My Most Difficult Customer Service Problem

The most frequent customer service fail we have in our company is when an employee, thinking they are doing me some kind of favor, go nuts on a customer trying to enforce some trivial rule or trying to collect the last $5 our company might be owed.

It is astronomically hard to train people to use their judgement the same way I would in a customer situation.  This is particularly true when ego gets involved, when the employee feels like they have somehow taken a ego hit, with the customer "winning" and them "losing."  I once had an employee drive out of the park we were operating and chase a woman down the road over a misunderstanding about whether $5 had been paid correctly.  Incredible.  Unfortunately,  I have found no amount of training can fix judgement this bad, and the only thing I know how to do is fire them as fast as possible so they can't do any more harm.

I have always supposed this over-zealousness was a general human train, but in certain am-I-crazy moments, I wonder if somehow I am preferentially selecting for this kind of nuttiness.  Apparently not:

A Hawaii couple’s 3-year-old daughter was taken away from them for 18 hours after they were arrested for forgetting to a pay for two $5 sandwiches.

“This is unreal this could happen to a family like ours,” Nicole Leszczynski told Hawaii’s KHON.

The outing-turned-nightmare happened Wednesday while the family was shopping at a local Safeway.

“We walked a long way to the grocery store and I was feeling faint, dizzy, like I needed to eat something so we decided to pick up some sandwiches and eat them while we were shopping,” Leszczynski told the news station.

Leszczynski, who is 30-weeks pregnant, her husband, Marcin, and daughter Zophia bought $50 worth of groceries — but forgot about their two chicken salad sandwiches.

“It was a complete distraction, distracted parent moment,” Leszczynski told KHON.

As the family left, they were stopped by store security, who asked for their receipt.

“I offered to pay, we had the cash. We just bought the groceries,” Leszczynski told the station.

Instead, the expectant mother told KHON that the Safeway manager called police. They were taken to the main Honolulu police station where they were booked for fourth degree theft. Then Zophia was taken into custody by Child Protective Services.

I will say that I think the public agencies we replace in operating these parks are generally worse at this than we are, simply because so many of their employees have law enforcement certifications.  Dealing with customer service issues using law enforcement officers is often a recipe for bad outcomes.


  1. Barbara Lamar:

    As part of my standard employee interview, I describe hypothetical problem situtions and ask the candidate what he or she would do. While this won't necessarily reveal what a person might do if his or her ego is on the line, it at least sorts out people who are able to think and make their own judgments from people who follow a set of rules, no matter where it leads. I have a policy of financial transparency, so my employees know the source of their salaries. My clients are also their clients. As much as possible, I try to have each employee responsible for a clearly defined segment of the business, and I encourage their supervisors to give them frequent feedback for both good and not-so-good performance.

    With respect to law enforcement, I had a friend who claimed to have been rejected when he applied for a job as a police officer, because his score on an examination was too high. I don't know whether this is true, but I suspect that one of the characteristics of a job candidate for, say, airport security officer or department store security, is a willingness to strictly enforce a set of rules, without thinking or judging for oneself.

  2. Philip Ngai:

    It is easy to feel sympathy for the family as most of us have been in similar situations. But how do you tell the difference between honest, one time forgetfulness and repeat, intentional offenders? And how do you train an employee or LEO when to exercise discretion? Isn't that the opposite of the legal system where all are to be treated equally under the law?

  3. Jeff:

    Barbara - I have a close friend, with LEO experience, that applied to our local, suburban, very selective police department, who failed the psychology test.

    They specifically told him he was too empathetic to be a police officer.

    I believe this is a common problem with most departments. They are self-selecting officers that lack empathy, have daily interactions with not very nice people, and we end up with thugs with badges.

  4. LTMG:

    Leveraging off of what Ms. Lamar recommends, consider gathering all of your front-line customer service people in a room for an hour every week to review hypothetical and real cases. If your employees are willing, use the real events in your company as learning opportunities. As actions improve over time, the front-line customer service staff can meet less frequently because they are more mentally calibrated.

    Also ... look in the mirror and ask yourself if the errant employees' behavior might be fully or partially caused by how they are measured and rewarded. The reward system has to encourage desired behaviors. If the reward system encourages undesired behaviors, then the result is predictable and you will be tearing out your hair again.

  5. Matt:

    Jeff and Barbara;

    While I agree that LEOs with little or no empathy are a problem, I can see too much empathy also being a significant problem in a LEO.

    Too much empathy likely raises the probability of an officer burning out. This could lead to several possible bad outcomes which are not mutually exclusive: becoming a drunk to numb the emotional impact, eating a bullet, turning into a no-empathy thug.

