Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Customer is Not Always Right - A Poop Story

While updating my resume earlier this week, I realized that I've worked in Customer Service for a long, long time. If we're being honest, probably long enough to actually shave a few years off of my life.

I've learned a lot about working with younger people, managerial types, what it's like to work the floor during the various busy seasons of the year.  But most importantly, I learned a lot about customers.

The phrase "The Customer is Always Right" can be traced back to Harry Gordon Selfridge of Selfridge's Department Store in London. You may be more familiar with the story of Selfridges because of the popular PBS Masterpiece show starring Jeremy Piven. Harry Selfridge might have been a pioneer of retail in London, and eventually maybe even the world, but he was wrong. The customer is NOT always right and I've worked in retail long enough to see many examples of this.

Sometimes people are just wrong.

While working the Service Desk at a former employer, I once had a customer call the store number to ask for help. She was in our bathroom, but wouldn't specify what the problem was. I called my manager who sent me in there because "you're better at dealing with things like this".

When I walked into the bathroom, I found the woman in the bathroom stall.  She'd had a terrible accident and needed some help getting suitable to get out of the store.  I tried to be as kind and compassionate as possible. She was clearly humiliated. She asked me to get some bags we could put her soiled clothing in.  She wanted me to find some underwear and a pair of shorts like the soiled garments she'd handed me to bag up for her.

How do you choose underwear for a stranger?  She'd told me only her size, not her panty cut preferences. I was on my own.  I chose something I thought was reasonable. When I brought them to her, she asked me for something different. I found shorts similar to what she had on, but we didn't have anything that were a perfect match.  I pulled the tags off and explained she could pay at the desk. She walked out the door with her soiled clothing. After five minutes, I was afraid she would not come back in to pay. After ten, I checked to see if she was in the parking lot. When she came back in, I rang her up and she left the store.

We had been having problems with our bathroom at the store.  The first time, a customer approached a cashier and said our bathroom needed immediate attention. The cashier who was one of the youngest on staff informed their manager. The bathroom was shut down to the public immediately.  There are no gentle words to describe what we found in there. It was as if someone had bent over and exploded. We cleaned it that day in complete awe. We assumed someone must have had a serious and unfortunate emergency problem. We thought it would be a one-time experience.

We were wrong.

The mess would continue to happen on a monthly basis. Month after month someone would end up in the bathroom for two or three hours. We didn't have janitorial staff, so a cashier would have to leave their register for hours to deal with the mess. Dealing with the mess meant cleaning feces off of the top and bottom of the toilet, the wall behind it, the stall partitions and the floor. The mess usually was not contained to a single stall.  The entire bathroom would be shut down to clean the adjacent stalls from the splattered stool.  The first few times it happened we got everything cleaned up only to have another customer complain about a smell in the bathroom. We didn't realize that whoever was doing this was also leaving their soiled underwear in the sanitary napkin disposal.

Management had no interest in trying to find out who was doing this. It might have been weird to stake out the bathroom to figure it out, but it was happening on the same discount day every month. They could have figured it out pretty easily. Instead, month after month they asked an employee making ten cents above minimum wage to spend hours on their hands and knees cleaning up feces.

This went on for months. I didn't realize until later that the woman I had tried to treat with so much dignity was the person whose shit I'd been wiping up. I'd spent hours breathing in her brand of methane gas. When she'd handed me her panties in the bag from the sanitary napkin disposal, I thought she was just using what was available to her. Looking back, she'd stuck her panties in there many times before.

I've told this story a few times. Most people react with horror and disgust. My mother has always chided me about it. She doesn't believe I'm being very compassionate about the situation. She thinks my irritation at the situation was an overreaction. She may be right, but she also didn't have to process the return.

The corporation I worked for had three locations in our city. The location on the opposite end of town was having staffing problems and had called to request help. I was managing the front desk when I heard someone come up behind me. I turned around and was face to face with the woman I had taken a bag of soiled panties from only days before.

She put a bag on the counter, handed me a receipt and said she would like to return these shorts. She didn't make eye contact because she was busy looking at her phone. I looked at her. I looked at the receipt. She had kept the tags. The shorts were not visibly stained, and they had not been washed.

Anyone who has ever wiped their ass with the cheap toilet paper they put in retail store bathrooms knows it's practically useless. That woman didn't have any water in there. I used gloves to bag her soiled shorts because they couldn't be rolled up enough to contain the mess. There is nothing she could have done to have cleaned herself up enough that those shorts weren't in some way in direct contact with her excrement.

I realized this, so I was not touching the shorts after checking to see if they'd been washed. I had no reason to refuse the return other that I knew that I had personally sold her the shorts three days before. Management would not have stood behind me if I refused to return the item. Personal knowledge that an item had been exposed to bodily waste wasn't technically against the company return policy. There was no justification not to give her the money back. So I processed the return.

The woman was completely engrossed in whatever she was doing until I handed her the receipt. It was the only time she looked up and made eye contact. I don't think I could hide the smirk at that point. The look on her face was priceless. She left the store immediately.

I stopped working the days she was known for coming in and destroying our bathrooms. I left the company not long after.

People have tried to justify her behavior after hearing the story. Maybe she had some kind of medical problem. Maybe she couldn't afford the shorts I'd sold her. I'm always willing to consider the excusable reason someone is trying to offer. At the end of the day, it's pretty hard for me to see where this customer was right.


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