Is the Customer Right Even if He’s a Tool?


Maybe you’ve heard this one: Ski resort patron approaches lift ticket kiosk on Powder Day of the Century and demands a refund for his/her lift ticket, citing “too much snow.”

Or the guy who wants to return a 20-year-old headlamp to a store because it has a “lifetime warranty,” which he assumes means his lifetime, not the lifetime of the product. Or someone who managed to break a Nalgene water bottle and wants a new one. Or drove into their garage with their bike on top of their car and can’t believe it broke on impact.

Customer service, in all environments, is rife with great stories. I have a gold mine of material from a few years from working in retail and as a bartender and waiter. I’m sure if you’ve spent any time working in either foodservice or retail, you have similar stories of conversations like:

“A bear ripped my tent. I want a refund.”
“I need a pair of hiking boots with accents to match my day pack.”
“My steak was terrible.” “Sir, you ate the entire thing.”
“I can’t get water to come out of the hose on my Camelbak.” “When you bite it, nothing comes out?” “Oh no, I don’t want to bite it — I don’t want to ruin it.” “Well, it’s called a ‘bite valve.’”

My father, who has worked in management at a grocery store for nearly 40 years, had a customer confront him one day, complaining that a competing store 40 miles away had better prices on bread — almost 20 cents cheaper, she said. My dad said,

Well, enjoy your trip.

Then she started laughing.

In 2004 and 2005, I worked in a big outdoor store in Arizona. One Saturday near the end of my tenure there, a man came in to shop in our climbing gear section.

“So,” he said to me, “I just bought a penthouse in Manhattan, and I need a rope for rappelling in case there’s a fire in the building.”

Now, the main goal of this store was not to sell sell sell at any costs — we were told to match customers with the products they needed to do the things they loved. Not, you know, push people to buy a bunch of crap they didn’t need, upsell this, upsell that, part suckers with their hard-earned money.

So I thought I would feel the guy out a little bit. Maybe he was a climber, needed a new rope, was going to leave it in his penthouse just in case?

“Nope.” Oh, I said, so have you ever rappelled before?

“Nope.” Immediately I have this vision of this man grabbing a brand-new climbing rope out of the bottom of a closet, tearing open the plastic and frantically trying to uncoil the rope as it works its way into a Clark-Griswold-Christmas-lights-knot, as the building burns from the ground up, filling with smoke as his family goes for the door but no instead he says We’re going to have to rappel out the window, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard …

“Doesn’t the building have a fire escape?” I ask.

“Yeah, it does, but I want to have a rope just in case.” Okay. Well, rappelling isn’t that straightforward, I say, you know, you have to anchor the rope to something, and know how to use a belay device to safely lower yourself, and hey, does maybe your wife know how to rappel, no, okay, yeah. I ask what floor the penthouse is on because I hope maybe it’s too high and we don’t sell a rope that long, but no, it’s only on the 10th floor, so the rope would probably make it down to the ground even if you had it doubled over and anchored around your fridge or something.

And the more I think about it as we’re talking, all I can say to myself is JESUS CHRIST THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Why are we having this conversation. I am supposed to sell stuff to climbers, not, you know, Jason Bourne or whatever.

But there was no talking him out of it. We came to a middle ground that included him (hypothetically) taking an introductory climbing class at a gym to learn the basics of rappelling, and (hypothetically) remaining calm enough in an emergency situation to rig a rappel out a window in Manhattan, then send his wife down the rope and calmly lower his kids before he rappelled out the window to safety. For some reason, when we talked about the scenario, I imagined him doing all this with his shirt off, with a Glock 9mm in his teeth.

In the end, I sold the guy a 70-meter rope, two harnesses, two belay devices, and two locking carabiners, which at that time, was probably about $350 or $400. But I told him if his building ever caught on fire, he never talked to me, and he never bought that stuff at the store I worked at.

Brendan Leonard works the counter at Semi-Rad.

{ 5 comments…read them below or write one }

  • riding alone for thousands of miles

    In 1995, after handing over my $$ for my Carbon Fiber Trek 9800, the bro-dude bike mechanic said with a snarky tone: “Dude, you are potato-chip that frame in 2 weeks, guaranteed.” The bro-dude mechanic summed me up in 30 seconds as a novice with no clue( which, in reality, I was). But 21,000+ miles and 17 years later I am still riding that same Carbon Fiber Trek 9800 frame. Don’t underestimate your customers, they may surprise you. We are not all as dumb/worthless as you think.

  • Eric

    If you think foodservice or hard goods retail is bad, try retailing living things!
    I’ve run a retail garden center in NJ for about 12 years, and my favorite saying is the customer is right, except when they’re wrong.
    My favorite example is a lady who brought back hanging flower baskets the day after Memorial Day weekend. It was at least 90 degrees every day that week, and she brings back scorched plants, demanding replacements. We don’t guarantee our plants for reasons such as this.
    Upon asking her when was the last time she watered them, her response was “we were on vacation”. As if it was my responsibility to come to her house and care for her plants! Classic.
    Needless to say she left the store slightly disappointed…..

  • Steve-O

    Sorry, I worked for 13 years in outdoor retail as a ski/bike mechanic, salesperson, and floor manager. I’ve been involved with the outdoor industry ever since. In my experience, working at three different stores in three states, the biggest issues with outdoor specialty retail weren’t ‘dumb’ customers. One big issue was staff making up bizarre, erroneous theories about why one brand sucked and another ruled, regardless of the specific item – and more importantly, stuck up sales staff who were too high on their self-image as a local and self-appointed expert to listen to customer’s needs and intended use. To this day, 23 years later, I still find that ‘I’m cool and you’re a fool’ attitude front and center about half the times I enter an outdoor store.

  • Alpentalic

    SteveO I’d like to see you have that same optimistic outlook when you’ve spent 15 years watching people return BBQ grills and above ground pools at the end of summer or gigantic TV’s a day or two after the Superbowl. I know for my company it works out in the end but it’s hard not to smell the bullshit sometimes

  • Rob

    numbnutz should always be tolerated but anyone who is abusive to your employees should be shown the door. there are plenty of customers who will cost you more then you will ever make off them. get rid of them quickly.

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