    Those with high empathy can not deal with the dregs of society (the hoplessly stupid and the genuinely evil) on a daily basis without being affected by it.

    It's a sticky problem and I don't have any ideas how to deal with it.

  6. el coronado:

    "I have never seen a problem that did not significantly worsen upon the arrival of the police."

    That (soon-to-be-ex) manager of Safeway really ought to consider having that tattooed on his arm, for easy access in case of doubt. $10MM worth of bad publicity - I know *I'll* never shop there again, nor any of my family - that, thanks to the miracle of the internet, will always be instantly accessible forever. Nice work there, Mr. Manager. Why not just haul off and slug the pregnant, "woman" in the belly? REALLY teach her a lesson?

    I've had a well-deserved contempt for cops and the legal system for decades now, and I guess that can't be helped: Brutality, thuggery, and graft are inherent to the LEO/"justice" system. But *Safeway?*!? Who knew??

  7. mahtso:

    "But how do you tell the difference between honest, one time forgetfulness and repeat, intentional offenders?" Still no answer to this question. el coronado, how do you tell?

    My suspicion is that the vast majority of those who eat food in the store say they just forgot to pay when apprehended.

  8. John O.:

    “But how do you tell the difference between honest, one time forgetfulness and repeat, intentional offenders?”

    A repeat offender never wastes his time in the store, he gets what he wants and bolts. The longer the thief is there the greater chances of getting caught when the store is full of cameras. A family that forgets to pay for something they consumed before they bought $50 groceries isn't somebody who follows the typical shoplifter modus operandi.

    This is clearly a case of the store manager wanting to use somebody as an example and I think it was a bad choice as the family offered to correct their mistake which no shoplifter would ever do as getting caught and surrendering means near certain conviction of all the others thefts he is accused of. The easiest and most important issue the manager failed to exercise is to have noticed that the markup on the $50 groceries the family paid for was more than enough to make up the loss.

  9. Charles Pergiel:

    Part of the problem may be due to the huge difference in the standards between which employees are judged, and customers. On one hand you want to provide your customers with a stress free experience. On the other, the employees need closely follow a set of standards, where any deviation can result in reprimand. The reprimand can be extremely mild, but for a tightly wound person it would be as bad as a slap in the face. I don't know how much bearing this has on reality, I probably watch too many movies.

  10. el coronado:

    Mahtso, knowing the difference between honest forgetfulness and (de facto) shoplifting is presumably a skill that's pretty much limited to retail, & I don't have a retail background. But in this age of Youtube and Twitter and the universal web, I'd imagine 'better safe than sorry' would be a pretty smart policy in cases like these. I'd also expect that corporate mgmt. has talked to/memo'd the troops about this stuff for at least the last 5 years or so. Since managers are responsible for *everything* that goes on during their watch, if I were that mgr.'s boss, I'd be pounding him with a few questions right about now, memos or no. Just before I fire him.

    1) Was your response to the presumed theft proportional to the $10 cost of the sandwiches? If not, why not?
    2) In your zeal to nail the perps, did you ever stop to consider that maybe you were wrong? Or it was all an honest misunderstanding? If not, why not?
    3) Expanding on that "what if you're wrong" angle, did you think to run a quick mental cost/benefit analysis before you called the cops and ignited this P.R. nightmare? If not, why not?
    4) Do you think the $5 (store cost) you were trying to save the company outweighs the $10,000,000 in bad publicity your stupidity has generated? Do you think maybe this story will pop up as #1 on Google anytime someone googles "Safeway" for the next 20 years? Do you think that 5 bucks was worth all that?
    5) "No"? Then why'd you do it, idiot?

    If the answer to ANY of those questions is "I didn't think it through", then you're fired, Mr. Manager. "Thinking it through" is job 1 for every manager in every business on Earth. It's *especially* important for a company in a razor-thin-margins, low-customer-loyalty business who has to compete with WalMart on a daily basis. Yeah, I'm sure it feels good to nail dirtbag grazers, and lower your 'graze' loss inherent to all supermarkets .000002%. But if the cost of doing so is gaining a worldwide reputation for crapping on your customers, I'm just not sure it's worth it, do you?

  11. steve:

    “But how do you tell the difference between honest, one time forgetfulness and repeat, intentional offenders?”

    The repeat offenders come back and do it again.

    So what if they never do it again in your store and only do it in stores where they haven't been caught?

