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When Customers Mess Up The Service Priority

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.

{ 63 comments… add one }
  • Edhla February 15, 2012, 8:01 am

    OP, I don’t think there was anything wrong with what you said- and Admin, how rude of that employee! Nyargh.

    Keep in mind, though, that it MAY be that in the OP’s case, the cashier is simply following instructions from management. If the procedure is to prioritise the caller rather than the customer who is in store, I think that particular policy is awful, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame the cashier for it. Ask for a manager to blame instead 😉

  • Mojo February 15, 2012, 8:47 am

    We had a rule in retail, “A customer in the store is worth three on the phone.”
    So we let it ring – they’ll ring back.

  • Scott February 15, 2012, 8:52 am

    I worked in retail for a number of years, and most places I worked had the same attitude. The customer in front of your face, who is already in the store, should take priority over a customer on the phone. I would never dream of answering the phone if I was already engaged with a customer in the store.

  • CJ February 15, 2012, 8:58 am

    I had a similar experience once that was very frustrating. My husband and I were at a donut shop, getting a dozen donuts – not exactly a time consuming task for an employee. During the time we were there the employee answered the phone THREE times, each time helping the person on the line before returning to us, rather than putting the phone customer on hold. The third time, we walked out the door. As we were getting back into our car, I saw the employee return to the counter and with a dumbfounded he look began returning the donuts to the shelves. He honestly couldn’t seem to believe that we had opted out of completing the transaction.

  • GroceryGirl February 15, 2012, 9:04 am

    As someone on the other side of customer service, I’ll tell you at my store that would be completely unacceptable. The employee should have put the person on the phone on hold, finished your transaction and then picked the phone up again. And they definitely should NOT have gotten an attitude when you called their attention back to you.

  • Huh February 15, 2012, 9:09 am

    I remember this hell from when I was a cashier at a farm equipment-type store. There was usually one, if you were really busy, two cashiers up front. And one of the cashier stations was also the service desk. The cashiers were to answer the phone and then direct the call to whatever section of the sales floor was needed and they could NOT just let it ring for any reason. There were many times that I would be checking out customers and answering phones at the same time, trying to direct the calls to the sales floor, who would also get busy and/or just never pick up the calls so whoever was calling would be on hold for a while. By in large, people will just not wait on hold and would call back almost immediately, screaming at me not to put them on hold and answer their question NOW, while I’m still checking in-store customers out. And did I mention that this was also the service desk and I had people on the other side of the desk behind me, wanting to process a return?

    So yeah, unless they are obviously having a personal conversation, I tend to let that kind of thing slide.

  • MoniCAN February 15, 2012, 9:14 am

    There was a popular bookstore in my university town that made people take a short written questionnaire as part of the application for a job (everyone wanted to work there). It included some general questions to see how knowledgeable you are about literature, but I was told by a manager that the only question they really looked at was the following:

    “You are checking out a customer at the register. The phone begins to ring and no one else is answering it. A customer who is in behind your current customer asks you where to find a book. At the same time, the security alarm of the main door starts to sound. What do you tdo?”

    This manager friend told me anyone who did not say something similar to “I stay with my current customer and finish the transaction” was not considered for a job.

    The person on the phone didn’t make the effort to drive all the way to the store, they can call back and/or leave a message.
    This bookstore had security and management, no floor staff should be dealing with alarms.
    The second customer can be informed “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
    The priority should always be to focus 100% on your current customer.

    I loved shopping at that store. I always received excellent service.

  • Susan February 15, 2012, 9:15 am

    That is very annoying! Where I used to go to get my hair cut, my hairdresser would also answer the phone and set appointments. I understand that phones need to be answered, but I would get very uncomfortable if I were getting a perm, or color done and the hairdresser would be on the phone!

  • Gena February 15, 2012, 9:24 am

    I was at a store once buying fabric. I was checking out – there was only one check out station open. The clerk was just about to start my transaction when her phone rang. She picked it up, then said to me (and the others behind me), excuse me, I have to go do something for the manager. And ran off before I could say anything.

