“Yeah, we have too many customers!” That’s what the harried checkout clerk said.

This was back in the 1990s, in a big retail store in Texas. I don’t remember what city it was in, or what I was buying. But I do remember that the store was crowded. The checkout lines were long. There weren’t many lines open; there were a number of closed checkout stations.

When I finally got up to the front of the line, I made a casual remark to the checker: “Kinda busy here today…” The checker didn’t look at me; she was starting to ring me up. But she said, “Yeah, we have too many customers today!” She wasn’t smiling.

I was speechless. How do you respond to that? Was she essentially saying, “I wish you and a lot of other customers in my line would just go away”? Hmm.

Here’s what she didn’t choose to say:

“I know, I know! I’m hoping they open a few more registers here in a minute.”

Or, “Yes, and I apologize for the wait. Thanks for your patience.”

Or at least, “I know, it’s crazy! Happy Holidays!”

That was a time in the history of retailing when the universe was changing: Walmart was just beginning to take over the world.

Have you ever heard a “too many customers” line from a Walmart employee? Or a Target checker? Or anyone at The Home Depot? Me neither.

Now in all fairness to that checker on that day, the store management hadn’t done a good job of resourcing the checkout stations. Maybe that store’s checkers weren’t trained very well. At least some of that comment probably wasn’t her fault. And maybe she was just having a bad day and said the first thing that came to mind, like we all do sometimes.

Even so, my wife and I made that experience a code phrase for bad customer service. Ever since, whenever we have a bad employee interaction in a store, restaurant, airline counter, etc., nothing more need be said between us than “Too many customers”.

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4 thoughts on “Do You Have Too Many Customers?

  1. Hey Shannon, if you were doing the checkers job with her wages you might have said something worse. It’s easy for you to sit back as a director on probably a fat salary and complain about people on small wages not expressing their feelings in the same manner as you. Your English may be perfect but don’t expect everyone else in the community to be Harvard scholars. The checker expressed her feelings and did not feed you some lie. I would have preferred the truth.
    I am sick to death walking into stores and bei g greeted with the line “how are you today?”
    Are they really I interested how I am? Do they want me to respond with my days story? The answer is NO. It would have to be the dumbest greeting but this may be a greeting the so called experts are training people to say. So even the so called right things to say may annoy people. It would make much more sense to me for people to just say a simple “hello”. I have been asked the question in shops “how are you today?” And responded with “well if you have half an hour I could tell you” and you get a look of not understanding what you said, meaning they do not realise they asked you a question and I am giving a proper answer to the question. What I am getting at is if you ask a dumb question, expect a dumb answer. Just a simple “hello” would be much more appropriate.
    You asked the checker a question, did you not expect the truth or would you rather a lie to satisfy your ego?

  2. Hi Peter, I appreciate your honest reaction, thanks.

    I have had jobs like hers. I once worked the cash register in a US department store. I worked at an ice cream counter once. I bused tables for awhile. I was a waiter at a restaurant once. All for small wages. I’ve been there, and I respect her job. It’s an important job. That’s kind of my point, actually.

    If you are an employee who engages the public, you are the face of the enterprise. You’ve got to be pleasant to the customers, regardless of how you feel. To not do so harms your company’s brand and harms customer loyalty; it harms the enterprise.

    It also harms the worker. If a customer-facing worker says things like that as a pattern, they don’t get promoted, they don’t get raises. They probably get fired.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of honesty, or college degree, or proper grammar at all. it’s a matter of others-oriented training, thinking and action. I love to see it when it’s done right, and I find myself remembering it and writing about it 20 years later when it’s done wrong.

    • Hi Shannon, I have to agree with you on that point. There is no substitute for good customer service. She may not have even thought about what she said before she said it.
      It is actually one of my pet peeves today at the lack of professionalism in ALL levels of customer service that you encounter today, from people not paying attention to what you order, or the people filling the order – paying attention, rudeness from customer service reps on the telephone, checkers who have not been properly trained in bagging groceries; I do not want my ready to eat food in with the raw meat, or heavy items together with bread or eggs. There seems to be a serious lack of training expertise and pride in a job done right, whatever that job may be. By the way, I have worked in many different jobs, courtesy and professionalism should still be taught in every aspect of every field. The opposite seems to be the norm today. Just an observation.


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