Wednesday, April 04, 2007

When do I Finally Just Say "Get Lost?"

I have a dilemma. It's a conflict of business with conscience.

We've had a guy who comes in the store every week or so who is mentally challenged (Is that the right way to put it?). Basically he's in his mid to late 30's but often behaves like he's 13-16 years old. He has been coming in for a long time now. Often he'll sit on the floor and read comics and graphic novels and page through art books. Usually he even reads parts out loud to everyone in the store. Once in a great while he will buy a single comic book - maybe every month or two he will pick Loony Tunes (DC) and that's about it.

He often brings in comics he has and shows them to us, asking us if we can get the next issue or previous issue. Well, those comics are all pretty old and obscure and have been out of print for over a decade, some for over two decades. We just have been telling him the truth - they are too old and we can't get them.

Well, that went on for a long time - years in fact. Then one day he brings in a web site link he found while in the library that has the pages of one of the comics he wants. He asks if we can print it out for him. To be nice, I reluctantly agree and didn't even charge him for all of the ink and paper I had to use for it (full color BTW). He was happy with that... for a while. Then a couple of months go by and he brings in another link he found while in the library. This time it's for some art pages from one of the artists who did one of the anthropomorphic (animals with human characteristics) comics he had and liked. The pages were in a set, and available from a place in the United Kingdom. I warned him that shipping would be high, but he really really wanted it. Finally, again to be nice, after getting him to pre-pay half the cost up front, I ordered the art pages. We did NOT mark these up at all, so basically it was a favor and we made no money. He said that he was so happy and wouldn't ask us to order anything again. Then we didn't see him for about a month.

The month goes by and he comes in to see if he likes the issue of Loony Tunes that just came out - he doesn't. Then later that day he calls the store for the first time ever and tells me his mom made him clean his room and he accidentally threw away the comic I had printed out for him and wants me to print it again. I made up some excuse and told him I couldn't do it. See, we've only got an ink jet and the ink is pretty expensive. It was fine to do it free one time, but I didn't want to make a habit of it. Then he brings in another comic link of a comic he wants me to print out. Well, this one is rather, ummmmm.... graphic. The animals were--well endowed I guess is the best way to put it, and some were involved in graphic sexual acts. I refused, saying it was offensive. He quickly took the page back and left that one alone.

A couple of weeks go by and he comes in again. Now he wants us to order a graphic novel from that same company in the UK. We say "no." Again, we did it once to be nice, but this isn't really what we're in the business of doing. We buy wholesale and sell it at retail. We don't just order stuff off of random web sites for people because they don't have an Internet connection or credit card. Maybe we would for someone as a favor--once, if they were a really good customer. But it just doesn't make business sense for us to buy stuff for retail and sell it for retail with no profit in it. Time is money. I tried to explain this to him in simple terms. He seemed like he understood. But then he called and talked to Craig, who said something like, "I thought Lisa told you we couldn't." Then I think this guy continued to beg Craig, and he said, "We'll see." So the next day he calls again and I answer the phone. He asks me again if I contacted the company to order the book. I tell him no, reminding him that we already talked about it. So, he says, "well the guy said maybe." I told him I didn't think that was the case, and that we really just needed him to be happy with what we have here in the store. He then has a fit over the phone and tells me that I'm rude, obviously because I'm refusing to give him his way. Then he call back again about 30 minutes later to tell me that he's sorry but if I could print out that comic book I printed before that he threw away he'd be so grateful. I tell him again that I cannot print that for him again, sorry. He says OK.

Then he comes in while I was gone and is banging on the door before we're open, demanding that Craig let him in early. Well, Craig didn't. He let him in at the normal time. He wants to see the new Loony Tunes, which Craig informs him wouldn't be in until the next day (today). Then he asks again for us to please order that book from the U.K. and AGAIN Craig tries to be nice and just says, I don't think so. After the guy begs Craig says, "I'll think about it," or something like that. The guy leaves and then calls a couple of hours later. He wants to know what Craig decided. Craig says something like, "here's the way it's going to be - we are not going to order you things off of the Internet. You need to find someone else to do that." He again gets mad at Craig and calls him rude and says he's never shopping in our store again. Craig lets him know that that's fine. Then maybe 20 minutes later the guy calls again and apologises to Craig, saying that we've got the best store and he will still buy from us (now remember, he doesn't really buy much of anything anyway).

