Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

The Customer is Always Right

…and other Great Myths of Retail


In real life, I’ve been working as a manager of the technology department at Circuit City in Peoria.  In English, that means that I sold digital cameras and computers, and was in charge of about ten employees who did the same.  That’s in past tense because in case you haven’t heard, me and 34,000 of my closest friends will be out of a job soon because the company is shutting its doors.

I’ve been with the company for a little over five years now, having started off as a part time Customer Service Associate, handling customer complaints, returns, and other such issues.  I also answered the phone a lot as part of my duties.

There’s an old saying that “The customer is always right.”  I’m here to tell you, that’s a bunch of hooey. 

“The customer might not always be right, but they’re always the customer,” is the adage that I always tried to live by.  I’d  bend over backwards to help a customer, especially if the were having a difficult or bad experience in our store or with one of our products.   I trained my employees to do the same.

Still, there’s an occasional customer who better fits the mantra of “You have the right to remain stupid,” and they are doing their damnedest to exercise that right to the best of their ability.

While working at the Customer Service counter, part of my job was to answer phones.  At least once a week, I’d get a call asking for the “Electronics department.”  The problem is, we are an ELECTRONICS store.  Here’s how one of my more memorable calls went:

Me:  Thank-you for calling Circuit City. How can I direct your call?

Caller:  Electronics department.

Me:  Sir, we’re an electronics store.  Can you be a little more specific?

There’s a long pause while the caller considers this before he says, “uh…. Okay.  Bicycles.”

I’m not sure how this guy managed to direct dial a telephone.

I can’t tell you how many times customers would come in and make complete and total asses out of themselves.  It usually involves people trying to make a return.

Many people try to make returns without a receipt.  Usually this isn’t a problem because on every single transaction, we take the customer’s phone number so we can file the transaction under that number.  If a customer returns without a receipt, we simply ask for their phone number and we’re able to look up the transaction that way.  If the customer refuses to give their phone number, we explain that any returns MUST be accompanied by a receipt.

One guy I remember in particular tried to return an item without a receipt.  He insisted that he purchased it at our store and even gave me the date.  I tried taking his phone number, but nothing came up on our computer.  I politely told him that we’d need a receipt if he didn’t know what phone number was used to make the purchase. 

I might as well have told him that I was stealing his IRA and holding his mother hostage in the basement.  He went ballistic, telling me that I was either going to return the item or he was going to come across the counter and use it to plug up one or more of my orifices.  I took about three seconds to consider how I’d look with such a new appendage and then told him, “No.” 

He didn’t come across the counter, and surprisingly, he didn’t have an aneurism, which was just as well because I sure wasn’t going to perform CPR on him.  He left in a huff.

He was back within a half hour, waving a receipt for the item that he’d managed to find in the glove compartment of his car.  He pushed his way to the front of the line, slammed the item on the counter, tossed the receipt on top of it, and demanded his refund.  His blood pressure hadn’t dropped any at all.

I picked up the receipt, pointed to the logo at the top which, in color, no less, said “Best Buy.”  I told him that if I worked for that company I’d be more than happy to issue a refund, but since I worked for Circuit City instead, perhaps he would like to head to their store and throw his tantrum there.

The people who were in line who had been pushed out of his way actually cheered me.  It was all I could do to keep from rolling on the floor as he gathered up the item and sulked out of the store.

Then there was a guy who came in after buying a laptop computer the day before.  I felt a little sorry for him because he looked lost.  He made up for his lack of direction by using the “F” word to describe each and every noun he used (and no, it was not the Governor).  He was mad because his computer wouldn’t work.

He put the computer on the counter, opened it up and said, “See?  The (expletive) thing doesn’t work!”

I touched the power button and within seconds, the screen had the Windows logo on it.

“Oh.”  That was his entire reaction.  He didn’t realize you actually had to turn the thing on for it to work.  He thought that when you opened it, it just came on automatically. 

That’s a mistake anyone can make. 

When he called back in a few hours later to tell us that his computer had died, I asked him if he’d plugged it in to charge the battery.  I assume that he hadn’t because there was just a grunt on his end of the phone and he hung up on me.

The best example I can give of a flat out stupid customer, however, is the lady I dealt with just before the end of 2008.  She came in at closing time on a Tuesday night, asking for a computer that we had put on sale in our Sunday advertisement.  It was a no-frills computer selling for a low price.  We had six of them when the sale started on Sunday, but had sold out of them by 1PM that day.

I explained to her that the computer was a close out item and that we didn’t give rainchecks.  Once they were gone, they were gone.  It clearly stated that in our ad. 

She was adamant.  She wanted one.  She wanted me to pull one out of thin air to sell to her.  I tried to explain that I’m not that good of a magician. 

I tried a different tact.  I showed her another computer with more memory, a bigger hard drive, and a better processor.  We didn’t have it in stock but my computer showed me that there were several arriving the next day on our truck.  The substitute computer was fifty dollars less than the one she’d come in after.

“That’s bait and switch!” she screamed, loud enough for the entire store to hear her.  Fortunately, we had already closed and locked the front doors, so the only people who heard her were other employees.

I tried to explain that “bait and switch” was when a company advertised a low end product, and then stepped the customer up to a higher priced model when they didn’t have any in stock.  I was trying to sell her a better computer for less money. 

She then started arguing with me about why we didn’t save one for her since she didn’t even know about the computer being on sale until Monday.  “You mean I was supposed to tell someone else who was buying the computer on Sunday that I couldn’t sell it to them because you might be interested in it on Tuesday?”  I wanted to make sure I was following her logic.

Yep.  That’s exactly what she meant.

There have been few times in my life that I have been utterly speechless, but this lady had accomplished the phenomenon.  But she wasn’t done.

She went on to tell me that I was falsely advertising the computer since we didn’t have one in stock.  Forget the fact that the advertisement said things like “closeout item,” “No rainchecks,” and “limited quantities.”  We didn’t have it so we were guilty of false advertising.

Just as I was about to regain the power of speech, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.

You read that right.  She dialed 911.

When the emergency operator answered, and asked what her emergency was, she told them that I was falsely advertising computers. 

I looked over at the woman’s daughter who had been stoically standing by during all of this.  “Did your mother just call 911?” I asked. 

The daughter stood, arms akimbo, her lower lip stuck out defiantly, and nodded gravely.  “And I hope they come down here and arrest your sorry ass for False Advertising,” she said.

Meanwhile, her mother is saying, “Hello?  Hello?” into a dead cell phone.

By now, our store has been closed for a half hour and I’ve just officially reached my breaking point.  I looked around to make sure that Howie Mandel, Ashton Kutcher, or Allen Funt weren’t hiding somewhere to jump out and surprise me with a hidden camera.  When I determined that this was not a practical joke, I suggested that the customers leave.  Quickly.

I escorted them to the front door, all the time being told that the police would be there soon to arrest me and that they were going to take their money elsewhere.  I almost offered to drive them to wherever elsewhere was.

By the time we got to the front of the store, there was a Peoria squad car waiting out front.  I’m sure they were there to arrest me.

They just had to have a short conversation with these two ladies first.