The Customer Is Always Right

Maybe you’ve heard this one: Ski resort patron approaches lift ticket kiosk on Powder Day of the Century and demands a refund for his/her lift ticket, citing “too much snow.”

Or the guy who wants to return a 20-year-old headlamp to a store because it has a “lifetime warranty,” which he assumes means his lifetime, not the lifetime of the product. Or someone who managed to break a Nalgene water bottle and wants a new one. Or drove into their garage with their bike on top of their car and can’t believe it broke on impact.

Customer service, in all environments, is rife with great stories. I have a gold mine of material from a few years from working in retail and as a bartender and waiter. I’m sure if you’ve spent any time working in either foodservice or retail, you have similar stories of conversations like:

  • “A bear ripped my tent. I want a refund.”
  • “I need a pair of hiking boots with accents to match my day pack.”
  • “My steak was terrible.” “Sir, you ate the entire thing.”
  • “I can’t get water to come out of the hose on my Camelbak.” “When you bite it, nothing comes out?” “Oh no, I don’t want to bite it — I don’t want to ruin it.” “Well, it’s called a ‘bite valve.'”

My father, who has worked in management at a grocery store for nearly 40 years, had a customer confront him one day, complaining that a competing store 40 miles away had better prices on bread — almost 20 cents cheaper, she said. My dad said,

Well, enjoy your trip.

Then she started laughing.

In 2004 and 2005, I worked in a big outdoor store in Arizona. One Saturday near the end of my tenure there, a man came in to shop in our climbing gear section.

“So,” he said to me, “I just bought a penthouse in Manhattan, and I need a rope for rappelling in case there’s a fire in the building.”

Now, the main goal of this store was not to sell sell sell at any costs — we were told to match customers with the products they needed to do the things they loved. Not, you know, push people to buy a bunch of crap they didn’t need, upsell this, upsell that, part suckers with their hard-earned money.

So I thought I would feel the guy out a little bit. Maybe he was a climber, needed a new rope, was going to leave it in his penthouse just in case?

“Nope.” Oh, I said, so have you ever rappelled before?

“Nope.” Immediately I have this vision of this man grabbing a brand-new climbing rope out of the bottom of a closet, tearing open the plastic and frantically trying to uncoil the rope as it works its way into a Clark-Griswold-Christmas-lights-knot, as the building burns from the ground up, filling with smoke as his family goes for the door but no instead he says We’re going to have to rappel out the window, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard

“Doesn’t the building have a fire escape?” I ask.

“Yeah, it does, but I want to have a rope just in case.” Okay. Well, rappelling isn’t that straightforward, I say, you know, you have to anchor the rope to something, and know how to use a belay device to safely lower yourself, and hey, does maybe your wife know how to rappel, no, okay, yeah. I ask what floor the penthouse is on because I hope maybe it’s too high and we don’t sell a rope that long, but no, it’s only on the 10th floor, so the rope would probably make it down to the ground even if you had it doubled over and anchored around your fridge or something.

And the more I think about it as we’re talking, all I can say to myself is JESUS CHRIST THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Why are we having this conversation. I am supposed to sell stuff to climbers, not, you know, Jason Bourne or whatever.

But there was no talking him out of it. We came to a middle ground that included him (hypothetically) taking an introductory climbing class at a gym to learn the basics of rappelling, and (hypothetically) remaining calm enough in an emergency situation to rig a rappel out a window in Manhattan, then send his wife down the rope and calmly lower his kids before he rappelled out the window to safety. For some reason, when we talked about the scenario, I imagined him doing all this with his shirt off, with a Glock 9mm in his teeth.

In the end, I sold the guy a 70-meter rope, two harnesses, two belay devices, and two locking carabiners, which at that time, was probably about $350 or $400. But I told him if his building ever caught on fire, he never talked to me, and he never bought that stuff at the store I worked at.


[photo courtesy]

15 replies on “The Customer Is Always Right

  • Aaron F

    Yippee-ki-yay, motherf#%ker! What perhaps you didn’t realize is that this guy, in his mind, was just bad-ass enough to try it…….or at least owning the gear & showing it to his buddies, would in turn, make him bad-ass enough, hypothetically, to try this act of valor making him the hero of the day even if that day never came. It’s all about the potential baby!

    Or, maybe he’s watched the videos of people willfully jumping out of buildings & falling to their deaths instead of burning alive.

