retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

They say there’s no such thing as a bad question. I beg to differ. Actually there are some terrible questions especially for people allegedly in customer service, especially when dealing with customers with good throwing arms and especially when it involves ME!

Let me explain.

Last Thursday I stopped at the supermarket near my gym for one of those quick two-item trips. The store was very quiet so I didn’t mind when a cashier intercepted me on the way to the self-scanning machines. That was my mistake.

The cashier was a polite young person, no doubt hard working, diligent and possibly good in every aspect of his life. I didn’t mind talking to him briefly, but it’s where he took the conversation that got this transaction into this column. As he rang up my order, he calmly asked:

“Do you qualify for the senior citizen discount?”

At first, I didn’t take offense. After all, I’ve seen these discounts offered to people at 55 or 50, both of which would include me and I’d cash in if I could. But not this time: the offer kicks in at age 60.

Here’s the deal: I’m 57 and proud of it. I’m in really good shape (I had just ridden 20 miles in a spinning class before hitting the store) and while my maturity level may still be in single digits at times, I’m okay with my age. But don’t push it.

All I could respond to the cashier was a wide-eyed, “Really!” He blushed.

Now there are so many angles to this, I don’t know where to begin. First, when I shared the story with Kevin (a man who wears a Timex, uses handkerchiefs, and sometimes seems just one week away from yelling at kids to get off his lawn), he responded with two things. First, he laughed…a lot! Second, he asked why I didn’t bean the cashier with my purchase.

The more we talked, though, the more we realized that this is not a simple problem. We live today in a more diverse society than ever. And more than ever there is no way to know exactly who or what type of person you are talking to at the checkout, the gym, the street or on the social web.

Today more than ever, companies need to educate front-line employees on things they should and should NOT say or ask of customers. This is a critical issue with the growth of the social web where everyone is now front-line. And it speaks to the need to train our younger associates in face-to-face conversation, a growing need in the world of non-verbal communication.

Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on this cashier because he was clearly in a no-win position. Here he was, offering me personal service, making a connection with me and trying to offer me an extra discount. Instead he ended up offending me. He owes it to my sense of fairness that his name, store and location aren’t all appearing in MorningNewsBeat today. (Of course, I know the CEO of this company, know he reads MNB and know that he is aware of where I shop.)

So how to make this a win? The best answer came from Mrs. Content Guy. The store, she said, needs place a simple note on the check stands for the Thursday senior citizen special. The note could explain that shoppers 60 and older qualify for a special discount and let it go from there. It would be up to the shopper to say that he or she qualifies.

Just like that, no difficult questions, no awkward moments and no lingering questions on whether a pissed off shopper is ready to throw a tub of soft cream cheese at your head. Just a simple note that allows the shopper to choose what to do. Maybe even add that you can be carded, just in case a Justin Bieber look-a-like decides to test the policy.

I’m all for cashiers making customer connections and I never mind a short chat while I’m checking out. But instruct cashiers that there are questions customers simply don’t like. Make this simple: if it involves our age, weight, marital status, kids or even our nutritional choices ... well, don’t ask.

One request on that special senior citizen discount sign: Make the font size at least 12 points. I never remember my reading glasses.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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