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Manners at the repair shop

more tales from Beth's repair shop

Why do people leave their manners behind when they enter a retail establishment?

I don't know how this trend began, but it has been something I've been exposed to gradually until it happens more often than not: customers treating retail salespeople as objects put on Earth solely to amuse them. There seems to be an attitude of entitlement and expectation that the cashier behind the counter needs to not only perform the functions of his/her job competently, correctly, and speedily, but also has to endure any level of personal intrusion on the part of the customer to whatever degree the customer decides is appropriate. I see cashiers, stock clerks, sales associates, and repair technicians treated in ways that they never would be if they were meeting the customer in another setting.

The layout of our office area was set at the time of construction; we have a front counter area with three computer stations, and the front counter is about waist high. There is a swinging door to delineate the back side of the counter, but no full-length door. This was not done to keep us cozy with the customers, but so that anyone working at a computer could see the cash register and the door, and so that anyone ringing a person out at the cash register would have a 360 degree view of the activity around them.

"Whatcha got there?"

Somehow this is socially acceptable: I am at a computer typing a detailed quote for a not-present customer who needs work done. I am calling vendors and getting prices, talking to the tech and getting details, typing up all the information for the customer. Another customer who is waiting on his vehicle, not involved in this transaction at all, is hanging around the front counter and not-so-subtlely listening. When I have gathered the information and start typing the quote, the customer actually walks around to the side of the counter, leans over to watch the screen while I type, and says "Whatcha got there?". I have to quickly shut the computer monitor off to keep the customer from viewing another customer's confidential information. The customer who is trying to obtain this information looks at me with surprise, as if I have just deprived him of his entertainment.

Yet this is not socially acceptable: Hang around a doctor's office and follow an x-ray tech back to the examining room, then eavesdrop while the doctor consults with the x-ray tech and studies the x-ray. Then when the doctor is about to call the patient in, grab the x-ray out of the doctor's hands and say "Whatcha got there?".

"What an idiot, huh?"

Somehow this is socially acceptable: A few customers are in the waiting room, one is hovering around the front counter and leaning on the counter from time to time, just staring into space. I ask a few times "Can I help you?" and he answers, "No, just waiting.". While he is at the front counter, I get a phone call back from a customer I called earlier, she is asking for the status on her vehicle. I explain in detail to the customer on the phone the information on her vehicle and where we are in the progress of the repair. I try to speak in a low voice and hold my head down so as to minimize the exposure to the other customer, but the customer at the counter just seems to be more and more interested and lean in further. After I get off the phone, the customer at the counter tries to engage me in conversation about the lady's car with "Wow, that car sounds really messed up! Guess it's not a good idea to let the kids drive it! What an idiot, huh?"

Yet this is not socially acceptable: Stand outside an examination room while a doctor is consulting with a patient as the gravity of his situation and discusses plans for treatment. Press against the door in order to be able to hear as much as possible. Move aside when the patient leaves, then follow the doctor back to his office saying "Wow, his liver really sounds messed up! Guess he better lay off the Jack Daniels! What an idiot, huh?"

That's so funny!

Somehow this is socially acceptable: I receive a package that has a new display that needs to be unpacked, assembled and stocked. It shows up by courier in the middle of the day and the package is an awkward size, so I push it to a corner of the waiting room away from the counter so as to minimize the effect on checking people or ringing them out. When there is a break in the action, I open the box and start removing the contents. I'm reading the directions, which appear to have been written in Chinese and then translated to English, so I am laying out the parts in the order I need to assemble them. From time to time, the phone rings and I leave things where they are and get up to answer the phone. Only one customer is waiting, and he has walked around the waiting room and is standing just a couple of feet from the display I am attempting to assemble. A few minutes into it, suddenly I hear him start snickering, then laughing out loud. I'm not thinking anything of it, because maybe he got a funny text message, or maybe he was reading something funny in a magazine, but after the snickering and some laughing continue I look up and see he is staring at me and laughing. Confused, I ask if there's anything I can do for him, he answers "No, go right ahead! I'm just having fun watching you try to figure that out! Ha ha ha ha ha!" Swallowing my utter embarrassment and developing shock at this, I leave everything right where it is on the floor and become interested in something else behind the counter until he leaves. His snickering continues, and even while I am ringing him out he is shaking his head and making some comments about "When's the next show?" and "So what else can't you do?".