Today he comes in just as Craig is leaving to go pick up the April store newsletter from the printer. First he wants me to order the U.K. book again, and I say as nicely as I can, "We have already told you the rule - you have to be happy with what we have here or go somewhere else." He walks off mad and another customer comes up to the counter. The guy keeps trying to push the customer out of the way and get my attention again. I have to tell him three times to wait his turn. I finish with the customer and he's right there shoving a comic book in my face. He shows me an old Lost in Space comic book and says "Here's what you can do for me. You can get me the next issue of this. See how it ends? I need to know what happens." I explain to him again that that's an old comic book and I can't get it anymore. But that maybe there would be some Lost in Space comics in our dollar bin. Well, then he wants me to dig through it and see. Let me remind you, it is Wednesday and I'm working alone at the moment. I tell him he can look, but I don't have the time. There are several other customers in the store by now. He looks for about 5 seconds and then asks me again if I can get it for him. I remind him AGAIN that he has to buy what I have in the store. He shouts several times, "That's not good enough! That's just not good enough." He grabs the new Loony Tunes and buys it. He tells me that he has "more sophisticated taste than the average person," so I should buy him the comics he wants because our selection is just not good enough for him. I found that kind of funny since he would shout about how we have such great stuff when he was here, and he'd spend an hour or more reading our comics and graphic novels every week or two. I tell him I'm sorry but that's the rule and he quickly leaves.

A couple of hours later, when the store is packed with people, he calls and I answer the phone. He tells me again that my selection is not good enough and that he's not going to shop at my store anymore. I politely say, "ok. I'm sorry to hear that." He tries to continue the conversation as I hang up the phone. About 30 minutes later, again while we've got shoppers in here, he calls back and tells me he changed his mind and will shop in the store again because we have a good selection. I say, "OK. thanks," and hang up the phone because I'm in the middle of talking to a customer. He calls about as quick as he could dial and Craig answers. He then tells Craig that he found some other comic book stores and begins to read the phone book to Craig over the phone, listing the stores and their listed locations in alphabetical order. Craig says, "that's great. go ahead and visit those stores." (there were only 2 of them and one is too far for him to get to via bus, which, aside from his feet, is his only method of transportation) The guy keeps taking to Craig for a good couple of minutes, reading the ad of the store that's too far for him to get to by bus anyway. He says, "they have graphic novels. I am going to suggest that you carry graphic novels." Craig says something like, "We do have them. You sit on our floor reading them for hours." The guy then agrees and then asks Craig what the hours are at the comic store downtown. Craig tells him he doesn't know and suggests that he give them a call. He wants to keep talking but finally Craig tells him that he doesn't have the time to talk anymore because we have a store full of customers. Again the guy tells Craig that he's rude and hangs up.

As time has gone on this guy has become more and more difficult and a disruption. We don't want to be mean or rude, and we understand that his mental capacity isn't the same as ours so we tried to be nice and patient, but our patience is starting to run out. I know that he won't be able to get to one of the two comic book stores he found in the phone book, and the other won't put up with him at all and definitely won't buy him something off of the Internet. So, I have no doubt he'll be back here again in a few weeks or a month. I hope he isn't, to be honest, but I think he will be. What do we do? Do we tell him we don't want him to come back? Do we keep letting him come in and disrupt the store, having fits when we won't give him his way? Do we let him continue to call us two and three times a day when we're busy, just so he can try to manipulate us into getting him what he wants? Really, I want to be nice, and I feel kind of bad being so stern with him because of his mental condition. But should I? Is there a point where we just have to lay down rules and stick to them?

15 comments:

James Meeley said...

Lisa:

Yes, there is a point where customer service has to take a back seat to maintaining order for all the other customers at your store. This guys, despite his mental handicap, has reached this point. He is a disruption to the business.

When I was working in a shop out here, there was another guy like you describe. He has a mental handicap. It's so bad, that he can't even talk. He makes sounds and grunts and things, which that's how he communicates. The owner constantly let him come in and look around and make his sounds, but I could tell that some of the other people were very put off by him. He crossed the line with me, when one time, while Heidi was in the store waiting for me to finish my shift, he began to touch her hair. I doubt he meant it in any perverse way, but I got stern with him. He didn't come around for a while after that.

