My Retail Customers: Of Chalk and Cheese

My Retail Customers: Of Chalk and Cheese

Written by Russ Welton

Working in retail perhaps may better be thought of as a portal to another world, another dimension of possibilities and unexpected outcomes. I thought it would be fun to share some of my experiences with you here. (As some of you may know from previous Copper articles, I managed a guitar shop in the UK in the early “noughties” from December 2000 onwards.

I specifically remember a particular gentleman entering the shop one day. He was middle-aged, of slim build, and relatively smart in his casual clothing. He didn’t have much in the way of hair on his head, perhaps as a result of genetics, or perhaps as a result of the worrying disposition he had about his general approach to buying stuff.

Our dear customer was looking for a guitar, and suggested that money wasn’t particularly of concern, but rather the reputation of the guitar brand that he would be buying. He wanted a quality product: a guitar to be proud of, with excellent build quality, attention to detail, and a guarantee of manufacturing excellence. Indeed, something that would “look the part” and be something to be proud of.

Fair enough, I thought. Here’s a customer who is after my own heart. Someone who appreciates great quality and demands high standards. It’s going to be a pleasure to serve someone who will appreciate the details and quality in the products we have meticulously curated here on display.

Little did I realize I was about to enter a chasm of recounted retail victory stories our dear customer had won, over numerous experiences, in his purchases and dealings with seemingly any company he chose to relate.

Before the matter of considering what guitar to buy, it was evidently necessary that our dear chap was obligated to regale, at length, how he had successfully battled against one particular laptop manufacturer, for six months, and eventually had come off the winner in extracting a new monitor display for the unit, even though it was apparently outside of warranty. Hmm. Interesting, I thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Sometimes customers may suffer from feeling a little daunted by what could be called “showroom intimidation” and feel the subsequent urge to reiterate that they’re a savvy consumer and assuage some sense of insecurity. The thing is, he didn’t have to put on this show of strength, so to speak. We were a mom-and-pop store and pretty down to earth, easygoing and well respected in the business. We carried some fantastic product lines, though, and I was always heartened by where we stood comparatively with some of the big-name stores in London that had significantly bigger reputations.

So, I thought little more of it and went on, intending to introduce some of our higher-end brands of instruments to him, identifying their cool features, tones, electronics and so on. But before I could get going, I was then subjected to hear about how he had successfully won a legal battle against a company which had installed windows in his house, which resulted in having every pane replaced because of some issue that had arisen.

I acknowledged his concerns and moved on with suggesting some instruments that might prove to be of interest to a discerning buyer, with features like locking machine heads, AAA-grade birds-eye maple necks, custom pickup configurations and so on. My suggested presentations were interrupted by the customer with his additional raconteuring of further battles won against a bank, and a credit card insurance issue.

At this point, alarm bells had been ringing quite clearly in my head, to the likely reality that this particular individual would be somewhat…challenging to satisfy, mostly due to a deep-seated purchasing insecurity or anxiety. Or was it a just a desire for him to flash the cash and play a power game? It seemed like a combination of both.

Dutifully doing my best to close the sale, with due care and attention to all warranty concerns, after-sale support, the assurance of future services such as free sixth-month guitar setups, and of course any further help we could offer down the line, events culminated in a sale, with smiling faces and reassurances all round. Happy days…

Sure enough, a few days later, back comes the customer, but this time bubbling with enough heat pouring out of his collar that you could power a steam engine. He was rude, offensive, really irate, and beyond placating with any offer to exchange the instrument, which incidentally was perfect and arguably better-made and set up than many more “household name” brands.



He had taken it to someone else who didn’t like it, and this person had fed him with all the paranoia needed to pop a blood vessel or ten. The issue was resolved with a readily-provided full refund – no problem. And, because of the customer’s verbally violent disposition, a request to leave the store with a ban on future entry.

After he had left the store in a cloud, another customer came in and purchased some strings and other accessories. But then, in stormed our friend who was still piping hot with rage, who blurted out, “And I don’t expect you to talk to other people about me behind my back!” He then turned and charged off with the same drama as his arrival. Both myself and the string-buying customer looked at each other in complete surprise, as we hadn’t discussed any preceding events, and were left to ponder the nature of the stresses that would drive someone to such intensity and inner turmoil. Perhaps he had been the victim of some terrible injustice that one could only imagine how tragic it had been for him, and which had left him on a resolute quest to crush all potential enemies in life – sadly before they could even be a friend. We had no idea.

What surprised me most was his opening gambit. Surely, if you are going to create a spirit of trust and goodwill with a retailer, you don’t commence your conversation with a silo of stories damning multiple previous retailers. In customer service training, we were never taught to welcome a customer by relating how bad all customers are. His attitude was perturbing and I felt sorry for him.

But on another occasion, I had another experience which stayed with me, for which I was particularly grateful.

Since I was a small boy, I have suffered with anaphylaxis; the condition which if the wrong type of antigen enters my system causes me to swell up like a balloon. If accidentally ingested, it’s like eating liquid fire, which then requires an immediate shot of adrenaline and medical treatment at the hospital and so on. It’s not very pleasant, but at least I know what the causal food triggers are and I can readily avoid them. There are plenty of worse conditions to be afflicted by.

One day, I got to chatting with a customer, an older man, who had what I considered to be one of those worse conditions. I subsequently became ever-mindful that I had my problem and not his.

His problem was related to any pressure applied to his skin. Anything too pressing, abrasive or tight would cause him to swell up with an overproduction of histamine. He told me that he had to wear loose-fitting clothing and that wearing shoes was a nightmare to manage. He couldn’t even shake hands with someone, as this would trigger a cascading reaction in his immune system. I don’t know how he managed to play guitar, or have much in the way of an intimate relationship.

It certainly has been true in my case that experiencing some of the contexts of others’ life experiences has been extremely beneficial in helping me to count my blessings. I’m grateful to my retail days for deepening my appreciation of this too.



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