Yet this is not socially acceptable: Go to a grocery store and push a cart around. Select a stranger at random who has a full cart. Block the strangers path, then burst out laughing "What's that you're eating? Aren't you fat enough? Come on, eat some of that right now! Eat it! I want to see you eat it! Ha ha ha ha ha! You're so funny, look at all that food! You going to eat it all tonight? Fatty fat fat eating person! Look at that food! Ha ha ha!"

I'm in your place, not mine, this is your responsibility!

Somehow this is socially acceptable: I have several items packed and ready to ship, the courier is scheduled to pick them up. I have them pressed against the wall of the waiting room, opposite the front counter, out of anyone's way who may be coming in and out the door or trying to ring out. A child who appeared to be about 4 years old wanders out of view of his mother, who is in the waiting room. I am busy behind the counter checking in customers and look up when I hear a crunch and a ripping sound. I look up and see the child is busy stepping on and destroying the packages.

I'm stunned for a moment, then I call out "Ma'am, please, come here!" and I run out from behind the counter to block him and pull the packages away from him. The mother grabs the child, who protests and starts to cry, and tries to pull away from her, kicking out and trying to stomp on the packages as I am pulling them away. She has a numb expression on her face, and is explaining to the child, "Don't break those, just come over here and read with me while we wait", I get the feeling this is an event that has happened before.

She goes back to the waiting room and sits down, within seconds the child is back to stomping packages, I am stuck on the phone at the time, it takes me a few seconds to get away. I get the feeling I am fighting the wrong battle - the four year old child is not my opponent, the mother is. I call her over again, and she sighs, says "I guess he just won't listen today." We are still working on her car, and I say, "That's all right, those packages are supposed to ship any minute, but before they do I'll just assess the damage and add it to your bill on your car."

Now she snaps out of her numbness and is wide awake. "You're going to charge me for that?" She sounds surprised

"Yes, you brought the child in with you, his actions are your responsibility."

This clearly makes no sense to her. She immediately answers "But I'm in your place, not mine, this is your responsibility!"

Yet this is not socially acceptable: Walk your pet bull down the street, find the nearest china shop and go shopping. As mayhem ensues, explain to the clerks that any damage the pet bull causes is their reponsibility because it's their place.

"Not trying to interrupt you, but ..."

Before I begin the story, I'm just wondering, do the people who say "I'm not trying to interrupt you, but ..." then proceed to interrupt you, do they understand that saying they are "not trying" to interrupt does not make it any less rude to interrupt? That's just like that scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby says "With all due respect..." and then proceeds to say something terribly personal and insulting. The other guy says "Just because you say it is with respect does not make it okay!" and Ricky Bobby says very matter-of-factly, "Yes it does."

How far can you go with that? "I'm not trying to dump this load of elephant dung on your shoes, but here you go." or "I'm not trying to pee on your leg, but looks like I'm doing it anyway." It just seems to me that it's a cop-out for acknowledging that you are fully aware that you are being rude, but the other person is not allowed to take offense because you are warning them that you are not trying to be rude. You are absolving yourself of any obligation to manners, and expecting the other person to go along with it, and the person on the receiving end is rude if they do not react the way you want them to. I would say in general that if you pattern your manners after a Will Farrell character, you're doing it wrong.

There are a number of situations in which it is perfectly acceptable, and appreciated, to interrupt a person who is either on a break or performing their job out of sight of the problem. Examples:

  • "Hey, the toilet is overflowing."
  • "Hey, a crackhead is stealing in aisle 3."
  • "Hey, a kid threw up right by the door."
  • "Hey, call 911, a lady just collapsed in the parking lot."
  • "Hey, the building is on fire!"

The below story is not one of those examples.

We have a small employee break area that is at the opposite corner of the customer waiting room. There is a counter with a microwave on it, a sink, and a small table with two chairs. The door is not a full size door, it is a waist-high swinging door, so that an employee who is sitting down can still see the front door and the cash register.

