The Customer is Not Always Right

As I leaned over the man’s shoulder, trying to get a better look at his miniature laptop, another man interrupted and literally waved me away. “I got it,” he said. Pulling the computer closer to him, he began clicking and typing again. I bristled and stood up straight, but I didn’t immediately turn on my heels- I wanted to see if he did indeed “have it.” He did, and both men promptly went back to their work, ignoring that I was a mere two feet away from them, looking at the backs of their heads. I took it as a sign I was dismissed. I had been.

I work in technology, but not the industry that typically comes to mind when one thinks of technology—I don’t code, I don’t develop apps or websites. I am in hospitality, event planning, but on the Audio Visual side. I cater to clients who hold receptions, business meetings and get-togethers. I’ve been doing this long enough to know whether there will be a problem the moment I shake someone’s hand, and being dismissed by clients because they “don’t need a woman’s help” is not a scenario with which I am unfamiliar.

NO - Businessman showing copy space

The hospitality industry is just that- hospitable, meaning it doesn’t discriminate against clients who are misogynists, racists, bigots, zealots or anyone else. Everyone’s money spends just the same, and in the service industry, that’s all that matters. “The customer is always right.” Every time I am subjected to or overhear a racist/sexist/homophobic remark, or if I’m handed a flyer about God, accused of stealing, asked out for a drink, or if I’m simply dealing with some man trying to sweet-talk me in exchange for free stuff, I have to just grit my teeth and continue smiling. Saying anything beyond a gentle ‘no’ would rock the boat. In this industry, you can’t risk losing a loaded company over one employee making accusations about sexism, or as management would probably call it, “questionable decision-making.” There are a million other places a client can take their business, and they will. So I grit my teeth and smile.

Have I wanted to be nasty in response to the sexist or dismissive things I’ve overheard from clients, or the oftentimes equally insulting things they have said to my face? Yes. But have I ever stood up to a client on my own behalf? Or on behalf of somebody else? No. I can’t. I’m a representative of my company, and I am here to do a job, to provide a service for our clients’ events and to ensure everyone is happy; it’s not my job to act like the behavior police. My employer provides a handbook listing provisions they’ve put in place to combat conduct that could result in a hostile work environment; however, those statutes only apply to fellow employees and not the paying client. It’s a hard line to walk when a person is purposefully offensive and I want to object, but can’t. Even when I shake my head and think, “That guy’s an asshole,” there are still times when I feel complicit by not speaking out. Shaking my head is about the only thing I can do while I’m on the clock without risking my job.

BC

One of the most mortifying instances I was personally involved in came at the end of a large conference one Saturday afternoon. The room needed to be cleared out for the next event, and I was hurrying to get out of the way. The hotel staff was beginning to reorganize the chairs and tables. After my clients had packed up their materials, three men, all in their early to mid-30s, began changing out of their business suits and into their street clothes. Right there in the conference room. I was the only female in the room when the manager on duty spoke up and asked them to use the restrooms down the hall to change. The three men, too concerned with shucking their business attire, ignored the request. The manager then said, “There’s a lady present.” Ouch. Not that they shouldn’t get naked in public, just don’t get naked when there’s a lady in the room.

One of the three retorted nonchalantly, “I’m sure it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.” From the corner of my eye, I could see the three men watching me, waiting for me to agree. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment, so I quickly exited the room to let the situation diffuse, leaving my task unfinished.

Had I been personally offended by three men changing in front of me? Not really. Was I taken aback by their exhibitionism? Yes, as were my male peers working alongside me. But I had done my best to ignore it, continuing my work with my back turned. What was more upsetting was being singled out by the manager’s remark about a “lady being present.” More offensive still was their defense, “It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.” I waited in the back hallway until the manager came out and said, “Those jerks are gone.” I reentered the room to finish moving my equipment, not another word said about the incident. I’ve filed it away under Jerk Clients and only bring it out when swapping horror stories with colleagues. Despite the passage of time, I still feel slimy when I recall the entire interaction.

Not that the Don’t Be a Sexist Asshole handbook keeps my co-workers from being offensive either. Unfortunately, clients aren’t always the only offenders—a highly-placed executive once asked me a sexist question about how I cover large-scale events in the event that I find myself without any assistance. If I didn’t have a scheduled employee to help, or if an employee called off, what would I do? I was caught off guard, and didn’t come to realize how offensive it was until I asked a fellow manager, a male, if he was asked that same question. He was not. I’m approximately 5’1”, so while there may have been some merit to asking a question regarding heavy equipment that requires two people to build or break down, the fact that the same question was not asked of my male counterparts made it sexist, and that infuriated me.

