I've found that when you are dealing with the public for hours and hours a day, trying to simply will a change in perspetive will not always cut it. Instead, there are clear methods and techniques to defusing tense situations (such as active listening, mirroring, etc.). Developing these type of concerete skills may be where you want to focus your efforts.
posted by whitewall at 11:24 PM on June 8, 2014

Ciroccos's comment is a sheer GENIUS hack for defusing an argument. Seriously one of the green's best. On some level, I've always known this tactic worked but I've never seen it laid out so simply. Favourited and cut and pasted elsewhere for future reference. Again, genius. Oh, the tensions I could have resolved had I known this sooner...
posted by Jubey at 4:15 AM on June 9, 2014

I've had a few complaints reported to my boss but nothing has ever come of it. Every time it does happen I seem to go into this anxiety spiral

It's possible that the problem is purely situational rather than due to your particular failings. Have your colleagues had similar complaints? Would you feel comfortable asking them?

If you ask, and they all have, then you can stop worrying about being fired.

If you ask, and some or all of them haven't, then you might ask their advice. Especially if they've seen you in action: they may have better-targeted advice than us strangers on the Internet.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:48 AM on June 9, 2014

My biggest problem is dealing with nasty people. I have this almost like reflexive instinct to treat them as they are treating me. Sometimes, even just the look on their face can lead me to not like them (often time my suspicions are correct which doesn't help anything).

If this isn't a great example of a social self-fulfilling prophecy then I don't know what is. People can tell when you dislike them, or are contemptuous of them, or whatever. They don't respond well to that.

Seconded. It looks the same way from the opposite side of the counter.

There are some pharmacists who I think of as kindly. Maybe they've done something like run discount cards to see if they can get me a better price, or maybe they just treat me like we're both human, e.g. chat about the weather. This feeling heightens my urge to do what I can to be nice to them. At times when they're short-staffed I'll give them a much later pick-up time if my order isn't super-urgent, or avoid making non-prescription purchases at their register, or just try to be as pleasant as possible.

In other cases, we've started out on the wrong foot, to the point where I've considered making a complaint. One pharmacist seemed to dislike me on sight -- I figured maybe she had a problem with my prescription being for psychiatric meds. She then said she needed my drivers' license -- by state law, ID was required for that prescription, which I hadn't realized because the other pharmacists already knew me and so they were allowed to waive that requirement. I didn't have my drivers' license with me, and didn't want to go home and get it because (a) there was a heat wave and I was on my bike, and (b) since it wasn't in my wallet, I figured maybe I'd lost it (so I was having a crap day). I looked up the law on my smartphone and found that it says state-issued ID, which I technically had; but when I showed her the text of the law, she kept saying she had been trained to only accept a driver's license. I tried to be nice but was also quite indignant, and I'm sure she thought I was a cranky customer from hell.

Anyway, I figured we'd have lousy interactions for the rest of time, but she did the killing-with-kindness routine, and I warily tried to reciprocate somewhat, and now our interactions run smooth.

This story isn't particularly flattering to me, but maybe it can be helpful to you. Interactions are stressful and resentment-laden for you because you're afraid of losing your employment. Interactions are stressful and resentment-laden for your customers, as others have pointed out above, because you're the one who enforces rules that can have drastic consequences for our budget, our ability to think clearly, etc. We're both enmeshed in scary systems of power, and so it's hard for us to trust each other to behave decently. Think of offering niceness not as a form of appeasement, but rather as a negotiation towards building trust.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:00 AM on June 9, 2014

First an anecdote:

I was on Fen-Phen back in the day. My Rx ran out, and I decided to transfer the prescription closer to my house. So I did. Then I was told they were out of the drug and I would have to wait a day. Then I went back in to get it, and was told that they didn't have it. I asked why, and I was told, "you already filled it yesterday." I said, "No, I transferred it yesterday, I haven't had it filled since last month." Pharmacist (nastily), "It's a scheduled drug, you need to get help." Then my brain popped out of my head and did a dance. I wrote a 3 page letter of how 6 things happened to contribute to the problem, and how, at every turn, an employee made the exact WRONG decision and caused me a pretty major problem.


1. I went off of speed, this is never pretty.

2. The pharmacy made a mistake.

3. The pharmacist was rude to me.

Was I kind of a jerk after that? You bet. Should it ever have gotten to that point? No. Should the pharmacist have insinuated that I was an addict, rather than find out what the breakdown was? Hell NO!

