Me: Hi there, I understand you're having some troubles with your laptop today?
Him: Yes, it's faulty, a complete lemon. It won't turn on. I want a refund.
Me: OK, well let's take a look so I can access what's happening.
(The customer pulls out a cracked screen that has completely separated from the keyboard.)
Him: This was purchased nearly four years ago, and it completely fell apart when I dropped it on my driveway. This computer was supposed to last me longer than that, I paid nearly $600 for it!
Me: Unfortunately, this item is outside of its warranty perio…
Him: DON'T START WITH THAT BULLSHIT! YOU IDIOTS THINK YOU CAN TAKE MY F---ING MONEY AND NOT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY WHEN I NEED HELP, YOU'RE A F---ING CLOWN AND AN INCOMPETENT BITCH, I'VE HAD IT.
I WISH I could say that lovely interaction was exaggerated for entertainment purposes but it was 100 per cent real. Since the vulnerable age of 14, I have constantly been told to remain silent when on the receiving end of an explosion of anger and insults from a disgruntled customer, told to keep apologising and to always remain empathetic. Why? Because the customer is always right.
After nine years' conditioning in Coles/McDonalds-level retail, I moved on, and up, to become a salesperson at a large-scale electronics chain. Yep, I was no longer a retail robot who took orders and filled shelves autonomously. No more "will you have fries with that?", now, I had a weekly $40,000 sales target and a customer base rolling in disposable income.
I thought my life in customer service was looking up. One Saturday afternoon, a tall burly man wearing a blinding diamond-encrusted watch beckoned me over to the iPhone display. I hurried over like my life depended on it and was greeted with "What's the best price?" As he tapped away on the iPhones with that over-sized watch jangling on his wrist, I nervously tried to figure out how to break the news that I only had a $12 margin on the phone.
"Since this is a new product sir, I can only take it down by about $12," I explained, "but I'm more than happy to take care of you with the price of any additional accessories."
I was met with patronising laughter and a "pfft". That, I could handle. Then, he proceeded to throw change towards me at the table, saying: "Here's what $12 means to me love, you probably shouldn't be trying to do business with us." Just like that, I was left feeling defeated and small. It was the "us", insinuating I was incapable of selling a tech product based on my gender. That's when I realised, people like me, who are simply trying to pay our bills, have been trained, conditioned, to "deal" with arrogant, pretentious characters like him, a guy with a diamond-encrusted watch and, small solace, a ketchup stain on his ill-fitting button up.
I'm not saying customers are not entitled to their opinion or that they shouldn't voice their complaints if service has not been up to standard (I know, I've been there). This is not meant to be another chapter in The Sad Chronicles of a Downtrodden Service Worker. However, there is a difference between speaking to a manager regarding rude customer service or long wait times and threatening and/or swearing at staff who are simply following procedures.
It's a long-running joke at work to never discuss the 'C' word until we have to - the PTSD is real.
In 2019, a SDA (Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association) survey showed 87 per cent of retail and fast-food employees surveyed had experienced verbal abuse or aggressive behaviour from customers within the past 12 months. According to this recent national retail association report: "Such behaviour has become the norm in the retail industry rather than the exception, highlighting the pervasive and systemic nature of this issue. In the worst-case scenario, workers may grow accustomed to this sort of behaviour and fail to appreciate any impact it might be having on their health and safety."
Thus, I'm here to ask the question: Is it now the norm to throw abuse at retail staff? Must we simply tolerate these outbursts of bad behaviour? It's common knowledge that most workplaces instil their staff with a mantra, based on the ideal, that a malicious customer is still a customer and therefore, no matter what they say to you – never take it seriously.
However, a workplace where you take turns having a "breather" from obnoxious customers, where you find a quiet place for a mild meltdown off the shop floor, one which fails to consider the impact of this abuse on the employee - that doesn't sit well with me.
ON A bustling Sunday afternoon, it's 5:30pm and trading has ceased for most stores in a prominent shopping centre in north-western Sydney. Janet* works for an electronics chain store, having started as a Christmas casual almost eight years ago, she now manages the entire store. Sunday trading is the busiest day of the week for the electronics chain, so I thought there was no better time to discuss the trials and tribulations of working in retail as a female. Janet, seven months pregnant, walks out looking the worse for wear but smiling, with a look of relief, to be leaving for the day.
"I have never wanted a bottle of Prosecco more in my life" she laughs. Janet, the self-appointed "bad bitch of retail" is petite and quirky. My eyes instantly go to the impressive flamingo tattoo on her right forearm, her baby bump-hugging 60's polka-dot dress and her extraordinary eye-liner technique. Bad bitch indeed – I was impressed.
"I can't tell you the amount of shocked 'oh' responses I've received from customers when I've gone to speak to them after they've requested to see the store manager. Like, yes I am a woman and yes I am pregnant and believe it or not I can also run a tech store," she recounts.
Janet has adjusted her management style over the years after witnessing customers belittle her staff, especially based on their race or gender. "I, myself, was also always taught to not really defend myself and simply apologise when a customer is threatening me but now I tell my staff to remove themselves from those kinds of situations and immediately grab a manager. We ask them to leave or call security if they start getting violent."
Janet believes, due to the frequency of these interactions, that by staff removing themselves, there is less chance their mental health and self-esteem will be affected in the long run.
"I don't take abuse towards my staff lightly; customers have every right to voice complaints, but they should never call another individual derogatory terms that are personal as they are not related to the issue itself," she says.
The mental health aspect of working in a high-pressure job that brings with it a high-level of negativity, gets scant attention. Going to work should not be an anxiety-ridden exercise, right?
James Desouza is a registered counsellor who provides phone counselling through various workplace schemes. The aim is to offer counselling when it's convenient for workers through a simple phone call. "Besides workplace harassment/bullying, I deal with customer abuse victims basically every day. A lot of the time straight after it's occurred. I personally think it should be a higher priority since a lot of managers will simply tell their staff to call us in order to deal with these experiences which is totally fine. However, it's not fixing the underlying issue in the long term," says Desouza.
Within my workplace, I knew for a fact there had been many instances where my co-workers and I were simply told to call the counselling service after things had kicked off with customers. While it did help at the time, we were always left asking "but what about when it happens again five minutes later?"
The day after I met with Janet, I struck up a discussion with colleagues about the impact on our mental health of our workplace environment. My colleagues and I take some small comfort in the fact that we're not alone and never empty on rants. (For those of us who are working students, these jobs are not forever ones.) Through my many years as a retail slave I can say I've certainly developed a thick skin. Acceptance is key. You're probably going to "cop it" and you're definitely going to have to get a manager to repeat exactly what you have already told that customer.
While none of us had reached a point of quitting our jobs, most admitted to being riddled with anxiety during our commutes to work. That anxiety is never more present than at this time of year, as the tinny sounds of canned Christmas carols echo through the walkways of the shopping centre.
It's been a long-running joke between my colleagues and I to never discuss the 'C' word at work until we have to - the Christmas (shudders) PTSD is real. "If I don't have a trip to Byron booked every January, I would probably lose it," says one. "It took my psych to make me realise just how much of our sessions were taken up by me venting to her about work," another recounts. As we swap horror stories and how they impact us, our group therapy session is interrupted by another colleague barging in, swearing under her breath, after speaking to a customer at the counter.
I pulled up a free seat and looked at her with compassion: "Didn't think you'd make it".
*Not her real name.