I felt singled out, and for the first time, I doubted my ability to perform duties I had no issues handling prior to that question. I felt I had to reestablish my value, and for a few weeks afterward, I grappled with paranoia about my job being in jeopardy–because I was a woman. I was offended, but I did not go to HR for two reasons: 1) He was my boss’s boss, two steps above me, and someone I probably would never see again. 2) I didn’t trust my HR department not to punish me for making an issue over it. So I did the only thing I felt safe doing: I convinced myself that the guy was just a jackass and continued on in my duties. Working in the service industry breeds a particular culture, and though policies exist to prevent all of the hateful and discriminatory “isms,” the culture of the service industry is such that you’re expected to have a thick skin—to tolerate assholery from clients and colleagues.

Thankfully, after an organizational shakeup, the man who had asked me about my ability to perform my job without any scheduled assistance is no longer employed by my company, and these days, I’m surrounded by a great group of peers. The damage is done, however, and in the back of my mind, I’m always painfully aware that being female in my position is not the norm.

In the case of the naked Jerk Clients, and by dint of working in the customer service industry, saying anything back to them could have cost me their business, and by way of residual effect, any further networking opportunities with their company or their acquaintances. Hypothetical or no, from a business standpoint, the negative repercussions that would have resulted from speaking up far outweighed any potential benefit I’d have experienced from dishing out a quick retort. And yet, I am still conflicted about not having spoken up then, and about still feeling hesitant to speak up today. I am not so bold as to think what I have to say will necessarily have a lasting impact on a stranger’s view, much less their behavior, but not saying anything sometimes makes me feel complicit in their discrimination, or sometimes worse, their outspoken opinions on race or sexual orientation. Though I am compelled to speak out when faced with an undesirable conversation or sexist language at work, it’s easier to communicate my disapproval through facial expressions and body language. I have yet to be reprimanded by my boss for lack of eye contact, crossed-arms, or a curt consultation. Plus, like I said, “The Customer is Always Right.”

Make no mistake, on any given day, the majority of people I meet through my job are friendly, breezing in and out of my workspace without incident. I count on them to make my job more pleasant, to tip the scales after a particularly difficult client has just called me “sweetie.” I’m confident I’m not alone in feeling resentful that speaking out against sexism, or discrimination, could cost me my job. If you work in the service industry and can attest to putting up with disrespect, discrimination and hate speech due to the propagated “The Customer is Always Right” mantra, and you want to share about your experiences, email me at alexis@theflounce.com. Because dealing with shitty customers and swallowing your beliefs while you’re punched in is REAL SHIZ.

 

Alexis Oliver
Alexis has been writing on and off since she was a kid. Her first submission was to Highlights Magazine, and though they passed on her in-depth analysis of falling leaves in winter, she continued to be a loyal reader. She is most passionate about animals, conservation, and trying to convince her county to allow backyard chickens. Alexis currently works full time in Hospitality and lives outside of Pittsburgh with her boyfriend and three cats.
  • http://theflounce.com Ali

    The point you bring up about being unable to speak up, due to your employer’s policies, which creates a weird complicity, is a really great one. It’s such a tough spot to be in, and it’s an unfortunate lose-lose situation.

    I’m glad that the horror stories are a small minority of your customers.

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      Some of the Bad Clients I’ve come across act entitled and are trigger happy to report someone for any infraction no matter how inconsequential because complaints equals money off their bill. My Employer does have strict policies for protecting employees from other employees but nothing against protecting us from paying customers.

  • Soulsweeper

    I often think of scenario in which every young adult is forced to work in a customer service at least for a short while. And if they still end up as jerk clients later in life, they can expect another forced trip behind McDonald’s counter, or anywhere in retail. Repeat until it works. A man can dream…

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      I second that plan!

    • xanax & skittles

      Oh exactly. I will try my hardest to never be a jerk to service employees, administrative professionals, etc. because I’ve been there myself.

  • Andrea A

    this made me think of the small time I worked in TV production and Andy Dick changed his clothes at my desk. that was a joy to behold (sarcasm) and I was the receptionist so I wasn’t allowed to leave my desk.

