Is Mutual Respect a Thing of the Past?
Stone Industry Consultant
A few years ago, when my husband Ken and I still had the luxury of working together, we were back at the shop, having just completed a tile tear-out for a customer, whom we shall call “Jane.” Later that night, working in the office, my husband casually looked over at me and commented offhandedly, “Jane said her husband told her to let us know that if we needed to use a bathroom he said we can go find the McDonald’s down the street.”
“Huh. Have we done something no one told me about?” I wondered out loud. My husband shrugged nonchalantly. “We run into that all the time,” he said.
I had met with “Jane” and her husband on numerous occasions in our showroom. They had met my husband and son several times, as well as my shop guys when they went to do the tear-out. Although occasionally I want to dope-smack some of them in the back of the head for sheer stupidity, we have a good crew. They show up to a job site looking professional and presentable and I receive compliments pretty regularly on how polite and respectful they are to our customers and their homes. But this? I was honestly stunned. This rude and disrespectful comment was just not something I expected.
I asked Ken if he was sure he heard her correctly. He looked me squarely in the eye as he replied, “Oh, yeah.”
When my husband and I decided to start our shop we exchanged our white collars for blue. Having worked for both large corporations and small start-ups, we felt we could bring something different to our little corner of the world. Our mission would consist of quality products, competitive prices, and excellent customer care.
At the time we were just starting out, my brother had been a painter (and later, general contractor) for many years. Although I would occasionally help him at home shows or meet for lunch and hear him talking about customers and the way he or one of his guys had been treated or spoken to (rudely now that I reflect back on our conversations), at the time I really didn’t give it much thought. We were raised to be nice to everyone unless they gave you a reason otherwise. That was what I knew, and what I lived by.
It wasn’t until after we started our business that my husband began to notice oh-so-subtle and sometimes disparaging comments and attitudes from customers. But because they weren’t the “did-he-really-say-that-to-my-face” types of comments, the first time or two it happened, he thought he might have misheard. But as the situation started occurring more frequently he noticed, although not blatantly obvious, there were the smaller, more indirect words and actions. Things like being in the middle of a conversation with a customer and having them turn around and walk off without even an “excuse me,” or casually mentioning something he had seen affecting the stock market or financial sector and having a customer make a condescending remark, as if just because we do manual labor, we weren’t smart enough to understand these “complicated” things. Neither of us had ever run into anything like this before and we honestly were dumbfounded.
One particular day, something interesting occurred. Ken was on a job site with a retired husband, who was making a particular pain of himself watching over Ken’s shoulder while he was trying to work. Obviously, it makes it difficult to do your job when someone is hovering over you the entire time. Ken had been over to work on the job the day before, and the customer had not exactly gone out of his way to be friendly towards him.
While trying to distract the customer just enough to allow him to actually get his work done, my husband nonchalantly made a reference to the semiconductor company he had previously worked at for almost 20 years.
He said all of a sudden the customer’s whole attitude changed. He perked right up and became very engaged. He asked him what he had done there, what he thought about the company, the industry in general, etc. His whole demeanor towards Ken changed dramatically once he found out we had chosen to start our own business and walk away from the corporate world.
The next day when Ken returned to finish the remaining details and wrap things up he said the customer was nice and as friendly as could be. At first, we chalked it up to, “Well, that was strange.” But over time, we began to notice a pattern. Many customers were not overtly obvious about it, but looked at him and saw only the “countertop guy,” and were aloof, slightly rude, and continuously checking to make sure he was “doing the job right,” or even better – trying to tell him how to do the job.
When people would find out he had willingly walked away from the corporate world to work as a tradesman, their attitude seemed to go through a transformation. For the most part, people were much more friendly, wanting to engage in casual conversation or discuss the recent goings on of the stock market, or to see if he had any thoughts on various semiconductor companies or semiconductor stocks they were interested in. They came by to “see how it was going,” or if he needed something to drink. A couple times he even conducted his own experiment when he would find a customer being rude and casually bring up his background in semiconductors or the Boy Scouts.
He was always surprised at the way people’s attitudes would change towards him over this small detail of his life.