Somehow this is socially acceptable: It is after 2 in the afternoon and due to a heavy traffic day, I haven't had lunch yet. Around 2:30 there is only one customer left waiting on his vehicle and it will be a while before his is done, so I see my chance to eat lunch. I put my lunch in the microwave, set the timer, then go back to the front counter to finish something before it is ready.

While I am at the front counter, I see the customer get up from the waiting area and go over to the employee break area, where he leans over the half-door and stares at my food in the microwave. That's odd, I think. Then he goes back to the customer area, picks up a magazine, goes back to the break area, and leans on the half-door while flipping through the magazine. We have a very comfortable waiting area, leaning on a swinging half-door seems an odd choice, but it's his butt not mine, so whatever. The microwave beeps, I pick up my soda and walk over.

I'm trying to hurry because it's been a busy day and I'm thinking I can shovel down my food in two minutes and get back to work. I say "excuse me" to get by him as he is leaning on the door, and he gives me a fake surprised look, "Oh!" and moves aside, then as I go past him, he goes right back to leaning on the half-door. I sit down and instead of turning my chair to see the front door and the cash register, because this guy is right there, and I don't know about you but I feel uncomfortable when a total stranger is watching me chewing food, so I have my back to him and I am staring down at my food. Then this happens:

Him: I don't mean to interrupt you, but I was just wondering how much a tune-up costs for my car.
Me: (chew, swallow, staring at food) Sure, I can look that up when I'm finished.

Him: Oh no, not trying to interrupt, but just wondering. Don't you know about what it might cost?
Me: (chew, swallow, not looking at him, looking at food) No. Every vehicle is different.

Him: Well mine is a V-6 Buick.
Me: (chew, swallow, staring at food, contemplating how sharp my spork is...) Ghmph.

Him: So about how much would that be?
Me: (chew, swallow, staring at food) I'll be done in just a minute and I'll be happy to help you then.

Him: Oh, I don't want to interrupt you, I just figured you knew.
Me: (maybe there are seven bites left ... maybe this spork might not be able to pierce human flesh ... possibly an eyeball though...) Mmmfh.

Him: Well do you have a ballpark figure?
Me: (chew, swallow, I think he's wearing glasses so I think I'd have to be creative for the spork to reach it's intended target...) Tune-ups don't mean what they did 30 years ago. It really depends. I'll be happy to look it up as soon as I'm done. (Keep in mind this entire time I have not looked at him, I am trying to eat as fast as I can.)

Him: Just an idea. What do people usually pay?
Me: (four bites left ... have no idea how to fill out the insurance paperwork anyway for "spork accidentally lodged in eyeball" so I chew, swallow and answer...) Anywhere from $50 on up. Depends on what the car needs. I can look yours up when I'm done.

Him: Sorry to interrupt. So how much do tires cost for my car?
Me: (I freaking give up! Leave food on table, get up, and brush past him, back to the front counter.) Let's go look.

Him: Oh, you can finish your lunch, I was just wondering.
Me: I'm done. Let's get all your questions answered now.

Yet this is not socially acceptable: Oh, I can't even come up with a sarcastic exaggeration! WHAT HAPPENED is NOT acceptable!

The take-away

Retail sales people are not circus animals. We are made just as uncomfortable by staring, property destruction, and invading personal space as any other stranger on the street would be. While we are friendly and polite to you, we do not "know" you and do not enjoy inappropriate intrusions. Just because someone smiles and says "Hi, my name is Terry, how many I help you today?" that is not personal and is not an invitation to become personally involved with you.

For those of you who might think some of the above awkward encounters were from members of the opposite sex and they were just attempting to flirt or test the possibilities of a personal relationship, you need to understand that the "meet-cute" (Google it if you don't know what that means) only happens in romantic comedies. Only Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts would find a man who irritated her somehow a turn-on, the rest of us find irritating people nothing but irritating.

We don't want to sound like we don't like customers at all, most of us would not be in a job where we had so much contact with people if we did not like people at all. That's not the case. We just believe that even though we might be paid to stand here and perform our job function, being humiliated or insulted or berated does not come with that paycheck. We feel we have the right to expect you to use the same manners with us, as you would use with any other strangers you encounter in your daily life.


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