    I was quite irate, and later called the manager and stated my opinion, that unless he was having a heart attack and needed her to perform CPR, she should have helped the customers first.

  • AMC February 15, 2012, 9:25 am

    I agree with Admin. It gets on my nerves when I wait patiently to check-out only to have my transaction put on hold by the clerk for a phone call. I’ve heard many a clerk complain about customers who take phone calls when they should be paying/submitting an order. How is it any different when the clerk does it?

  • Wink-n-Smile February 15, 2012, 9:29 am

    What gets me is not that they took care of the phone customer, but that they interrupted their current customer to do so, and then chastised the customer, saying “We’re supposed to take care of all our customers,” as if the current, in-person, and *already started* customer was not a real customer.

    I’d say it’s time to talk to the manager about training their employees. It’s fine to tell the phone customer that you are in the middle of a transaction and will take care of them as soon as it is complete. Then, hurry along with the customer you already have.

    If I had been chastised like that, I might have left my items there, and left without paying, saying that “Apparently I’m not a customer.” Employees should not chastise the customers like that.

  • AS February 15, 2012, 10:29 am

    “We are suppose to take care of all our customers.”… “but you are not taking care of checking me out, and I am also a customer who was here first.”

    I often feel that calling up a business is better because phone calls seem to get higher priority than customers waiting in line. I can understand that not all businesses can afford a dedicated employee to receive all telephones, but there should be a better way than to keep someone waiting in line, who was there before the phone rang, waiting forever.

    The admin’s experience is appalling. I can understand that everyone needs a break from work; but keeping someone waiting while you indulge in mutual flattery with another customer or employee is not the way to go.

  • Enna February 15, 2012, 10:29 am

    I feel very sorry for cashiers when they are on their own and it is very busy. I think sometimes answering the phone and putting the person on hold or taking the number to call them back means there is no nosiey phone ringing. What the OP said I think was fine, yes the cashier needs to look after all customers but must do in order that they arrive either by phone or in person.

  • Jojo February 15, 2012, 10:40 am

    When I worked in retail my stock phrase was always; “I’m sorry, I’m with this customer just now but I’ll be happy to help you in just a moment”. That’s it. No answering phones, no going off on an errand. If the phone is ringing then the answer machine can pick it up if no one else is available. I’ve even had my doctor interrupt a session for a non-essential call. It’s just not on. I wouldn’t do it to a customer so why should they do it to me when I’m being served?

  • Garrett February 15, 2012, 10:53 am

    I guess my concern is when there is a line 5-people deep and the phone rings. Technically, that person is 6th in line for assistance, but that would mean being on hold for a long time. I don’t really have a suitable answer, as telling them to call back later seems inappropriate, especially as you don’t know what the line will be like then.

    Having said that, I personally feel that phone customers should take a back seat to in-store customers. They made the effort to come in and they should get priority. Phone calls should be for minor assistance – store hours, transfers. If it requires more than a minute, then that customer needs to come in to the store.

    I realize this is not always the ideal situation, but in an ideal world, stores would have separate people answering the phone and eliminate this problem (not gonna happen, I know!).

  • Compelled to Post February 15, 2012, 11:09 am

    After this happening to me multiple times, I started pulling out my cell phone, calling the store where I was in line and asking for assistance at the Register.

  • Kovitlac February 15, 2012, 11:19 am

    I worked retail for a few years. We had to answer the phone at all times, but if I was engaged with another customer at the time, I’d either direct the phone to someone else (usually if there was someone else there anyway, they were simply answer the phone in the first place), or put them on hold.

    Years ago, when my dad worked retail, they wouldn’t even answer the phone unless they weren’t helping anyone. Times have changed, I feel, and companies want to improve their customer service to *everyone* and take every opportunity to make more money. I don’t say this as a negative person – it’s just the way things seem to be, now.

  • andi February 15, 2012, 11:27 am

    Have people forgotten how to multitask? common sense? i work a customer service counter – one of our responsibilities is to answer the phone, usually while working with “live” customers in our lines. Often we answer the phone, page another department / person or answer general questions while taking care of our “live” customer’s needs and if that means letting the customer on the phone we are currently assisting another customer and will need to put them on hold for a moment – then so be it (as long as we quickly get back to the person on the phone!)