  • Justin Roth

    While working at the Chelsea Piers rock wall, a guy approached me with a similar idea. He asked if he could take a rappelling class and learn how to anchor a rope in his building, etc., for escape in case of terrorist attack (this was 2002 or thereabouts). He was on the 30th floor though, not the 10th. I also informed him that a climbing rope wouldn’t do very well near a heat source like a fire. He left looking bummed, and probably got a rig, and hopefully training, somewhere else, but I just didn’t want to get the gym involved in this guy’s flawed plans… Pretty funny moment though.

  • Rebecca

    I used to work customer support. I had a poster next to my phone: “There are no stupid questions, there are just inquisitive idiots.” I feel ya.

  • David

    I’m a long distance hiker, this year after an entire summer of hiking the PCT I was hitchhiking back home and got a ride from Ken at Cascade Designs. They make MSR, therma rest, and platypus products. He must be pretty high up in the company because we started talking gear and he told me that whenever something wears out regardless how much abuse it’s taken send it in and get a new one. I tried to say it wasn’t an honest thing to do since everything will eventually wear out. His response was, “nope, our products have a lifetime warranty, send it back to us for a new one. ”
    Perhaps there are some companies out there that really do stand behind there products.

  • Kevin

    15 years in retail – outdoor industry and bicycle industry. Heard more Just Riding Along stories than I care to remember.

    On the list of bad ideas, I remember working in a mountain shop in the early 80’s when two guys came in and asked to be outfitted to live outdoors. When I asked them for more information they said they were going to the high Sierra to live off the land. It was November and I’m thinking that this is a bad idea even if it’s Summer. I asked if they had a cabin, no. Land, no. Experience, no. Spent the next hour trying to talk them out of it and they finally left.
    Always wondered what happend to them.

  • ak

    “lifetime warranty”. Are you saying that a part is only warrantied until it stops working? Four minutes or four years, whichever comes first? That’s no warranty, lifetime or otherwise.

  • Carl

    During my time working at an outdoor retail shop in Western WA I had a strickingly similar conversation, except this was a businessman who was convinced he was going to die in a hotel fire. If we’re blaming movie, my vote is on Towering Inferno.

  • David

    I wish I had a good customer service story to share for Semi-Rad shirts, but I can’t think of any — either dirtbags are too nice to take advantage of a generous return policy or we make some sick wears.

    The only incident that stands out came from about a year ago when a customer told me the shirt he received had a cut in it. I packaged this one myself so I know it didn’t ship that way, but I exchanged it out anyway. As a merchant, I can attest to the “customer is always right” motto. When I received the shirt back it looked like someone took a guinsoo knife to it. Either he had a rough time on some rock or his wife caught him with another woman. Just glad I didn’t find any blood …

  • Danielle

    Insurance inspectors. I get them all the time (roofers, too, but mostly insurance inspectors). I tell them repeatedly that a climbing harness isn’t OSHA approved for roof work, they buy them anyway. Then they tell me they want to buy a rope to throw over the roof and tie to their truck on the other side of the house. Because, you know, there’s no possibility that they might fall on that side…

  • Eric O'Rafferty

    I used to work in a similar situation: outdoor retailer where qualifying the customers’ needs and intent were important (to make sure we sold them the right stuff for sure, but also to make sure they didn’t come back unhappy). As a climber I tended to have other unsure staff direct the odd requests to me.

    There were more of these requests than you might think. Mostly a lot of people wanting to do unusual (at least for climbers!) things with rapping. Many of these folks very VERY SURE of what they were planning on doing.

    I recall one guy who wanted to do something involving a harness, static rope and a potential fall. After a bunch of polite attempts by me, he just wasn’t getting the seriousness of the what could happen. So in the nicest way I could say it, I basically told him that if he set up a rig the way he was planning, there was a possibility that “you are going to die.” I can’t remember if I talked him out of it in the end. But that story has become legend at that store (and grown to be greatly embellished!).

  • erin d

    First of all, you enlightened me on the true meaning of lifetime warranty. Second of all, i have not read something this funny in a long, long time! Had me in stitches

  • b-rie

    Pretty sure I now work at this [same] store (in the same location)……seems to be at least a weakly occurrence……

  • b-rie

    Pretty sure I now work at this [same] store (in the same location)……seems to be at least a weekly occurrence……

  • Jeremy

    I work in an outdoor retail/rental store. I have a informal policy written on the wall above my desk that I refer to more often then I would like. It states “Never overestimate the intelligence of a customer”.

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