ARGUMENT

Robert Thomas Allen says it’s high time humiliated, downtrodden customers took those faceless, unpleasant sales clerks to task

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 3 1966

ARGUMENT

Robert Thomas Allen says it’s high time humiliated, downtrodden customers took those faceless, unpleasant sales clerks to task

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 3 1966

ARGUMENT

Robert Thomas Allen says it’s high time humiliated, downtrodden customers took those faceless, unpleasant sales clerks to task

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

FOR ALMOST A generation now decent people have been pushed around by a breed of employee who regards the public as a faceless, homogeneous, rather unpleasant substance that keeps interrupting his other activities. This type of clerk came in with the war, when everything was in short supply, including people, and he hasn’t left yet. I think it’s time he did. Either he should start acting as if he wanted his job, doing it cheerfully, courteously and with fitting deference to the customer who supports him, or he should get another job. If he doesn’t do either he should be reported, hauled up on the carpet and fired.

In the past months, I’ve had a butcher refuse to tie a roast because, as he said, “they’re hard to tie,” a doctor’s answering service in North Toronto tell me she had no idea when I could get a doctor; and a guy in a garage tell me he had no idea where my car was when I called to pick it up. “How would I know where your car is?” he kept shouting at me, in some sort of rage at being pestered by the public.

A clerk in one Toronto department store almost refused to talk to me because he had his hat and coat on 10 minutes before closing time, waiting for the bell to ring. All I wanted to do was spend $800 on a bedroom suite. (This was a grown man, presumably with a wife and family to support.) I was told to walk around a counter to find something for myself by a saleswoman in a rival store. She was just standing there staring into space.

A man from a furniture store who had finally come up to inspect an expensive dining-room table on which the veneer was buckling, turned to me in surprise, said: “It is buckling. Frankly, I thought you were crazy.” Then he gave me a big smile to indicate that even he could be wrong about customers. I waited 25 minutes at Toronto’s new city hall to get a deed brought up to date, because the only man who could sign it was having his afternoon coffee. (Incidentally, these guys are currently threatening to strike. I don’t know what for, unless they don’t like the coffee.) Last week a store’s typewriter salesman, when I asked him if he had anything better than one-dollar ribbon, took a deep breath to steady his nerves, said, “No SIR! That’s all we’ve got,” gave me a dirty look as if I were trying to spoil his day, and waited for me to go away.

I’ve just about had it with being made to feel that I’m asking for a favor when I try to buy something. I don’t think these people are any better than I am just because I’m a customer. I think a lot of them aren’t as good or don’t work as hard. I’m sure they are ruining public relations, undermining fine old firms, eliminating all pleasure from shopping and affecting the business world like bad apples. There’s an increasing tendency these days to treat the customer as a second-class citizen whom it’s profitable to feed, clothe and shelter as long as he shuts up and doesn’t have any opinions about what he’s getting.

A girl I work with is still trying to get back the illusion of being a useful member of society after a night in a hotel in Montreal. They kept refusing to let her sit where she wanted to in the coffee shop, in a lighted booth where she could read. She tried three times, and each time she was told why she couldn’t sit where she wanted at the time she wanted to sit there. Instead, she had to sit at a dark table where she couldn’t read. The last time she was blocked at the door by an employee who said the place was closed for the night — 15 minutes before the advertised closing time. She left, feeling everybody hated her for coming to spend her money. And on the way home an Air Canada stewardess spilled lemonade on her and refused to get her a wet cloth until she had served the rest of the passengers, apparently figuring people should be satisfied with tea, coffee, milk and wings.

The ideal of the satisfied customer has been replaced by a new ideal of the “satisfactory customer,” one who does as he’s told, causes as little trouble as possible and doesn’t offend the clerk. Last fall I bought a $4,000 car which hadn’t been properly preserviced. I took it back to the dealer, taking at least two hours from my work and worrying about whether I could meet the payments, and found the service manager, whom I had phoned, talking to the driver of the Jiffy Lunch wagon. When I let him know I was there, he asked me if I couldn’t wait five minutes until he finished having a chat, and I’ve been trying to think of clever comebacks ever since, sometimes in the middle of the night.

I haven’t come up with anything just right yet, but I know one thing. We may have lost sight of that quaint old expression “the customer is always right,” but the next time I come into a store, garage or any other place with my wallet in my hand ready to part with some money, and some guy1 gives me that look that means the customer is always wrong, or “Oh, God, here comes another nuisance,” he better believe it, because he’s going to tangle with the biggest damned nuisance and wrong customer he ever struck in his life.