As of now, I don't know if he still comes to the store or not, but I do know that there is always a point when being stern needs to happen for the sake of the business, if not OTHER reasons. Perhaps the next time he calls, you should ask to speak to his parent or guardian and tell them he is no longer welcome at the store and for him to stop calling. I know it might seem mean, but that is the job of the people who caretake for people with such disabilites. It sounds like they are allowing you to play the role of "babysitter", which is not what you store is for. Being nice and polite isn't getting that across, either. So, the time to be stern has come.

I may not have met you in person, Lisa, but I think I've gotten to know you through your writing online. I can sense you aren't the type of person who enjoys conflict or being the "heavy." Sometimes, though, it is the only way to get through to some people. We all want to be liked by everyone. That's human nature. But the reality of life is that trying to be that way will give others the impression that you are to be taken advantage of, as this guy and his caregivers are obviously doing at this point.

So, be stern. Let them know they've crossed the line once too often with you. They may not like you anymore, they might even say hateful things about you, but I'm sure all the other customers whom you've built your reputation with will more than even the score in that regard. That's who you are working for and that's what you need to keep in mind.

Best of luck with this situation.

Scott King said...

Holy crap that's a long post. Give me like 98 minutes to read it.

Scott King said...

Awww. That's a really sad story.

I feel like even if you try to be mean to the guy or harsh so that he will get the point or stay away... he'll just come back anyway and bug you. At the same time, how do you be mean to scare someone away like that and not feel guilty?

Is there anyway to talk to his mom or whom ever his care taker is? Maybe explain to them that you want to help service him with Looney Tune comics or whatever, but that there are times when he steps over the line and that you have a place of buisness and can't deal with that.

Anonymous said...

Lisa,

James said what I was going to perfectly. From reading your blogs, columns, etc. it seems you are a VERY nice person. In my opinion, judging from what you have said, you have been MORE than accomodating to this person regardless of handicap, situation, etc. The key is, as James had referred to, that he is now gone beyond being a mere nuisance - he is disrupting business in your shop. For me, the proverbial 'straw' would have been when he pushed the other customer in line. From a customer standpoint, I certainly wouldn't want to continue shopping at a place that had a continually disruptive customer like that. If I saw/heard him walk in, I would more than likely (at best) curtail my shopping and check out early. That might result in lost sales for you. You don't even have to justify it by saying "well, he only spends 'X' dollars in our store"... even if he spent hundreds, you can't and shouldn't tolerate someone who is disrespectful to both you and your customers. I would be willing to bet that before your shop came along, he no doubt pestered another retail establishment. Frankly, I would ban him from the store - at the least, try to find out who his guardian or respnsible party is and alert them to the situation and ask them to intercede on your behalf.

- Rick

Shelly said...

What you've described is known to me as library hell. Just imagine that guy multiplied by 2 to 10 or more, depending on the size of the library. Libraries, being tax-supported, public service institutions, can't do much in such situations unless we can document abuses and violations of stated policies over time. Stores don't have to go through all that red tape.

You tried being nice. It's not working. You all need to agree to how you'd respond and you all need to stick to it. You need to be firm. You can't talk if the store is busy, tell him to call another time. You can't do favors. No, sorry, won't happen. You need to set boundaries. You can't say you'll think about something you know you won't do. That gives the guy a foot in the door, again. Similarly, you can't give in to blackmail or threats (when he said you're rude, when he said he'd go elsewhere). Which you were trying to do, but he'd already gotten something from you and figured he could keep trying. He might have some memory processing issues, too.

I've had trouble with my staff that way. We work with disabled library patrons and yes, we go the extra mile because there are many things they can't do on their own, ie blind people read out of a print reference book that isn't online and isn't brailled or recorded. But there is a line between reasonable accommodation and being taken advantage of. The more you give, the more the person will expect, want, and demand.

The suggestion to try to work with his mother or someone else who knows him is a good idea. But you aren't running a library; you're running a business and it's okay to say no, he can't sit and read and buy only one. Maybe you can set time limits? If he comes in, he gets to stay for 15 minutes and then you enforce it. Maybe trying to structure his visits will help.

Good luck. It's not an easy situation.

Ben from AZ said...

Lisa,

There's a time to be nice and there's a time to be stern - especially when this afflicted gentleman is disturbing other customers.

I vaguely recall this very guy perusing your store, sitting on the floor, reading graphic novels, asking you questions from time to time like you're his babysitter.

You've done quite enough for this guy.

It is now time to explain to him that he is not welcome in your establishment.

