When Customers Mess Up The Service Priority

by admin on February 15, 2012

This has happened to me more than once and I don’t really know how to respond when it does. I am in the middle of checking out or placing an order at a store and their phone rings.

One time it was like this. The employee stops checking me out to answer the phone, handles that customer’s problem or question or even goes back out into the store to see if something is in stock and then back to the phone to talk while I am still waiting. I said “Excuse me .” and they put the customer on hold. Then I asked politely if they could finish checking me out before the phone customer. I had already waited 3 -5 minutes while they took care of the phone customer and the rest of my purchase took 30 seconds. The employee then chastises me saying , “We are suppose to take care of all our customers.” I was flabbergasted and said nothing.

I don’t mind waiting a few seconds if they have to answer the phone and send the call to wear it should go or put the caller on hold but the “line jumping” phone call sends me into orbit. 0207-12

I had a somewhat related experience as this last week while buying fabric.  I took a number and waited my turn.  After several customers had been served, my number was called and the first of 6 one-yard purchases was cut.  This second customer, who must have been served earlier by the employee now cutting my fabric butted in to ask this employee a question about fabric choices.   The employee diverted for a few minutes from cutting my fabric to answering said question.  But it didn’t stop there.  Second customer began an entire discussion about how wonderful this employee was and how her mother must love her and how her own daughter was not close to her….etc, etc.

I’m a fairly tolerant person but as I stood there watching my time being burned up by a customer and an employee enjoying their mutual admiration society, I began to think of how I would move this transaction along.   I was keeping a mental clock ticking down to the point where I’d have to say something.   Second customer was not “getting” the non-verbal social cues I was giving her – not turning my body to face her, head down looking at my fabric on the counter, not participating in the discussion,  directed and unblinking looks to the employee, shifting weight from leg to leg (subtly, not drama queen style with a flair of the hips).   I’ll try all kinds of quiet cues like that to send a message discreetly first.  If this lovefest had continued, I would have interrupted and said, “Excuse me.  You two seem to be having a lively conversation. If we finish with cutting my fabric, you’ll be much freer to continue this discussion helping this woman.”

OP, you were fine in what you said to the employee.  The order of serving customers should be the same whether they are standing in line at a counter or till or whether they call.  Callers can be told, “May I put you on hold while I finish with a customer?”  And then the employee takes the call in the order in which customers need help.  Conversely, customers in the store should allow employees to finish business with phone clients they were engaged with first.

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

GroceryGirl February 16, 2012 at 8:28 am

It’s funny how, the caller probably thinks they had excellent service while the OP had a terrible experience. I have an interesting story to share with that.

In my company they issue a big all-company memo once a week. One of the things always included in the memo is a story sent in by a customer raving about one of our locations. A few weeks ago I read a story that went something like this:

In the midst of holiday madness a customer couldn’t find a parking space so she double-parked, called the store and told someone what she wanted (a few cases of water). They brought the cases out to her car, loaded them into the trunk, took her money, went inside and brought back her change. She was thrilled.

The first thing I thought when I read that was “how furious would all the customers who went inside and waited on those long holiday lines be if they read this story?” In customer service, your focus should always be the person in front of you.

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NB February 16, 2012 at 11:11 pm

I work in customer service and I really don’t agree that my focus should always be on the person in front of me. The person on the phone is a customer as well and if I am on the phone with them before you walk in, I see nothing wrong with making you wait your turn. I think it would be incredibly poor customer service to say to the customer on the phone “A customer just walked in. Please hold” when they are a customer themselves.

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Gracie C. February 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

Grocery Girl – I disagree. I think the focus should be on the customer who has your attention in the moment. If that means that there is a customer in front of you and the phone rings, you put the caller on hold. If that means you are helping a phone customer and another customer approaches you give a quiet, I’ll be right with you. Both original customers are finished first, but both new customers are acknowleged. It’s really not that difficult.

As for your story – I doubt the person that took that call and made the special trip to the parking lot had a line full of customers they were ignoring. it was probably a stock boy that ran the errand. And the company likely got a customer for life out the deal. I think that’s great customer service. She was buying bottled water. She didn’t ask for them to do some multitude of shopping for her. Sure the customers who are standing in line probably hate standing there, but they also hate when a line opens up while they’re stuck in the middle of a non moving line and they can’t move. Should the store not open additional lanes? The store had two choices, tell her, 1) I’m sorry there isn’t parking, but there is nothing we can do about it. The outcome – that day she is definitely buying her product elsewhere. Maybe the place she goes makes an impression for whatever reason and she now frequents original store less. Or 2) they can do what they did. The outcome – they got the money for her purchase, good will (as I’m sure she told many people what occurred) , plus they got customer loyalty.