Part of being a health care professional is learning how to deal with people. If you don't know how to do this, you need training. I'm sure that there must be a workshop or class offered through your professional affiliations, or your store's headquarters.

I worked in Customer Service at BellSouth/AT&T. You want to talk about assholes? But you know what, I didn't have to befriend them, I had to help them and send them on their way. That's it, that's all.

I figure you have a choice in life, you can decide to meet people where they are and either you can be shitty like they are, or you can be the bright spot in their day. I choose the latter. What I've found is that even if the customer or person I'm dealing with isn't nice, even after I am, that I still feel better about the transaction and my job, and life in general.

Adopt the attitude that you're going to be as helpful as possible, even if people are grouchy, or in pain, or scared, or annoyed, or just bored and looking for a fight. At the end of the day, YOU'LL feel better about things, and who knows, some of that may have rubbed off on your customers.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:09 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worked at various call centers for my company for years. There were two books that were the call centers go-to Bibles for training the phone reps on how to deal with what are euphemistically called "escalated customers":

* George R. Walther's Power Talking
* Suzette Haden Elgin's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.

Track down those books and read them. They will change your (retail) life.

Important concepts I learned in my training:

* David versus Goliath - customers automatically view themselves as the persecuted Little Guy and the company (by way of you, the company's representative) as the Big Guy with all the ability to blow off their concerns. Part of your job is overcoming that perception by establishing empathy with the customer.

* Parent/Adult/Child - Don't mentally cast yourself as the Parent and the customer as the Child--you'll wind up talking down to the customer, which will drive them crazy. And don't cast yourself as the Child, either (feeling bossed around, digging in stubbornly for no good reason, etc.). Strive to have an Adult-to-Adult connection with the customer, so you can both get a resolution that will make you both happy. If you act like an Adult from the get-go, and treat the customer like an adult, eventually the customer will start acting like an Adult, too.

* Active Listening - a communication technique (used in counselling, training and conflict resolution) which requires the listener re-stating or paraphrasing in his own words what he's heard the speaker say. This confirms to the speaker that the speaker's being listened to and understood. You use eye contact, appropriate body language, and vocal intonations; you give the speaker your undivided attention; you avoid trigger words and conversational narcissism. Most importantly, you actually listen to what the person has to say--you won't interrupt, you don't anticipate what you think they're going to say, you won't get defensive, you wait for the speaker to pause before ask clarifying questions, you probe for further information, and you validate their feelings (even if you can't give them what they want).

* Active listening can help you figure out what customers really want, versus what they say they want.

There's lots of other good stuff in those books that I can't remember off the top of my head. I do recommend checking them out.

Being sorry is one of the great lost arts of customer service, I think. Those people who have the really petty complaints, just agree and say you're sorry things are that way...Just be sorry that it makes them unhappy. And when they're unhappy about a thing that's the law or for their safety, don't launch into a long explanation (or sympathy for another offender) unless they're actually asking for one, just say something like, "that's a safety requirement now, but I know it makes everything that much harder, I'm sorry."

posted by Lyn Never at 3:45 PM on June 8

Lyn Never has it exactly right.

About eight years ago, I used to work alongside a guy who was a great salesman, but who adamantly refused to apologize when something got screwed up. The way my co-worker saw it, if it wasn't his fault, he wasn't going to apologize. Why should he apologize if he's not the one that messed up?

The problem--which I could never get him to understand--is that for his customers, my co-worker was the only contact that they ever had with anyone our company. He was the face of our company to his customers. If he wouldn't apologize when something went wrong, then as far as our customers were concerned, the company wouldn't apologize. My co-worker didn't have to pretend it was his fault. He could've just as easily said "X happened due to a missed shipment at the factor. I'd like to apologize on behalf of MegaCorp for all the trouble this has caused you."

I, on the other hand, said that sort of thing when the situation was warranted, and it did wonders for goodwill. Don't underestimate the power of "I'm sorry".
posted by magstheaxe at 3:40 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Emulate Stephen Fry in this clip. When faced with what appears to be an unreasonable customer/request/situation, counter with respect, unflappability, firmness, and the honest intent to work towards the best resolution possible in the situation.
posted by Iridic at 10:31 AM on June 10, 2014

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