Sick of Customers on the Phone!

Dear Robin:

I am a checker at a grocery store in Portland that abuts two expensive neighborhoods. I don’t know if that explains the phenomenon I am writing you about but it seems like pertinent information. For the most part I really enjoy my job and interacting with customers (including you!) but this issue is driving me crazy:

WTF is wrong with people who insist upon either talking on or in other ways using their phone when they are paying for groceries? Not only does it slow down the entire transaction because they are completely distracted, but it is insulting to me personally. I feel ignored and invisible while I am simultaneously charged with giving them a good customer service experience.

I know reaching across the counter and slapping the phone out of their hand* isn’t an option, so what do you suggest?

Friendly (if you’re phone-less)

Dear Friendly:

As you know, I witnessed your frustration today as I stood in line behind a woman whose head was anywhere and everywhere except where it should have been: handling the transaction so she could get the hell out of my way. I’m working on a deadline, damn it!

Whether or not your customers are more rude than others in less affluent neighborhoods is beyond my scope today, although I plan to be a keen observer in a variety of situations over the next few days and I will report back to you on whether the wealthy are bigger dicks than the not wealthy.

Your first task is ensuring you have clear guidance from your employer on how to handle these customers. Your second task is how to cure them of their outrageous rudeness with as little bad feelings as possible.  Let’s first tackle the issue with your boss because how you can deal with the customer is dependent upon your boss’ perspective on the matter.

I’m wagering your co-workers feel the same, whether they are checkers, butchers, florists or deli employees: it is frustrating as hell to be treated like an annoyance when you are trying to do your job.

Take the pulse of your buddies at work and ask them if they feel the same way, then go to your manager and tell him or her you know all about the “customers are always right” dictum but you and your co-workers feel strongly enough about this phone issue that you’d like to develop a creative way to handle it.

Ask if management will place a sign at each entrance and throughout customer/employee interaction locations in the store that gently reminds these people not to act like pricks. Here’s some verbiage that is gentle, somewhat indirect but which gets the true meaning across (also known as passive-aggressive):

“Please refrain from using your phone when interacting with (STORE NAME REDACTED) employees. We depend upon good communication with customers to do our jobs well and customer service is extremely important to us!”

If management is not keen on the sign idea, inquire whether you can ask customers to put their phone down and remind them that your job performance is impeded by this type of behavior.

Management will at this point do one of two things:

1. Forbid you from raising the issue fearing it will have a negative impact on business; or
2. Give you the green light.

Your boss may be OK with you standing up for yourself with customers, so long as it is in a non-confrontational and positive manner. In that case, here are my suggestions:

1. If someone is on the phone when they first approach you, remain quiet and inactive until you get their attention. You’re on strike until they pull their head out of their derriere and see that the camembert and caviar aren’t moving down the line as they should.

2. When they look up quizzically from their game of candy crush or pause the conversation with their tennis partner/best friend/worse enemy, gently inform them that your ability to correctly and efficiently ring them up depends upon their participation in the dance.

Perhaps add that for those like you in the service industry, being met with a customer who is engrossed in their electronics makes you feel invisible and somewhat like a robot. Appeal to their human side, if you can find one.

3. If they absolutely refuse to put the phone down, interrupt them with each item before you scan it. For example:

“Is this cilantro or Italian parsley? Cilantro, huh? What are you making? Ooh, I love guacamole! I had it once in Mexico, although it gave me the wind something fierce.”


“Bagels, huh? I love bagels but they have an awful lot of calories. That reminds me, have I ever told you about my great-great-grandfather’s escape from Odessa during the pogrom of 1919?”

And so on, and so on, and so on.

4. If they will not put the phone down, pick up yours. If they are having a conversation, make up the other side as you pretend to talk into your phone. This is one of my favorite ways to handle loud and rude cell phone addicts and can be very funny. For example:

BIL (Bitch In Line):
“So then I told Mary I had no intention of going to her bunko party because I heard from Cassie she told Elizabeth I was texting Bill and that’s not true!”

“Well I wouldn’t go either if I were you. Fuck them! Me? Yeah, I’m going. I heard Bill might drop by and since we all know how randy he is I thought I might give him a go…”

If your boss instructs you not to raise this issue with customers I suppose that is what you must do unless you are prepared to suffer the consequences of being found insubordinate.  However, I think a polite, “should I wait until you are done?” will move the average person to holster their crackphone.

Lastly, I saw this yesterday on Facebook and while the irony of its delivery method unto me is overwhelming I think everyone will really enjoy it.  Give this some serious thought and put that damn phone down before we forget entirely how to talk to each other.

I will start with me.  Will you?


This video can also be clicked here:  Put Down Your God Damned Phone, Already!



* In our family, this is called a “Coe.”