  • Felix February 15, 2012, 11:29 am

    I think the customer first in line should be served. I see no problem with asking someone on the phone to please hold. I’m happy to say this has been happening more and more both when I call stores or stand in line.

  • AshleyT February 15, 2012, 11:31 am

    It’s too bad you couldn’t just move to another check-out line since you were already halfway through. Sounds like you were pretty stuck there :/ I agree with Admin that you were in the right to speak up.

  • Ashley February 15, 2012, 12:02 pm

    Where I work, whoever is standing in front of me gets priority over who is on the phone, but I also make it clear to whoever is in front of me that yeah, someone’s on hold, so I can’t be as chatty as I might usually be.

    When I worked retail, phone calls were always pawned off to an available associate in the department the call was for. I’m flabbergasted someone would actually leave a counter full of items in the middle of check out, someone could just up and take their stuff without paying if they really wanted to (not saying OP would do that, just wondering why the store doesn’t realize the risk, or care)

  • Chalon February 15, 2012, 12:04 pm

    I disagree with the advice to a degree….In my field, medical, while working as a receptionist/front office…the proper thing to do is to take care of the patient/client in front of you. I am now a manager and train all my techs to do the same. Put the person on the phone on hold and finish with the person in front of you. They have cash in their hands and are trying to pay you. The patient on the phone may or may not end up comming in. Or take the number on the phone and call them back when you are done with the people in front of you. I would find it really rude for someone to take a call as I have cash in my hand trying to pay and would speak to the manager asap. This aproach was taught in my schooling and training manuals.

  • Pixie February 15, 2012, 12:05 pm

    To be fair, sometimes it is company policy to take care of a phone call first. I have been chastised for not stopping what I am doing to give a phone call my full attention. I don’t agree with it, but when it comes form the boss what can you do?

  • Sapphire February 15, 2012, 12:10 pm

    I think the employee was extremely rude. At the MOST she should have answered the phone and asked te caller to hold whilst she finished the OP’s transaction. However, I would expect the call to go to voicemail if the shop assistant was busy, then she can deal with it when she is free.

    I think that saying she has to deal with all of their customers was uncalled for, as she was not dealing with OP in a courteous manner. If she had left mid my transaction, and gone to check if things were in stock, I would have said something at that point. If I was not then dealt with quickly and courteously, I would then seriously consider calling the manager to air my displeasure.

    In summary, I do not think telephone calls should entitle one to jump the queue.

  • Justine February 15, 2012, 12:14 pm

    One time, at large department store, I was 4th in line. When I got to the front, with still only one person behind me, the cashier’s department phone rang. She answered it and said “I can go look and see if we have that color of sweater in stock after I finish with the 2 customers before you. Would you like to wait?” I thanked her for that!

  • Liz February 15, 2012, 1:05 pm

    I pretty much agree with everyone here that phone calls should not take priority. Unfortunately, there are two aspects to consider. Everyone is mentioning how phone callers are ‘line-jumping’. That seems a bit harsh considering the caller has no idea what the line looks like and likely doesn’t have any intention to take the retail slave away from the customers they were helping. Saying they should wait their turn is good and fine- if they knew where their turn was.

    Secondly, in my job, I must answer the call in 3 rings. If I don’t and it happens to be one of our secret shopper calls, I will get written up. 3 write-ups means loss of job. So, basically, I could lose my job for failing to answer 3 phones calls within 3 rings. That’s stupid, isn’t it? But it’s how my job is. So even if I’m with a guest, checking someone in, I have to answer that stupid phone. If I am checking in a hotel guest, I usually look at them when the phone is ringing and ask them if they could hold for just one moment. 98% of phone calls are able to be addressed immediately and I’m done in a few moments. But I do multi-task while taking these- I finish up the paperwork for checking someone in. I sometimes have to put someone on hold but again, if it is a secret shopper call, I can get written-up for putting them on hold for too long.

