The Customer is Always Right?

I  don’t believe this adage holds true in this day and time. More and more retailers are responding to obnoxious customers with being obnoxious in return. That’s if you can find some one working the floor in a Walmart or other giant warehouse type place.  As  a bookseller in an independent store, how does one keep their cool with difficult or downright horrible potential customers? I’m not sure that they do–I know in my experience, few of my  fellow workers had the patience or tolerance for the more demanding and/or tricky customers. And, I’m not exactly saying they were wrong to become testy, or give up and walk away. Some customers could try the patience of Job.

An extremely picky hypermodern book collector would sometimes take hours to choose what she wanted, and she expected to be waited on hand and foot, as it were. At the bookstore where I worked upstairs as manager whose job description included dealing with special customers, this was not an issue. Most of the time I could accommodate her questions, preferences, and final picks, which usually turned out to be quite a nice sum. I tended to be the *only* one who could take the lengthy process, however. The few co-workers who tried to withstand the monosyllables uttered in a small barely audible voice, soon found themselves begging off to some other task after the first five books were brought out and turned aside by this persnickety person. But even I could have my limits, and would bury myself in paperwork if I had tired of the pulling of teeth process. And once titles were decided upon, then came the choosing of which book in the stack was the best one–no bumped corners, or  turned pages. No wrinkled or scuffed dust jackets, or heaven forbid, split or slightly torn ones. Ok, condition is absolutely imperative, but some were sent back for barely recognized flaws. Until we had narrowed it down to 3 or 4, and then I was able to wrest the decision away and make it for her.

When I moved on to another store, some customers followed, similar to how customers of hair dressers would follow their favorite shampooer or clipper. This pristine picker was one. But at this store, my time was limited, and I could only spend a certain amount of  time recommending and going through stacks, so I tried to pick out the most pristine copy  ahead of her arrivals, to save many difficult moments.

We were fairly well known to one another by this time, and the customer had been a guest at one of my husband and my Halloween parties. Things seemed swell. I had asked her for a favor  when Tim Burton was signing his book of verse. I couldn’t make it to where he was to be, and she went and got a signed copy for me, for which I wasn’t grateful enough, in retrospect. I had dearly wanted an inscription, but her timid manner and demeanor didn’t allow her to make such a demand on Mr. Burton, and so the book was only signed. I *was* happy to get it, just not as thrilled if I’d had an inscription to me. I believe this mild reaction of mine, and another episode ended our customer/bookseller and any other relationship in one fell swoop!

Sometimes in my enthusiasm for a particular thing, I will be effusive and appalled in equal measures, basically over the top when discussing a favorite actor,  book or film. I was chatting with the customer one time about a favorite TV show of mine, The Avengers, when she admitted she’d never heard of it or seen it. I responded with passion, “you’ve never seen the Avengers??” thinking nothing of it, other than ‘oh wow, what fun she’ll have watching them all for the first time’. Well, she arrived another day and all of a sudden blasted me for treating her so badly about not having seen the show–saying it was an awful thing to do and say, that I denigrated her and she went on and on–the longest, loudest, and most vehement I’d ever seen her. I was nonplussed. I was just being myself with what I thought was a friend about a typical topic, but for some reason my manner of speaking had upset her. So much so, I never saw her again, even after effusive apologies on my part!

All those years of handling her with such delicacy, patiently waiting upon her wants, taking time to help, came down to my having upset her over a TV show! It was nonsensical, but then so is retail sales.

