How to Be a Good Customer

During my college years in Baltimore, I worked for a large bookstore out in the suburbs. It was pioneering a new concept that would be ubiquitous for a good fifteen years or so before felled it, bringing the end of Borders and the kneecapping of Barnes & Noble: The megastore with almost any book you could imagine, open at all hours of the day, featuring a café inside.

I started as Peon and was quickly promoted to Peon II, in which capacity I was given the role of "information manager." This meant that I was in charge of the large desk about 200 yards from the store entrance that had an “INFORMATION” sign above it.

I'm not sure what it meant to be in charge of that desk. I suppose I ensured it was staffed at all times and ensured that the people staffing it followed the store rules. There were plenty of store rules, some of which made sense, and some of which did not.

Nonsense rule: "No sitting." Even if no one was in the store, none of the staff were allowed to sit at any time. This was true standing behind the information desk and true standing behind the registers. I get that the owners didn't want staff looking "lazy," but a stool to perch on while no one was anywhere around would have been nice. My feet have never been the same.

Sensible rule: Never just point a customer in a direction and hope they find what they need. When asked about a book (or a section or the café or the bathroom), walk with them to the area or item. If a book is in question, walk them to the section, find the book, and hand it over. If it isn't there, take them back to the information desk to order it. As a customer, I wish more retail stores followed this rule.

Everyone should have a retail or restaurant job at least once. It's a different perspective on what makes good customer service and what makes a good customer. Yes, you read that right: What makes a good customer. There are people who sabotage their own possibilities for a good experience and people who make life much too difficult for the people who'd like to help them. It's important to know how to enable good customer service, how to empathize with the people who are trying to help you, and how to appreciate the complexity of good customer service when it is provided. And hands-on, in-the-trenches retail or restaurant experience will teach you more about the customer-seller relationship than any business-school classroom.

Let’s explore this "good customer" concept a bit.

A customer called me midweek to ask if I had any books with pictures of Russian icons. We did: Big, beautiful art books with glossy photographs. She asked that I put them on hold so that she could pick them up that evening.

Picture I took in Russia in Summer 1992. Of Russian icons. (Proof, lady. Proof.)

Picture I took in Russia in Summer 1992. Of Russian icons. (Proof, lady. Proof.)

I'd spent the summer before college traveling through western Russia. I saw a lot of Russian Orthodox churches. I saw a lot of icons.

When she arrived, she picked each book up and dropped it with a thud on the counter, glaring. "What is this?" she said, eyes flashing, hands flicking at the stack. "I don't even know what to call these. These aren’t Russian icons."

The book at the top of the pile in front of her said, in bold, "RUSSIAN ICONS."

I held my tongue and managed to talk her down to a place where she could describe what she needed. She meant Russian folk art. (Not at all the same thing.) How was I to know she meant one thing when she said another?

Lesson #1 in being a good customer: Don't assume the seller/server can read your mind. She will do her best to anticipate your needs or understand what you mean ahead of time. But it isn't always possible.

So this was the mid-1990s. The information desk had two computers that were decent at the time, but pretty sorry compared to what we have today. Installed on the computers was a DOS-based program--and nothing else--that helped us see whether we had a certain book in stock. We could look up books by the author's last name and by the title of the book, but the title had to be typed in exactly as it had been entered into the system. (This was pre-Google and intuitive search engines. Heck, these computers didn't even have Internet connections. Nor did almost anyone else, even at home.)

This is simliar to the look of the program screens on the computers at the information desk.

This is simliar to the look of the program screens on the computers at the information desk.

Most of the information we provided was from memory. We paid attention to what was popular, what was covered on television programs and in magazines, and we always had a copy of The New York Times bestseller list. That covered most of the questions we got. Not all. But most.

Even the computers of today couldn't help us with some of the questions. My favorite formula was this one: "Okay, so I don’t know the author or the title or anything. A friend told me about it. I think the cover is blue, and there’s a dog…. I think it’s about this boy growing up? You know which one I mean?"

No, mister. I don't.

Lesson #2: Don’t assume your seller/server is a savant who knows everything about anything that may or may not be sold there. I don't know anyone who'd have a ready-to-mind list of books that are blue, about a boy coming of age, and include a dog.

Title page for the first edition of  The Scarlet Letter,  by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Title page for the first edition of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I once had an woman come in for a copy of The Scarlet Letter. Easy. Didn't even need my sorry computer for that. I walked with her to the literature section and handed her a copy of the Penguin edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. There was a pretty painting of a Puritan woman on the front.

Her interest in a classic most of us were forced to read in high school wasn’t too surprising. There was a movie out at the time adapting the novel.

She held the book in her hands a moment, sneering. Then she thrust it back at me, cocked her hip, and said, "Uh, no. I'm looking for The Scarlet Letter." She paused for emphasis and to widen her eyes at me incredulously. "By Demi Moore."

Lesson #3: She may not be a mind-reading savant, but don't assume your server/seller is an idiot, either. She works there, after all. You’re just visiting.