    So while etiquette in these situations is all well and good, there can be this kind of ridiculous pressure to answer a phone and with the snippy response from the cashier, it sounds like her bosses might be the type to value phone customers over present customers. Why is beyond me. In my business, at least, a phone customer might mean a reservation which equals money.

    But that’s just my two cents.

  • Jenny February 15, 2012, 1:41 pm

    I have worked in all sorts of retail jobs, and I have NEVER been told to do that. If you have to answer the phone it is “Please hold” or when someone walks up it is, “Just a minute, please.” you ALWAYS get the sale done, the person out of the store. You don’t try to juggle customers – so you don’t pick up a new one before finishing with the first.

  • Meghan February 15, 2012, 1:47 pm

    I’ve also done my stint in retail (at a really busy store on a major shopping street in a large city). I was a cashier, and my job was to check people out. Period. I was not allowed to leave the cashier banks – I was in charge of huge sums of cash, and the cashier stations were never left empty. On busy days the lines could be 10 people deep. If you called the store, the phone rang at the main cashier station as well as upstairs in the office. 99 times out of 100, someone upstairs answered the phone, put the person on hold, and then paged whomever they were looking for. If they didn’t, on a rare occasion (if I didn’t have a customer in front of me) I would answer. Otherwise, a floor associate or a manager would get the phone. Because the store was so busy, there were always enough people around.
    If someone came up to my register as I was checking someone out to ask a question, I would usually tell them I would be right with them. If it was a quick question, like, hey where’s the bathroom, I would continue to check out the customer while answering (we didn’t have a public restroom, so that was quick). If they had a question about an item in the store, I would either call over someone in earshot, or I would grab the walkie behind the counter to call someone from that department, again while still checking out my current customer, or as soon as they were finished. The store policies were really clear that my responsibility was to whomever was in front of my register, and I should get someone else to help everyone else.
    I also worked at another store that didn’t have such good policies. It was regularly understaffed, and so sometimes there was no one directly on the register. Or one person, who was also supposed to answer the phone. Sometimes there would be no other person on the floor, and there was no way to call into the back. Sometimes I had to put people on hold for a long time, because I was checking people out and couldn’t leave or find someone to help people on the phone. Bottom line, it’s never OK to prioritize the person on the phone over the person in front of you.

  • Kat February 15, 2012, 3:08 pm

    Talk to the manager – NOT to the cashier.

    For those of you that say you would never answer the phone first. Well, I have to tell you would have been fired at several of the retail stores where I have worked.

    If you let the phone ring twice- you were in trouble. If you put the person on hold too long- you were in trouble. If you didn’t “acknowledge” customers (including the customers interrupting you) you were in trouble.

    I usually tried to explain to an irate customer that it was store policy for me to do whatever it was I was doing. (And welcomed them to talk to the manager if they didn’t like it.) But at the end of the day the same people that call to ask a question have no problem calling back and yelling at the manager when they didn’t get the service they want. As much as we think we should just take our money and leave the store—the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

    DO NOT assume the Cashier is in the wrong- often they have a much better sense of customer service but they can’t do a thing about it. It sounds to me like the Cashier in the OP’s post was overwhelmed when she said “We are suppose to take care of all our customers”- she was trying to do her job. She was probably young and didn’t think to tell the OP the manager requires her to deal with the phone customer first.

    I’m sorry Admin but in the future just interrupt and say “I’m sorry, but I really need to be going do you think I could get this fabric cut.” You can interrupt without being rude. The cashier often can’t even if she knows you are getting upset.

  • DragonJane February 15, 2012, 3:18 pm

    I have some friends who work retail where this is policy — answer the phone, deal with that, then go back to the original customer. They hate it, too, but not following it gets them in trouble with their boss. So they can’t win — someone will be mad at them.

    If this happens a lot, you could say something to the manager — either the employee might get retrained, or if enough complaints get racked up, the policy might be ended.