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Angeldrac February 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Gracie C – your comment about serving whoever has your attention at that moment is very relevant (see my own previous comment). When I’m in a store and the server is on on the phone, I do like to be reassured that the phone is actually related to their work (not just having a gossip) and to still be acknowledged as a customer myself. Similarly, when there are two servers there together – have a chat between yourselves, that’s ok with me, but do acknowledge my presence when I first get there and offer me assistance. If I don’t need it, THEN go back to your conversation.
Another point to consider is that most people phone a shop, not just for fun, but because they have probably ALREADY been a customer there and need further assistance, such as (in my case) returning something, ordering in further purchases, assistance with their purchase, enquiring about store hours because they’re trying return to the store. A customer who phones in often as further business with the store then just the phone call.

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Cat Whisperer February 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I have one more comment on the phone call vs. in-person customer issue: nowadays, with all these dratted automated menus, it’s a miracle if you can manage to work your way through all the choices and actually get to speak to a living, breathing human being. And unless the business you’re calling is a very small business, there’s a very good chance that the person you’re talking to not only isn’t physically located in the business you’re calling, they probably aren’t an actual employee of the business– they work for a contractor to whom telephone customer service has been outsourced. So you’re really getting whammied: if you can talk to a human being at all, most likely it’s a human being who has no direct connection with the company you’re calling, and who has no stake in whether you continue to be a customer of that company. Their only stake is in meeting whatever quota is set for them in calls per unit of time without doing something that’s against the rules.

That’s the reality of trying to call a business nowadays, I’m afraid.

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GroceryGirl February 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Gracie C – there are no stockboys at the chain I work. Most likely it was a manager but in order for the manager to complete the transaction they would have had to cut in line, since the tills are the only place where someone can be rung up. If the people on that line knew why they were made to wait, they would have been furious. I only want to give an example of how “good” customer service can sometimes inconvenience someone else.

I do agree that the focus should be on whomever you are serving first. Often, I am in the middle of a call when someone attempts to interrupt me with a return or some other issue and I always ask them politely to wait, or call over someone else to help them.

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Catherine February 20, 2012 at 1:49 am

It sounds like that was the store’s policy. Don’t blame the cashier, if they don’t follow policy they don’t have a job.

A LOT of retail chains are like that, sometimes it feels like an employee just can’t win.

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Leah February 20, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Just a little tidbit that might be of interest…
My brother in law (a state trooper) has told me in the past, that the number one reason for shoplifting in our state is the purchaser getting tired of waiting for someone to take his/her money.

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GroceryGirl February 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

Leah- seriously? I’ve never encountered that before. My store has caught shoplifters on many occasions and every single time they’ve had WADS of money in their pockets and they always try to pay and beg us not to call the cops and have them taken out in handcuffs (which we always do). Granted, my store is in an affluent neighborhood but I always figured it was a power/control/dominance thing.

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redbox February 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm

At the store I work at I must answer the phone within two rings, I am not allowed to put the caller on hold until I have helped them. Not all store clerks are free to deal with customers in the order you think is best. Some stores have very strict rules on how things are handled.

If you have a problem with how a store deals with this, speak to a manager about it, the peon who is ringing you up is at the bottom of the food chain.

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Mabel February 22, 2012 at 9:18 pm

I’ve been in customer service and on front desks for a long time. If I’m on the phone when someone walks in, I do the same thing Gracie C. said. The person in front of me can see I’m on the phone and as long as I acknowledge that I’ve seen the person, he/she is usually content to wait. As soon as I’m finished with the person on the phone, the one waiting gets my attention.

What the cashier did was rude. The customer whose transaction is first has priority. That’s why the Hold button was invented!

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erica September 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I worked for a popular drug chain while finishing pre-reqs for my college program of choice. I did it for 16 months.
I loved it. I hated it.
It was a real lesson in what NOT to do if you want to show loyalty to your customer base and your community.
I saw a woman nearly pass out (she was obviously a chemo patient), she was assisted to a chair and told to call someone to give her a ride. Her son wasn’t sure if he could come get her as he was working across town. My manager said…she wasn’t to be allowed to drive. It would make us liable if something happened. The woman was clearly distressed and embarassed. I mean we were kind of holding her hostage! I finally called my husband and asked if he would drive her home…I would take my break to follow them so that she would not be without her vehicle…
at that point…I explained to the nice lady what was going on, my managers concerns and that if her son couldn’t come, we would get her home. She was quite relieved. Her son called soon after saying he was on his way.
My manager did not want my husband to drive her, and even tried to prevent me from offering that he do so. He kept saying he didn’t want to implicate our store if something happened.
I was disgusted.
I was so mad. I told him he had NO right to tell me what I could do with my break. He had NO compassion and asked him what if that were HIS mother sitting crying in the middle of a drug store because no one WOULD help her…not COULD…but REFUSED.
I found another job soon after.
It’s disgusting how people are treated these days!

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