    I worked lots and lots of retail, so I feel ya. I’m now a corporate event planner so I’m usually the gal *you* work with when I need a 3 day hotel retreat planned, so I apologize for any douches. because of my considerable service background, I try my best to be nice. however, when my AV equipment is missing, doors are locked, food order is completely incorrect, or whatever always goes wrong, I can get a little terse.

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      Ewww! Was he high?

      Look me up if you need any help from the av nerd!

      • Andrea A

        wellll it’s a safe assumption that he’s probably always a at least little bit high. I think he just has no shame or sense of decorum and likes to be shocking. *shudder*

    • xanax & skittles

      That’s so gross and not surprising at all. Andy Dick ::shudders::

      • Andrea A

        yeah he’s a peach. ugggg.

  • boonslala

    I always feel rage when I hear of people being put in the types of situations you describe. They really need to publish the “Don’t Be a Sexist Asshole Handbook” and give to everyone. I used to be in this situation a lot when I worked in public libraries. Whenever anybody was disatisfied I always got the “MY TAX DOLLARS ARE PAYING YOUR SALARY!!” UH, OK sure, I’m trying to help you and give you want you want, but does that mean that I have to be your indentured servant? I think it goes without saying that the people that said these things were almost exclusively men. Not a good look in a field pretty much dominated by women.

    • nyhcmaven84

      Oh, I ALWAYS heard that “my tax dollars pay your salary/pension” bullshiz from virtually no one but men…and it’s almost always directed at a current or retired TEACHER.

      It’s incredibly patronizing and just downright annoying, not to mention obnoxious. I mean, if I’m dissatisfied with my grilled cheese sandwich at Panera I don’t start saunter up to a manager and acting like a warthog who learned English and get all “My cheesy bucks pay your damn salary!” (Even though indirectly, it does. Without customers, they don’t have a business in which to pay employees with.)

      Whereas with taxes…sorry asswipe, your paycheck does not directly go to a librarian’s or teacher’s paycheck. Income taxes go into a general fund. The same general fund public employee salaries come from is also used for roads, bridges, and parks among other things. For all you know, your income taxes were used to clean pigeon poop off statues in public parks or perhaps the mayor’s directive to provide free dildos for all.

      Ha sorry for the tangent but as a tax nerd that crap just annoys me!

      • boonslala

        Tax nerd input much appreciated! I wish I still worked with the public so I could tell them EXACTLY what you just said. “Ya’ll’s money is for poop and dildos!” would be monumentily satisfying.

        • nyhcmaven84

          I had an awesome public finance course in grad school. I learned so much about general funds, restricted funds, matching and block grants, and how our public programs work. After all, general tax courses and tax prep don’t teach about where it goes and how it’s used.

          And I snorted out my tea just now at “Ya’ll’s money is for poop and dildos!” Haha that needs a Metalocalypse gif to go with it!

      • relentless fuckery

        I got this when I taught. My response was, yeah, and MY tax dollars pay my salary too.

  • Turanga Leela

    Oh, yes- the customer. This is my life.

  • nyhcmaven84

    It would rule if a federal law got enacted that made all people read a handbook in high school, about how not to be a sexist d-bag. Because oh hell, let’s face it, it’s not just chauvinist men who are the problem (*cough cough* Phyllis Schafley)

    The guys stripping story– or rather, the manager’s response to it that they shouldn’t do it not because it’s poor manners to strip in a frigging conference room but because a woman is present– reminded me of when I started my last job and my boss’ other business partner who dropped in time to time started telling a raunchy joke then suddenly stops dead in his tracks because he thought he couldn’t do that around me. When…I am capable of more Cluster F-Bombs and Precision F-Strikes than a pile of drunken sailors who just got served by the Angry Video Game Nerd.

    I don’t know who the fuck decided to keep these outdated social mores going that women are just nice docile beings who don’t curse and are never around icky things!

    When I worked on Wall Street, I once chewed out a co-worker for calling a client’s secretary “honey” on the phone. I said it was rude, sexist, and demeaning. My boss thought it wasn’t a big deal: “Come on, maybe she doesn’t have anyone to call her ‘honey’ on the phone! X is a nice guy!”

    How I managed to make it through both the above jobs without fashioning shivs out of copier parts and ending up in Bronx Central Booking or perhaps Bellevue, I WILL NEVER KNOW.