    Well, then it's not a problem for your store anymore. Better in my opinion that a few of the smarter petty thieves get away with a little shoplifting (keep it up and you will be caught sooner or later) then turn this country into a heartless distopia where two minutes of innatention can ruin an innocent persons life. Notice the crucial qualifier on thief, ie. "petty". It doesn't apply to thieves who get caught backing a truck up to your loading dock and helping themselves.

  12. mahtso:

    I am curious as to why people believe the Leszczynskis. Ms. Leszczynski's story strikes me as contrived: She was dizzy, but "we" ate sandwiches. What caused the distraction? How is that related to the dizziness?

  13. Don:

    " Ms. Leszczynski’s story strikes me as contrived: She was dizzy, but “we” ate sandwiches."

    And you strike me as somebody whose never had a pregnant wife and/or an object example of Warren's comment on ego getting in the way of good decision making.

    You're fired.

  14. Jim Collins:

    You also have to question the Store's policies. If you keep posting signs that say "We prosecute all shoplifters to the fullest extent of the law.", then you are telling your employees how to act. I'll also ask, "Where is the line between shoplifting and forgetfullness?".

    As far as having to deal with irate customers is concerned, a littl tact can go a long ways. We do metal fabrication, usually off of customer provided blueprints. About once a month a truck pulls up with the parts we made on the back and an irate customer in the front. I usually give them about 3 or 4 minutes to blow off steam and then say "How about we look into what caused this?". 9 times out of 10 they have sent us the wrong revision drawing for what they want. When that happens my response is "What can we do to fix this?". Usually that is getting somebody from their company to e-mail the correct drawing and figuring out what the differences are and a way to fix them. Then I give them a quote for the changes. The 1 time we are at fault, I usually just kiss ass and make things right.

  15. Hasdrubal:

    --"My suspicion is that the vast majority of those who eat food in the store say they just forgot to pay when apprehended."

    Does that matter? You're in the business of serving people not enforcing the law. So if you confront someone and they apologize and offer to pay, does it matter if they were intending to steal from you or not? Does it even matter if they refuse to apologize or be contrite? Wouldn't banning them from the store in the future have the same effect without the downside risk of involving the police?

    What's the profit maximizing strategy here? Make national headlines because you locked up a pregnant mother and her husband, stranding their three year old; or graciously allowing a couple to pay for the food that they ate, which was 1/5 of the value of what they had already paid for?

    Reputation is just as important as spoilage, in fact, there's a line item on most balance sheets for "goodwill." Customer service isn't about being right and enforcing rules, it's about making customers happy. If you can't get that through your head, you shouldn't be in a business that deals with customers.

    --"Isn’t that the opposite of the legal system where all are to be treated equally under the law?"

    Yes, yes it is. It's the customer service industry, not the government. The goal isn't to ensure compliance with the rules, or even equitable treatment of everyone. The goal is to serve your customers in a way that minimizes your costs and maximizes the likelihood of repeat business. There is no algorithm to achieve that, employees have to think for themselves to decide what the best way to accomplish these goals are.

    And yes, apparently that's very hard to train, otherwise this post wouldn't have been titled "My Most Difficult Customer Service Problem."

  16. el coronado:

    I recall reading somewhere years ago - sorry, no link - a fun little story about Walmart and one reason for their success. Seems they'd done a study, and found that they could anticipate every customer in the store spending something like $50,000 at Walmart over the course of their lifetimes *so long as they kept coming back to Walmart to shop.*

    Which meant that any screwup, be it major or minor, could (eventually) cost Wallyworld $50K times the number of people they told the story to & convinced them to stay away, too. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, the folks at church, facebook buddies, total strangers they meet at parties, you name it. So with even just a little bad luck, an customer unhappy over a $2 transaction could conceivably cost Walmart a million bucks. The story said Walmart pounds that tale into every new hire's brain, & would have tattooed it on their foreheads if it weren't for those meddling lawyers. So working **real hard** to keep the customers happy, even if it means erring on the side of caution in cases of unpaid sandwiches and the like, is kind of a priority there. Hasdrubal has it precisely right: the goal of each & every company on Earth is and should be (long-term) repeat business. Except at Safeway, I guess.

    Again, I've got no background in retail, but I do (think I) know my ass from a hole in the ground. Based on the fact the Walton family is pretty much the richest in the country, I'd say they may have been on to something with their ideas on customer retention. Based on the fact I rarely see rocket scientists or superstar salesmen in Armani suits working at Walmart, I'd also say it's a trainable skill.