Another customer was a gigantic, unmitigated, unrestrained pest with a capital P. In the cushy behind the desk on the phone job, I was encouraged to discuss with customers the out of print, rarer titles, and to scan the walls, pull out titles, look for everything on someone’s list. The lady customer called on a regular basis, asking about long out of print titles by sudden favorites of hers–Caroline Wells–among others. I would talk to her endlessly, unless other duties, shipments, customers, phone calls intervened. And sometimes, even if another call came in, or a customer, she would wait on the line to chat more and choose a title we had in stock, only to decide later that she didn’t want the title, and to go on and on about the author and plot points of other books. And she wanted to have books held for her, for long periods of time, it may turn out. The owner couldn’t bear to deal with her at this point, and shoved her off on me, and I thought I held out magnificently, learning sometimes before she even asked, which title that recently came in would be to her liking. The thing was, she rarely actually bought much. A few things, yes, but not nearly enough to justify the amount of time spent on her and in finally realizing this, I began cutting her off, closing her down as much as possible.

At the new job she also followed, having a bee in her bonnet about my former boss, but at this store there weren’t nearly as many out of print titles for her to ponder until the owners purchased a valuable collection of first editions. She went from mild to mid pain in the butt, to an absolute nightmare, calling up multiple times a day, demanding certain books be held, changing her list, demanding again, until I almost starting screaming. Well,  I did yell quite a bit  in my head. Real book collectors and dealers wanted a crack at the rare titles, and she was simply muddying up the entire situation with demand after demand. I stopped listening, taking her calls. I needed to make sales on these books to recoup the cost and gain a profit the owners wanted, and she wasn’t helping. Eventually all the titles she see-sawed over were sold to others. And she wasn’t fazed! To this day I’m never sure if she really intended to buy anything, or just gave me a wish list that created havoc, if only with me.

Years later, she had some how taken over a little book-dealer’s operation, rewriting his catalogs, charging more money for his books, until as far as I know, he no longer sold to the public himself, which was a great shame. He was eccentric, his catalogs convoluted, but his honesty and prices couldn’t be beat and many a collector and reader were grateful for his hard work as a bookseller.

Is the customer always right? I’ll leave the question with you, but I know my answer!

4 thoughts on “The Customer is Always Right?”

  1. There are lookers, browsers, time-wasters and customers. Customers are the ones who buy books. They can take all the time they want and browse to their heart’s content in my bookstore. The ones who waste my time and leave empty-handed, time after time, are not customers at all.

  2. There were similar happenings in the small printing shop where I worked for years. Some ‘customers’ would come in, pick our brains on designs or methods of printing and take what they learned to a shop across town to have them run the job.

    – On occasion the time spent would pay off. –

    I remember one person that had bought a printing shop and he had very little knowledge of the business. He would come in for instructions on how he should produce something in his shop. We taught him quite a bit and because we were a trade shop (did work for other printers) as well as retail it ended up he became one of our best customers.

    Fortunately he was the type of person that you need only tell him something once and he got it. He knew how to listen. What would drive me crazy is the people that needed everything explained 5 different ways. Those, I think, are the real time wasters. I remember telling one person, “How many ways can I say. ‘No’, before you understand it?”

  3. No, the customer is not always right. The customer is often a moron and a jerk. If you are spending too much time on people who spend very little money you are not, in my opinion, conducting your business with good sense. There are customers who are extremely pleasant to deal with and who also spend a lot of money. Those are the people who deserve more of your time. I wish I was a good writer and could word this better, but basically what I am saying is that you should spend more time on people who buy more and less time on people who buy very little or nothing.

    I own a used bookstore, and I will not let anyone get by with being rude or insulting. I didn’t know better when I first started, so I was nice and accomadating to everyone, but soon discovered that it was not profitable to do that. It was also stressful. I have had to tell people to leave and not come back and it has not hurt one bit, because those are the people who are worthless in the first place.

    • I agree that wasting time on a nonproductive customer is a bad idea. However, I didn’t waste time on those, unless it couldn’t be avoided, such as the woman whom kept calling–my boss made it clear every customer as such needed to be dealt with in a manner assuming they would purchase. My situation was different than most used or new bookstores–I was selling a very specific genre and to a very special customer. And no customer was given the short scrift because some other demanding customer also had my ear. Both types were always catered to. That was my job.
      If in a regular bookstore that would never be the case, I would drop an annoying and obvious non buyer immediately to take care of one that wasn’t a jerk.

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