We are terrible pseudo-parents to each other

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It is an interesting phenomenon that, when there is a dispute in a retail setting, it is often the customer who displays a flagrant disregard for common courtesy that gets deferential treatment by the staff of the store/service provider/etc. To put it bluntly, those who yell and throw tantrums get whatever they want. Polite, respectful customers get whatever is thrown their way while laurels are heaped at the feet of the misbehaved.

Why is this? As a parent, rewarding such bad behaviour is one of the worst things that you can do. It simply teaches the child that such behaviour is correct and that, in the future, will lead to further rewards. Polite, respectful behaviour is to be desired, and so is rewarded while its opposite is punished. In a retail environment, however, the opposite is true. Ugly, antisocial behaviour is rewarded with discounts, perks, and freebies. This is terrible parental behaviour on the part of retail staff. If we reward customers who act with antisocial tendencies, they will continue to come back and behave badly in hopes of further rewards.

I’ve witnessed a lot of this in my days in retail. People make mistakes, get their backs up, and try to pin it on the store; partially this is a phenomenon whose roots lie in refusing to admit ones own faults, but there is also the hope that the store will simply buckle and give into demands in order to “keep the customer satisfied”. The store often does; I’ve seen untold numbers of customers given discounts or free work simply because they did something wrong and then threw a tantrum. This is detrimental to both the store and the customer: the store loses out in top line sales and in lost productivity, and the customer is given the idea that if they act like an asshole, good things will happen to them. They’re terrible children to us and we are terrible parents to them.

It’s not typically the front-line workers fault, however. The worst offenders for rewarding bad behaviour are normally management, since they really have the most to lose from not addressing it. Customers that are willing to raise a stink about petty store-level issues are also often the type to angrily escalate such matters up the chain until it all falls back down on the head of the store manager anyway. In order to avoid this, they will often placate a badly behaving customer with discounts or freebies. This does no one any favours and is, in fact, the equivalent of a harassed parent giving in to a rogue child’s demands for something at the grocery store so that the perceived judgement they are facing from other shoppers ceases. It’s merely deflecting the problem, rather than solving it.

I propose the following: we stop giving in to the tantrums of overgrown, underdeveloped children. We wouldn’t put up with it from our children, why do we put up with it from customers? A little yelling and screaming can be endured. At the same time, we should be rewarding people who dispute things civilly. There is nothing wrong with bringing up bad service, or disputing a price, or negotiating a service. It becomes a problem when you pursue this end in a profoundly antisocial manner. A colleague suggested (jokingly of course) a button that shot out glitter and steamers whenever a customer brought up a problem with polite consideration. I think that there’s something to that – maybe not to that sort of extreme, but there needs to be a system in place to give thanks to customers who treat retail workers as actual human beings. If we’re going to be stuck in a largely service-based economy, we need to learn to get along civilly with each other.

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