  17. Sol:

    mahtso: speaking as someone with a three year old (and therefore someone who has also had a pregnant wife), let me tell you that either condition (pregnant or with a three-year-old) is more than adequate to explain being distracted at checkout. And frankly, my guess is that very, very few people trying to steal $10 spend $50 in the process...

  18. Knucklehead:

    Just today my lunch mates and I watched a woman wolfing grapes in a grocery store. She was apparently waiting for her husband and daughter to join her and she chose to wait by the grapes. Wolfing is an exaggeration but she didn't eat 2 or 3, she ate a good sized handful before she was done. She'd wander away a bit and then return and eat a few more.

    I can't even begin to estimate the value of those grapes. Probably less than $1. Given the value it would seem ridiculous to prosecute the woman or even call the police on her.

    But what about a store security person confronting her? That might seem silly on the surface. But... If some significant portion of shoppers freely eat the merchandise what could the average loss add up to. $1 per shopper? $2? Doesn't seem like much. But... If the store gains the reputation of "not caring" if shoppers stroll along sampling the goods that encourages the behavior. Then maybe it is $3/shopper.

    The store provides sampling stations for many items. They are quite a gracious and helpful organization. It seems to me that they must make at least an attempt to habituate telling shoppers that they shouldn't help themselves to merchandise. There are ways to accomplish that without confrontations. PA systems are one possibility. Signs another.

    You must collect payment for the products delivered (or consumed) and services rendered. If not you will go out of business. But there must be some commonsense applied. Are your employees responsible for uncollected payments that turn up at the end of the shift or during periodic audits?

    Is there some question or short list of questions you could have them ask themselves in this sort of customer service situation? Just as hard cases make bad law, so hard cases make bad customer service.

    I suggest that during initial training (and perhaps in any refresher training you do periodically) you tell your employees who interact with customers to ask themselves two quick and short questions at difficult moments:

    1) If I were on the other side of this situation how would I react?
    2) If the customer were my neighbor (not one I am friendly or unfriendly with) just a neighbor - how would I react?

    If nothing else it provides them with a few seconds to reflect and, perhaps, make contact with their common sense.

    Take your question to the societal level, however, and I suggest shooting the miscreant "customers" immediately. We need rule of law, not touchy-feely nonsense!

  19. Alex:

    Be glad you don't do business in Europe or the like, where it's illegal to fire anyone without a very, very good cause. Being rude to customers, by the way, does not count as a good cause. What then is a good cause in a fully unionized, corporatist, socialist welfare state? Stealing from you might be one, but only if it's a lot.

  20. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    As an example, I'd cite a local supermarket chain know for very good customer service attitudes.

    I have a whole lot of change built up over time that I decided to deal with, so I asked them for some empty paper coin rolls to use. I can't say I've priced them, but it seems unlikely the cost for them in bulk is greater than pennies on the hundred.

    They actually refused. The people in the front just don't grasp that I'm likely going to bring that money BACK to the store and to SPEND most of it THERE. I actually had to complain to the store manager -- not the shift manager, but the actual STORE manager, the next day -- to get any of them.

    The reason cited, I was told, is that a local food shop would come in asking for them constantly, and they were told to refuse THEM because they were taking advantage of the supermarket. That a front counter person may not want to override this I can see, sort of, but the shift manager should be able to grasp the difference easily, or has no business being a manager at any level.

    This all deals with common sense, Warren. Not sure if there are fewer people with it these days, or what, but it certainly seems like all too few people are willing or able to apply it to problems, regardless of whether or not they have any.

  21. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    know for == "known for"

    Crappy keyboard.

  22. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    Knucklehead: What you describe falls under the category of "shrinkage" in the vernacular. The more common form of shrinkage is overt shoplifting*, but this kind of unthought shoplifting is actually factored into the prices you pay.

    *and, interesting enough, employee "shoplifting" is actually a larger percentage of losses in most places than customer shoplifting. When you pay employees crap, they have a lot less loyalty to the job, and the dumber ones are able to believe that they'll never get caught at it... and that's partly because it's not really trivial to catch them at it if they're even vaguely crafty. Most of them figure that, if you suspect them of it, you'll just fire them rather than take the trouble to prove what they are doing sufficient to charge you with a crime. And if the job pays crap, just like every other one, why should they care if they lose the job...?

    The real trick is to make the job a good enough job that no one wants to risk for petty crap. Part of that is finding ways to appreciate your employees, usually with cash of some sort. I know at one point many years ago, CostCo was paying its cashiers $10 an hour when the minwage was like $4 an hour. They had their shrinkage rates down under 2%, which is/was like half the industry average for that type of store.