  • OfficeGirl February 15, 2012, 3:41 pm

    When I worked retail we were told to answer every phone before the 3rd ring. You could explain to the phone customer once you picked up that you were putting them on hold to complete another transaction, but you had to answer it. The rationale was that the crowd of customers in the store/restaurant could see why you were busy (not just ignoring them for your own mental vacation), but the person on the other end of the phone had no idea why you weren’t picking up, and would assume the worst.

  • Goodness February 15, 2012, 3:54 pm

    As a former cut-counter employee of a large chain fabric store, the last of many retail & service jobs over my lifetime, I have to defend the employee — somewhat — in both the OP’s and eHell Dame’s cases. Stores used to have an operator who directed all calls to the appropriate department; today, it’s the cashiers and/or sales staff who must answer calls along with their other duties, and most chain stores want calls answered by the third ring no matter what else you’re doing. If the phone customer is ignored, you can be sure they’ll either call another store where they can get their questions answered and to whom they’ll give their money, or they’ll call your store back and c0mplain to the manager.

    However, there are gracious ways to handle the situation: You smile apologetically at your in-person customer, say “Excuse me, I have to get this but I’ll only be a moment.” And then _only be a moment_. If you have a shoulder-cradle on your phone’s handset, (and if your company won’t spring for a shoulder-cradle, buy one yourself — they’re cheap….) you can often continue helping your customer while answering enough of the caller’s questions to ascertain to whom to transfer the call. If you really need to be the one to help them, explain that you’re with another customer but that if they’ll give you their name and number you’ll call them back the moment you’re free. And then for heaven’s sake, call them back.

    When you’re done speaking to the caller, even if you’ve been able to continue helping your present customer while you talked, apologize for the interruption. Apologies cost you nothing and indicate to the customer that you’re aware that you’ve inconvenienced them.

    Then there are the nevers:
    Never leave a customer you’re waiting on unless you’re 2 seconds away from losing your lunch or some such. If you must, call for backup and explain why you’re stepping away so the customers understand you’re not just walking out on them.
    Never ignore the person in front of you for the one on the phone. If you can’t just put them on hold or transfer them, put your hand over the mouthpiece for a moment and tell your present customer you’re doing your best to get back to him/her as fast as you can.
    Never engage in more than about 15 seconds of social chat when there are customers waiting. There are ways to divert would-be chatters: The minute they start into anything personal, you give them your biggest smile, interrupt with “I’m Fine” or “That’s great” or whatever’s appropriate, and without taking a breath, ask “How much of this do you need?” or “Is that everything?” or whatever — something that returns their attention to the business at hand. The instant the transaction is over, smile big again, say goodbye, and reach for the next customer’s merchandise, in one smooth move.

  • Amanda H. February 15, 2012, 4:05 pm

    This is why I’m grateful the big box retailer I worked for assigned the fitting room attendant the duty of “store operator.” Since the attendant rarely, if ever, left the fitting room counter anyway (except for breaks and occasionally returning clothing items to their racks), all phone calls to the store went to their phone, and they would then transfer to the appropriate department, page the appropriate person, or notify a manager via walkie. Cashiers never had to answer phones, and our phones didn’t even work half the time.

    I, too, would’ve spoken to a manager after being reprimanded by the cashier. OP was just as much a customer as the person on the phone, and being mid-transaction when interrupted, was being more inconvenienced. If it’s store policy that made the cashier snippy about making an in-store customer wait for longer than “I’ll be with you as soon as I finish the current transaction,” then management needs to be told so they can fix the problem.

  • Sarah Jane February 15, 2012, 4:08 pm

    I’m so glad someone posted about this!

    How nice it must be to be the customer calling from the comforts of his own home, prolly in his pajamas and on the sofa with a nice cup of tea…to be waited on before the customer who weathered rain, snow and sleet to get to the store in person and has waited in line for ten minutes in high heels with a good twenty pounds of merchandise in arm…

    Okay, that scenario is a little dramatic, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Phone customers should have to wait like everyone else.

  • Rap February 15, 2012, 5:03 pm

    “If I don’t and it happens to be one of our secret shopper calls, I will get written up. 3 write-ups means loss of job. So, basically, I could lose my job for failing to answer 3 phones calls within 3 rings. That’s stupid, isn’t it? But it’s how my job is.”

