Thoughts from the ammo line

Ammo Grrrll scopes out what happens WHEN CULTURAL NORMS COLLIDE. She writes:

For a brief time in my comedy career, I was part of a group that conducted Customer Service Training for companies. One of my colleagues told a story which may have been apocryphal and which I can only dredge up from dim 25-years-old memory.

One of the things that will unhinge customers the fastest is being told when making a reasonable request: “That is not our policy.” The example used claimed that a man went into a large business complex which also housed his long-time bank. Since the bank was on the lower floor, he went into the bank to have his parking ramp ticket validated. The cashier said, “It is not our policy to validate tickets when you have not conducted business within the bank.” He argues with her, at first calmly, but with increasing anger. A supervisor is called over who agrees that “it is not our policy.”

Finally, the guy grabs a withdrawal slip and closes his account – to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars – and then asks, “Would this count as a ‘transaction within the bank’?” The clerk agrees that it would and validates his $5.00 parking ticket. Though the anecdote was amusing, illustrative of the point, and clearly meant to be a cautionary tale, I doubted at the time that it had actually happened. Now I’m not so sure…

A friend of mine – a libertarian rancher from Montana, named John – is a fearless defender of important cultural community norms. Two brief examples: He is nearly 80 years old — a fit, but not imposing guy. Once, when he was on his back road, he spotted four young men in a vehicle merrily pitching beer bottles out the window. He pulled over, got out of his car and confronted the miscreants. “Please go pick up your trash,” he said. The young men first fell back on the old “What’s it to ya?” He answered that it concerned him because it was his road in his beautiful community and he cared. The guys then mulishly agreed to “do it on our way back,” but he said, “You’ll do it now.”

They neither drove away nor shoved him aside, probably because on some level they knew they were in the wrong. Now in Montana as in Arizona they also may have assumed that this old guy could very well be both crazy and armed. But, generally speaking, littering is not considered a capital crime even by the most militant anti-litterers. So, probably, the cultural norm “Don’t Litter” plus “Respect your Elders” trumped even their drunken stupidity. They picked up their trash. Community and cultural standards prevailed.

On another occasion, this same gentleman, who had recently sustained a temporarily-disabling injury, arrived for Sunday brunch with friends at the favorite local restaurant only to find the Handicapped Parking slot taken up by one of a row of Harleys! Again, he approached the 5 leather-clad obvious bikers at the bar and asked, “Who’s the handicapped biker?”

The guilty biker quickly took his point, mumbled something about not having seen the sign, and trudged out to move his bike. All of us have been tempted on a rainy day to limp away from a convenient Handicapped spot, but most of us don’t. We are reluctant to risk a substantial fine, but we also recognize the innate fairness of reserving close-in spots for the genuinely impaired. We believe the cultural norm, “It’s fair to accommodate people.”

A central tenet of doing any kind of retail or service business is “The customer is always right.” My father, owner of a drugstore in a small town, phrased it “The customer may not always be right, but he is always the customer.” He did not waste any time on the kind of costly Customer Service Training my friends and I later provided. As I recall, the 3- or 4-minute orientation session when I was 14 went something like this:

“If you don’t ask a customer ‘May I help you?’ within 15 seconds of her entering the store, you will be fired. Treat every customer with courtesy at all times, no exceptions, or you will be fired. Under no circumstances should you ever ask a customer what a product he seeks is for or where it goes – he just might tell you! If a man asks to speak to the druggist and not a teenage girl, come get me; he probably wants rubbers. Keep an eye on older ladies who hover around the wrinkle cream. For some reason, that is one of the few things that people ever steal.” He then taught me to count back change into the customer’s hand and that was that. As you can imagine, we were all eager not to lose a job in which we made 75 cents each and every hour on the job! Not even to mention the 10 percent discount on cosmetics!

Fast forward now, back to Bozeman, MT and my friend. His working ranch is just outside the limit for daily delivery of the Wall Street Journal. It arrives by mail at his place several days late. For that reason, he sometimes would visit his investment company office at end of his long ranch day to look at the neatly-folded Journal set aside specifically for customers.

At some point, the young receptionist there asked for a “sit-down” with her boss and my friend (the long-time customer) because she felt “uncomfortable” when he came in with almost nobody else around. He had never spoken a word to her outside of the most basic of pleasantries. He was shocked, offended, and more importantly, scared to death. What comes after “discomfort”? A bogus charge that he verbally abused or touched her? A demand for a pay-off lest she ruin his life? After all, a woman must be believed at all times if she complains about a non-Democrat (not that she asserted any impropriety outside of her “discomfort”).

It costs five times as much to get a new customer as it does to keep an old one. Yet a common cultural norm – “the customer is a treasured entity” – has been supplanted by some vague and dangerous notion that at all times young people and especially women are entitled to be “comfortable.” On campus, students are guaranteed never to have their delicate ears assaulted by unfamiliar opinions. Should an unwanted opinion somehow sneak by, the professionally offended are entitled to scream, swear and shout down the speaker before retreating to Safe Spaces worthy of pre-schoolers rather than adults entitled to vote.

We regular workaday folks have felt relatively insulated from the worst of the totalitarian hysteria on campus. But Academia provides a conveyor belt of terrible ideas straight into corporate America. For now, there are other investment firms to which one can take one’s considerable assets. But for how long? The day when the vaguely accused can be “branded” as pariahs and refused service elsewhere cannot be far behind. What then? Re-education camps? Gulags? Or just forced to purchase Discomfort Liability Insurance?

On that happy note, I go now to finish prep for the eight days of Passover. Happy Passover to our Jewish readers and a Happy and Blessed Easter to our Christian friends.