    I'd lay odds, for example, that a decent employee bonus based on how low the shrinkage was would go a long ways towards discouraging it. It would work both on peer pressure as well as direct peer-prevention. If you're threatening me getting an extra thousand bucks at Christmas time, you can damned sure bet I'm not going to just look the other way while you walk out the back door with a new stereo set.

  23. IGotBupkis, Unicorn Fart Entrepreneur:

    >>> Customer service isn’t about being right and enforcing rules, it’s about making customers happy. If you can’t get that through your head, you shouldn’t be in a business that deals with customers.

    Amazing how few service organizations grasp this in the slightest.

  24. How D. Neighbor:

    The story about the family in Hawaii is outrageous. Never should have happened. Also people shouldn't eat or drink stuff in markets until after they've paid for it.

    There is too much reliance on law enforcement and courts. People can't settle disputes among themselves or be reasonable.

    The author's comments about screening candidates for their ability to make reasonable decisions was interesting. I've got a customer service job where I'm encouraged not to do that. I have to check ID's to avoid serving alcohol to minors. I get cursed out multiple times per night. I have a set of rules to follow with no leeway. If I screw up I will lose my job & be cited & fined. One last thing - a lot of young people are uncivil and it is hard to deal with them other than in a hardass law enforcement type way. Sad to say that but that's my experience.

  25. Former grocery clerk:

    a"A repeat offender never wastes his time in the store, he gets what he wants and bolts. The longer the thief is there the greater chances of getting caught when the store is full of cameras. A family that forgets to pay for something they consumed before they bought $50 groceries isn’t somebody who follows the typical shoplifter modus operandi."

    Completely incorrect. Even thieves/shoplifters have to buy things that they can't shoplift. Back in my grocery store clerking years nearly EVERY shoplifter bought something at the checkout (diapers, milk, paper towels), they just didn't pay for everything (whether trying to smuggling it out or consuming it in the store). With very narrow margins shoplifting is a huge problem, and it is simple courtesy not to consume food before you pay for it. The punishment didn't fit the "crime" here, but how difficult would it have been for them to have paid for the sandwiches right away?

    If nothing else is learned, don't eat food in the grocery aisle. It is unsanitary, poor manners and clerks/security can't assume that you really mean to pay for it later.

  26. Former grocery clerk:

    "And frankly, my guess is that very, very few people trying to steal $10 spend $50 in the process…"

    Again, this guess is wrong. $50 isn't much these days, and one can easily spend that on necessities that you can't shoplift (particularly with barcoded stores) - the shoplifting consists of consuming in store (which one shouldn't do, even if they intend to pay for it) or removing the barcode from an item small enough to smuggle out.

    Ask any clerk/janitor at a large grocery store, they will tell you of the number of wrappers/plastic containers/etc. they will see jammed among the rest of the merchandise from people consuming in the store. I'm sure many of these people still check out groceries, just the ones they can't consume or hide. Even the best thieves have to pay for some things.

  27. Steven M. Degener, J.D.:

    Interesting exchange of comments here on this issue. First off, theft costs retailers billions of dollars per year. Hard to imagine the thought process that condoning someone to take product from your business represents good customer service. Large retailers also have to manage their liability and stay consistent with how they handle people who leave the store without paying for merchandise. You can see where allowing certain "groups" to go free and prosecuting others can lead to litigation for selective prosecution.
    Often, shoplifters are caught with hundreds of dollars in their pocket so saying someone spent 50 and therefore, the 10 in free merchandise shows they had no intent to steal is baseless. Just ask Lindsay Lohan and all the other wealthy people who steal.
    I'm surprised that 10.00 in merchandise resulted in a trip to the police station. Usually that amount equals a citation. Maybe there is more to her background that is not being reported? Like prior convictions....

  28. smurfy:

    I buy sandwiches at Safeway. They have a register right there next to the sandwich bar and could charge customers right then and there at the point of sale. But the clerks are too lazy to take off their gloves, handle cash, and then wash up again. So they send me up to the front to pay. I think that is a reasonable operations decision but you have to accept that there will be higher shrink and the trade off is less time spent washing up and fewer disposable gloves.

    then you go over to the coffee bar and see how they treat the real high shrink stuff. Pay up, now.
    To some degree, store policy set these guys up to fail.

  29. Steven:

    I don't disagree with your point, but FYI, "Goodwill" in accounting terms does not mean the value of a company's reputation, but rather the amount over book value that a firm paid during an acquisition (i.e. if Wal-Mart buys Safeway for more than book value, then the difference is Goodwill on their balance sheet)