Customer Service

Experience provides memorable lessons

An irate customer teaches a lesson about service.

We have all had difficult exchanges with customers during our careers, and some remain in our memories forever. I recall one of these moments working in the juniors’ department of a large retail store the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college. As we approached the end of summer, I helped prepare my area for our “back to school” promotion — hanging signs, marking down sale merchandise, and prepping for large crowds. Once the sale started, the days were long and busy as hundreds of shoppers brought their teenagers to purchase clothes for the new school year.

The day after the sale ended, a customer returned with her daughter, claiming that I had failed to give her a discount on a sale item. I looked at her receipt and listened to her issue, but I knew right away that the item in question had never been on sale. This dress was a new arrival and not a part of the recent sale. The customer was convinced that she had found the dress on a sale rack and explained that she expected me to “make it right” and return the money to her credit card.

Not knowing what to do, I asked my manager for assistance. He supported me and agreed that this dress was not on sale. When I returned to my department and told the customer that we could not extend the discount, she came unglued. Her neck turned red, and her voice rose in pitch and volume. At the end of a long monologue about my terrible customer service and treatment of her, she leaned in, pointed her finger at me, and said through her teeth, “You are going to give me that discount.” I consulted my manager two more times throughout this exchange, but he stayed in his office — he wanted me to handle it.

In the end, we gave the customer the discount. I silently processed the refund and was close to tears.

As difficult as this exchange was for me, I consider this situation a turning point in my life. While I was still very young and did not have much experience with customers escalating as she did, I spent a long time thinking about what I could have done differently or what would have happened if my manager had come out to help me. I learned more from this failure than any other customer service experience I have had, and these are the lessons I carry with me when I go to work every day.


Being right does not always make you right.

While I knew that dress was not on sale, being right had nothing to do with the customer’s feelings or the outcome of the situation. Looking back, I wish I had taken a moment to decide whether the customer’s experience was more important than the money she wanted back.

When working in our practices, we sometimes can be too focused on being right. While we must follow many rules outside of our control (insurance guidelines, government mandates, scheduling constraints), we have discretion in some areas. So, it is important to analyze the situation and bend a little when possible. For example, if a patient is upset because she does not like the glasses she purchased, can we listen to her and make some adjustment, even if we do not agree with the patient?

Call for help when needed.

In her parting remarks, the customer said, “You know, your manager really should have come out here and helped you with this, but thank you very much for honoring the discount.” I think she was right; however, he did not offer, nor did I request him to do so. While I like to solve problems myself, I should have requested back-up.

In our practices, we may periodically need assistance from our managers, but it is the staff member’s responsibility to effectively communicate this need. Also, managers may need to be more open about stepping up and helping staff deal with upset patients.

Do not take it personally.

In that moment, I felt like that customer was yelling at me – in the middle of the store and in front of her daughter. When I look back on it today, I understand that her reaction had nothing to do with me. I will never know what caused her to lose composure and have an unreasonable reaction over a $10 discount.

As ophthalmic professionals, we can sometimes take patient comments or moods too personally. It is important to remember that we do not know what is going on in our patient’s world and work to extend understanding and grace.

Analyze yourself.

I believe I spoke courteously with my customer, but I am not sure if I did something to set her off. After all, I was a teenager at the time. Did I accidentally roll my eyes? Did my tone escalate, causing her to become even angrier? Did I come across as a “know-it-all,” especially since I knew that dress was not on sale?

While we should not take things personally, it is important to self-analyze and make sure we respond to difficult patients calmly and professionally. We could inadvertently send a negative message with our tone or body language. If patients consistently become upset with us, we might ask our colleagues or managers for feedback on how to better handle these situations. You may also review the conversation in your mind and try to find some way that you could have calmed the patient down or provided a different option.


Sometimes, our worst customer service exchange can ultimately become the best one.

I am grateful that I took these lessons into ophthalmology, working to provide great customer service to patients, staff, physicians, and colleagues. OP