    Bingo. And guess what? If a secret shopper in line complains, the cashier ALSO gets written up.

  • Spike February 15, 2012, 5:55 pm

    I work in a restaurant. Our phone always has to be answered because we take phone food orders and they are a significant chunk of our business. I’m usually the one dealing with physical customers and there are two other people who can answer if I’m busy, although sometimes I have to, as there is no other choice. But I try to do it without literally walking away from the customer in the middle of a convo, like if they are taking a minute to reconsider their order, or digging a bunch of change out of the bottom of their purse. Are the phone callers jumping the queue? Technically, yes. But without our phone business, we couldn’t stay in business. As for putting customers on hold, I know some places like pizza places do that, but personally, my bosses don’t allow it.
    As for workers ignoring the customer they’re serving to chitchat with another customer, all service workers should try to develop a polite spine in this regard, i.e. “Yes, thank you, I’ll have to chat with you next time!”

  • PatronStofFools February 15, 2012, 7:00 pm

    I am a box office manager at a theatre where people can purchase tickets over the phone or in person. Unless I am in the middle of a call when a customer walks in, I always help them first. We have an answering machine which explains to the phone customers that if they are reaching it I am helping someone else. I cannot imagine interrupting service for one customer to assist another.

  • MidoriBird February 15, 2012, 8:01 pm

    I admit that this has gotten harder and harder as my list of chores gets added to every morning, and I am spreading my services over a very large area. My primary counter is a paystation in a food court, but I am also supposed to simultaneously stock four departments, help in the dining area, help take breakfast orders, clean a great deal and recently also was informed the opener in the area is also now the italian person–ie, opening and managing the section; breakfast pizzas–until 8AM due to the slower time of year requiring hours cuts. (Double workload if the person the night before forgets to make me any breakfast pizzas I can cook easily and quickly and I must make them myself…that is their job so I’m not totally overloaded in the morning….)

    Needless to say, this has made prioritizing exceedingly difficult. Basically what is above, applies. My first priority is to the customer in front of me, whether it is giving him/her pizza or ringing them up at my register. My phone rings, or Italian’s phone, is of lesser importance. If I’m paged for a phone call, my customers come first. If I’m taking a breakfast order for the breakfast kitchen section, they must have someone jump in so I can go to MY first priority; my register. If I’m paged by a different department, whether or not I answer is dependent on my multitasking needs at the moment. I don’t like to interrupt the customer for any reason.

    I cannot, however, be in four places at once, and this can cause me some stress on busy mornings, even as I’ve gotten used to the increase in my workload. I can be over serving someone pizza while I get three guys who all come up at once to my register. All I can do is look at them, smile, and tell them I’ll be right over–and apologize once I do get to them.

    If I am out on the sales floor in the store main, say when I’m going to punch out to leave for the day, and a customer stops me wanting me to help them find something, I am still supposed to give that customer my undivided attention and take them to the product they desire–never just pointing the way! If I’m stumped by some obscure item (when was the last time someone ever asked me for canned coconut milk?) I get help locating it for that customer. It is not uncommon for me to get stopped three or four times on my way to leave.

    The fringe benefit for me is that while I’ve worked with customers for fourteen years now, multitasking is one of the HARDEST things I’ve ever had to master. While gaining some skill, I truly never really mastered it to the extent I’ve managed to do it now at my current job. I’ve got a one-track mind to be sure, and mastering a truly hard-won skill is something anyone should be proud of. And in my case, this is VERY hard won! I won’t say I’ve never made a mistake here and there–I’m only human. But my customers must come first, at the expense of anything else I’m doing, be it making a pizza, cleaning the dining area, stocking the salad bar, or vaccumming the rugs.

  • Cat Whisperer February 15, 2012, 8:57 pm

    Ooooohh…this is one that bites me where it hurts. There are only a very few ways that a customer service person can get me madder faster than by allowing another customer to butt in when it’s my turn to be served.