To simplify our life and keep important contracts or checks from being lost, all our mail goes to a Postal Annex location near our house. Most mornings I stop by and pick up our mail on my way in to the showroom. One morning as I was leaving the Postal Annex, I noticed a woman mopping the sidewalk all along the walkway leading to and from Safeway, and past all the small businesses in our little strip mall. I guess I hadn’t given thought to the fact someone did that, because I had always picked up our mail in the late afternoon, and obviously this job was performed earlier in the day.
Seeing her mop made me realize I never remembered seeing the usual collection of cigarette butts or trash you would expect from being located in close proximity to fast food restaurants and a grocery store. I also realized that I never remembered walking past the Baskin Robbins and feeling the ground sticky or messy with spilled ice cream. Now I knew why.
I stopped, said, “Good morning,” and asked how she was. She looked up slightly startled, and although she smiled, she didn’t say anything back. I said have a good day and continued on my way.
My one vice in life is my love of Starbucks. I don’t drink coffee and if they didn’t serve Chai Tea they would never see my wallet or me. But alas, we all must have one bad habit, and chai is mine.
Most mornings I pick up the mail, wander into the Starbucks corner at Safeway, and then head over to our showroom. Since we took a leap of faith and opened our showroom my schedule for picking up the mail is pretty regular. I would consistently see her outside every day mopping the sidewalk, or changing the trash bags, sometimes scraping gum off. And I always made a point to say hello and tell her to have a wonderful day – it never hurts to be nice to people. After about a week she started saying hello back, and after several weeks if she saw me she would smile and wave.
Several times during our brief moments of interaction I would notice people staring at me funny. At first I had no clue why. Then I realized that for most people, although they see her, they don’t really “see” her. She was “just” the woman cleaning the sidewalk. Treating working people as being invisible is a seriously rude habit we have as a civilization, and sadly seems to be commonly accepted. As anyone who has ever been condescendingly treated or spoken to by a customer, a boss or an acquaintance, it’s flat-out rude. Everyone, regardless of what your job is or how much money you do (or don’t) make, deserves to be treated with equal respect and dignity. Period.
Although my husband and I have been doing this long enough and have encountered some rude customers that seriously need a few lessons from Ms. Manners, I was just not prepared to have one of my customers that I happened to like be this bluntly disrespectful.
I did my best to keep my temper in check and sent a very polite email to Jane. I wrote that my husband mentioned we were not allowed bathroom access while at their home, and I asked her to please let me know if a problem had occurred that I was unaware of, because, of course, I wanted to make sure it was addressed.
I also as nicely as possible let her know that I had spoken to my husband and told him I was sure he must have misunderstood their conversation, because when someone comes to my house, the first thing I do before they start work is to ask if he/she/they need something to drink, let them know where I will be in case they need me, and make sure they know where the bathroom is because access to a bathroom when someone is working at our home is a common courtesy. (Attention men: DO NOT leave the toilet seat up at a customer’s house!)
I usually receive a quick reply from Jane when I email her. It has now been two days, and there has been no mention of my email. I did notice her response to my email yesterday regarding her slab layout was a little curt, but I chose to ignore it and instead hope my subtle hint has been taken.
By not calling it to Jane’s, or anyone else’s attention, feeling they have the right to treat us badly, we allow this type of bad behavior to become acceptable. It is important that we as business owners or employees remain professional at all times, and I made sure my email was professional, yet to the point. I flat out refuse to allow anyone to treat my company or my employees with disrespect, and we have unfortunately met several general contractors whom we absolutely will not do business with for this reason. So: Don’t be that guy.
Although I hope further discussions will not be necessary, I did tell my husband that if they broached the subject again I would be happy to inform them I would refund their money, let them know where their slab could be picked up and recommend they find another shop to work with. He let out a sigh and looked at me, wondering to himself, I’m sure, how he ended up married to this crazy woman.
I admit I may not be in the position to walk away from every job where people feel they can be disrespectful to my employees or myself, but as long as I can, I definitely have the right to try. Mutual respect is not only a common courtesy, it is our right. A few more people need to be reminded about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Jodi Wallace is a 15-year veteran of the stone industry. She also volunteers as a Disaster Responder for the American Red Cross.