The fact that he was more or less pushing ahead of a paying customer - someone who can go anywhere else in the greater Milwaukee area for his comic book needs and not get hassled by another unstable "customer" - is grounds enough to make sure that he knows he is not welcome in your store anymore.

If the person who supervises him - be it his mom or whomever - comes in and reams you out for discrimination against someone of his condition, well, you could ask her to check her phone records and keep a running list of what this guy does in your store and how much time he takes away from you and your customers.

Your business is a store, not a library. These books are items to be purchased, not read in-store. If he wants to read these books, he needs to be paying for them. You wouldn't give your inventory away to everybody who walks in - your doors would be closed in a heartbeat. Because this guy has a handicap does not change the fact that you're running a store.

It's time to close the door on this fella. Yep, it's probably gonna suck and you might feel bad, but this is one customer you don't need.

Just my two cents. :-)

Miss you guys a lot!
-B

Lisa said...

James - thanks for your input. Having worked in a comic store yourself you know what I'm going through. Every business has someone like this, I'm sure. It was partly our fault for letting him get away with stuff to begin with. But now we do have to take some kind of action, should he come back again, to have him stay away.

Lisa said...

Scott - I think his mom is his caretaker and she's probably a tired old woman. I think she just gives him an allowance and lets him get on the bus and roam free throughout the city. I have no doubt he's bothered other businesses before because once in a while he'll tell us how some other store is "so rude," which based on our experience means they told him to cut it out. We also don't have his number because we don't have caller ID, so I wouldn't know how to reach her - he's never come in here with someone else.

Lisa said...

Shelly - I know this guy spends lots of time at the library. I've often felt bad for them after he leaves our store, knowing that he's probably driving them crazy too. After all, the library isn't a private business, so the nice people there can't just kick him out like we could. Like you said, the more we gave the more he demanded. We tried to be nice, but he doesn't seem to understand that it was a special thing, not something we can do all of the time. We will have to either be strick with him while he's here or just tell him he can't come back in. The current situation cannot continue - it makes other customers uncomfortable and there are other places they can go to buy comics, so it is in our best interest to do so.

Lisa said...

Ben - I am sure you did see this guy. He lingers around and interrupts and I think anyone who has come into the store between 11 am and 2 pm has probably seen him at least once. His lingering around wasn't so bad, but now the shouting, interrupting, demanding and the incessant phone calls have just become too much. We've gotten busier over the years and his presence in the store has become more of a problem than ever. I do feel bad kicking him out, but we're not a charity we are a business and I think Craig and I have just come to accept that we're better off keeping him out of the store.

We miss you too!!

solid-one-love said...

I managed a comic shop for a half-dozen years while working on my degree. In my experience, a business must 'fire' toxic customers. Sadly, this may include those customers who are unable to change their behaviour due to mental disability or illness. If a customer annoys other customers, interferes with the operation of your business and is unprofitable, 'fire' him. Advise him that he's not welcome to return, in no uncertain terms.

This is unfortunate, and I have never felt good about having to do it, and I had to do so several times.

Andrew said...

As an avid reader of your blog, I would like to read the end result--if any--of this situation. Hopefully in our lawsuit-happy society, a lawyer won't see this and try to make a case of it, that would be a shame. I think you've gone beyond the call of duty to this customer and it's time to cut the cord, tell him, or his guardian, or whoever, that he isn't welcome. It's a tough decision and I wish a fine establishment such as yours didn't have to deal with that. Good luck, however it may end, and keep us posted.

Lisa said...

Solid - you are right. That is what we have to do, and it is unfortunate. But one troublesome customer isn't worth loosing a couple dozen good ones that don't want to come back because he acted up while they were here. It's also a probelm for our employee - I do not want her to have to put up with his outbursts or begging for stuff if she doesn't have to.

Lisa said...

Andrew - he did call today to let us know that another store in town said they would get it for him. I have a VERY hard time believing it. But then he said he's still going to come to our store too. So, I guess we will have to establish rules that he must follow or he won't be allowed back. I would do that for anyone who was disruptive in the store, and honestly we've put up with more from him than we would from someone without his mental conditions. So I would say we have been more than fair and have not discriminated against him. If somehow a lawyer did try to come after us I'm glad that we've got several excellent customers who are attornies.

James Meeley said...

If somehow a lawyer did try to come after us I'm glad that we've got several excellent customers who are attornies.

Not to mention the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which was started to protect creators and retailers from situations like that. :)