    And here is what you do about it, folks: you don’t make a scene about it with the employee. You don’t give the other customer the evil eye or say something to them. You don’t get into a discussion, heated or otherwise.

    You wait until the employee you are dealing with returns their attention to you, and you tell them, in a reasonably polite but firm tone of voice, “I want to speak to the manager. NOW.”

    And you insist on it. When the manager arrives, you tell him/her exactly what happened, and you ask them what the policy of the store is with regard to interruptions.

    This has a couple of advantages: first of all, just in case the cashier really was following store policy and you are the one in the wrong, it protects the cashier, because the manager will back the cashier up. Second, it has the advantage of immediacy– you are dealing with the situation while all the details are fresh and if you need witnesses, they are right there.

    Third and finally, because if the employee really has screwed up, they are going to be corrected by the person who has the authority to make sure they get it right from then on: their boss.

    If you try to deal with the issue with the employee without bringing the boss in on it, the store loses a chance to conduct training of all their employees, and there is the very real possibility that the employee will just shrug you off as a bad-tempered customer.

    This is an issue that gripes me on several levels. First, it’s indicative of poor training and poor management of the employees. Good management makes sure that employees are trained to deal with interruptions in transactions, that they know what to do and then do it. Good management also supervises employees so that they know if they don’t follow the rules, they will be reprimanded. Good management also supports employees in following the rules.

  • Cat Whisperer February 15, 2012, 9:31 pm

    I have to add: when I was working as a cashier, which I will admit was a long time ago, we were taught that one of the reasons you beware of interruptions in transactions is because this is one way grifters can cheat you.

    Scenario: you’re in the process of ringing up a customer’s order. At some point, another customer butts in, insisting on you dealing with their question/issue. Distracting you from the transaction you were working on.

    When you return to the customer you were working with, who is in reality a grifter in cahoots with the person who interrupted you, they use the distraction to cheat you in some way: claim that you already rang up an item, or that they have paid you, or some such thing.

    Or, in another scenario, while the customer you were working with and the customer who interrupted you engage in heated discussion, another grifter uses the distraction to walk out of the store without paying for something.

    Yeah, I got played once when I was a newbie cashier: I rang a customer up, customer handed me a $10 to pay for a $4 item, I put the $10 in the cash register. Another customer barges over with an urgent matter and refuses to be ignored. I answer this customer, and then go to hand the change to guy who was interrupted. I give him $6 and he stares at me and says, “But I gave you a $20.”

    Five people in line behind him and no time to close down the register and count out the cash to see who’s right. I gave him $16 and sure enough, came up $10 short on my drawer when I closed out. Not a big deal now, but back then that was enough to hurt.

    My manager had no sympathy for me. She told me that grifters can detect an inexperienced cashier the way a shark can detect blood in the water, and like a shark, they’ll eat you alive. “You were an idiot to get distracted.” she told me. But I learned from that $10 loss. Finish with the customer you’re dealing with and don’t get distracted!

  • Catherine February 15, 2012, 11:20 pm

    The expression, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, comes to mind.

  • Lizza February 15, 2012, 11:21 pm

    I so agree with you Admin! Every place I have worked the policy has been if you’re with a customer and the phone rings, you answer as quickly as possible and ask them to hold for just a moment. And always make sure to thank them for waiting!

  • NB February 16, 2012, 12:37 am

    The way I feel it should work is I serve what ever customer I was helping first – and that’s usually the way we operate where I work. In this line of retail, a lot of customers call in for questions.

    If I’m with a customer face to face and the phone is ringing – the phone is ignored. Sometimes a customer will call again and again and again – but answering it could possibly hold up the customer in front of me for far too long. If I’m with a customer on the phone and a client walks in, I tell the in store client I’ll be with them soon, and finish up with my phone customer.

    Just because someone is on the phone, it doesn’t make them any less important. People are served in the order they come to me.

    The cashier in the OP did seem rude, but I don’t want to really make that call for sure as some have mentioned above – it could very well be a management decision.