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      I loved your comment! My group of peers happen to be all men and they’re a wonderful group, however if we are all together and they start to get off topic, un-PC or inappropriate they always apologize to me as though I’m offended. I don’t know why, I swear like a sailor and they’ve witnessed it but for some reason my presence just requires tip-toeing. It offends me more that they think I need to be treated like a delicate flower.

  • TheeLoveCats

    I was fortunate enough to have a manager who looked out for her cashiers. I worked in a grocer store from age 16 to 21 and was pretty much a creep magnet. One guy was especially bad and my manager noticed his behavior towards me and another girl (who looked very similar to me). If he was in the store, she would either shut down my register and have me “check my schedule” in the locked office (until he was out of the parking lot) or she would run my register herself. The man would sometimes get angry, saying only I could ring up his groceries. She would politely inform him that wasn’t true and she would make sure his groceries were rung up and bagged nicely so he could be on with his day. He would fuss but he would go along with it. My manager there was a dream on so many levels. I loved her.
    Fast forward a few years…I worked briefly at a bank. Guess who was a regular customer? That guy. And he would come in SHIRTLESS and try to flirt with all the old ladies but oh, then he saw me. He was elated to see me. He would practically purr at the sight of me, picking up right where he left off, asking me about my dating life and whatnot. I, however, was not at all happy to see him. I would refuse to help him and would hide in the vault. My boss there, this stupid woman, told me I couldn’t do that and I should just deal with it and do my job. I explained my past experiences and she basically didn’t care. One of the other tellers was supportive of my hiding and would cover me if I left my station to hide from this guy….but ugh. I eventually got fired from the bank (not that I minded, exactly. It wasn’t the place for me). I think I got fired because 1) I told various creepy men to “knock it off” with trying to touch my hands, when giving them their money. 2) I stood up for a teller whose first language was Spanish, and as a result, her English was heavily accented… (and in doing so, I corrected the grammar of the woman griping and gossiping about the Spanish teller. “She doesn’t speak English good.” “Actually, she does speak English quite well…blah blah…you just need to work on your listening and comprehension skills.” …..something to that effect) 3) I was often mistaken for being the “new bank manager” and my manager DID NOT appreciate that and found it to be insulting. It didn’t help that customers were excited thinking I was the new head honcho and that this lady was on the outs.
    Fast forward again to when I worked during the holiday season at Bath and Body Works. I had my former manager as a customer and she picked out a lip gloss that was busted. I SO BADLY wanted to squeeze that goo all over her other purchases “accidentally” but instead I chose to imagine doing so and treated her respectfully, got her a lip gloss that wasn’t busted….I really hated that woman for a number of reasons but ehhhhhh I just couldn’t justify it.
    Yay customer service!

    • nyhcmaven84

      I find it ironic that lady was complaining about your co-worker’s English when in fact, the correct way to state her gripe would be “She doesn’t speak English WELL.” Come on, what the hell is HER excuse?!

      But ugh the creepy dudes. Out of all the living hell working retail and customer service brings, there’s just a special spot in my heart full of hate for the creepy dudes and worse yet the managers who don’t care to defend their employees from said creepy dudes– and it’s not just male managers who turn a blind eye.

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      EW at the Old Man. That sounds like when I worked at a Deli, some of the men were so pervy when I would run their lottery numbers! Oh god and if they hit? You were THIER lottery machine girl FOREVER. (And they’d wait for you no matter how long the line was. This was perfectly acceptable)

      Really glad to hear that you stood up for yourself and your Spanish coworker, humanity is NOT dead!

  • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

    I worked in restaurants and bars forever. I would always have that “is this really fucking happening?” feeling and not know how to react. I’d end up laughing or doing something that implied that the customer’s behavior was okay. By the time I had a response, it was too late, and definitely not worth it.
    I always had people (especially at this one bar that catered to 30-something hipsters who never worked a real job) that would act like I was and idiot, but it was so subtle that there wasn’t anything I could do. Plus, I was working for tips.
    I’m poor now and not working in that industry anymore but my heart will always be there. I want to make it rain on everyone and over thank them wherever I go.

    • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

      I’m all too familiar with that uncomfortable giggle and smile just to get out of conversation. I couldn’t imagine being a bartender and having to do that all night or until a jerk customer left.