  • Rachel February 16, 2012, 2:33 am

    I work in discount retail. If the phone rings, a cashier is supposed to answer it. If it rings more than five times, the fitting room answers it. If a customer wants to know if an item is stocked, if it’s slow then someone is sent to look. If it’s busy, we apologize and tell the customer we don’t have time to do it and politely end the phone conversation.

  • Mojo February 16, 2012, 3:09 am

    “A telephone is a fanstastically rude thing. It’s like going “Speak to me now! Speak to me now! Speak to me now!…” As if you went into someone’s office and banged on their desk and said “I will make a noise until you speak to me!” Undelievably rude.”
    Stephen Fry

  • PLG February 16, 2012, 3:18 am

    While working at a fairly busy print and copy center that serviced a fair number of law businesses, our priority was always the customer at our front desk over the phone. If we got a call and were both busy with an in-store customer (there was just 2 of us at the front desk plus our manager if he wasn’t already busy with a call/print work) we would quickly excuse ourselves to answer the phone and ask the person to hold. That only changed IF a customer walked in when we were already with someone on the phone. If that was the case we would politely ask them to take a seat and we would be with them shortly. We never had any complaints and only a hand full of times did we have someone hang up on us or walk out not willing to wait at most a few minutes.

  • kristin February 16, 2012, 4:44 am

    Quite often I’ve found myself in the position that the employee is in. Being the only person in my store when I’m working (it’s a teeny-tiny gas station) I have to answer the phone myself, and if it’s my very unreasonable boss, I’d better not keep him waiting. My situation might be slightly different in that it’s very rarely another customer calling – mostly it’s my boss, or our parent company, or distributors/reps for the products we carry. I have no way of putting them on hold other than just setting the phone down – which I do when I’m helping a customer who is doing more than just handing me money and pointing to their car. A few times I have made my boss wait, and he’s been a little more than irritated. Even if I explain to him that I was with a customer, he insists that ‘business calls’ take priority.

    Trust me, sometimes it annoys the employee just as much to have to answer a phone while dealing with face-to-face customers. I find it incredibly rude, too, and I wish I didn’t have to do it. There’s no worse feeling than knowing you’re doing something rude but having to do it anyway! Almost makes me wish I was ignorant of etiquette for a minute or two so I wouldn’t feel so guilty.

  • koolchicken February 16, 2012, 4:46 am

    In a perfect world putting the customer on hold would be the ideal choice, but it’s not always an option. When I worked in a retail drugstore we were told the customer in front of you should be helped first. But we weren’t allowed to let the phone ring more than three times, and we were not allowed to put them on hold. So often I would find myself trying to ring a customer up ask them questions and help the person on the phone at the same time. It’s not fair to either customer or the cashier, but if ignoring one or the other could cost you your job you try to make it work. This is exactly why I always try to be understanding rather than get frustrated by a frazzled or otherwise distracted cashier.

  • Amber February 16, 2012, 5:26 am

    I work in retail and we have a policy where we must stop whatever we’re doing to answer the phone. Not only must we answer the phone, we have to complete the phone call before going back to what we were doing.

    It can be extremely frustrating because you KNOW you’re being rude and unfair, and you KNOW the customer in store who has had to wait is perfectly right to be put out. There’s really nothing that can be done, but to take care of the caller as quickly as is polite, then apologise to the customer/s who you stopped assisting. I have no idea why this is a policy, but it’s a very strict one where I work.

  • Angeldrac February 16, 2012, 5:35 am

    Allow me share a story from the flip side of the situation:
    I had purchased a new oven from and large chain electrical goods store. When it was delivered we discovered that it had been damaged during shipping. Well, I made a total of TWELVE calls back to the store to have the thing replaced. Whenever I called the store I was told, within seconds of being answered, “Please hold, I have a customer” (what was I, chopped liver?). This would often happen up to 3 or 4 times, and one time I was on hold for 10 entire minutes (before I gave up and hung up).
    So, my conclusion is YES, in-store customers are important HOWEVER a degree of prioritizing and common sense can take you far! Store procedures need to take phone calls into account and manage and staff for them accordingly.

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