Hanging on the Line

Even in the Internet age, the telephone is still an essential tool that connects retailers with their customers, but it can also be a source of both frustration and unexpected comedy.


Once a year, under the inspiration of April Fools’ Day, I take a sidestep from the regular duties of this column to have a little fun and recount some of the strange and amusing anecdotes that come with running a reptile business. This year, I’d like to start with that magic medium of verbal weirdness, the telephone. 

Some years ago, I took a random incoming call. At the other end of the line was a young boy with a peculiar question: Do you have any battle axes? In my nicest manner—I am not a nice person, but I can seem like one—I explained to him that we sold animals and not weapons. He hung up. 

Over the next few weeks, we got call after call from him, always with the same request. I think almost everyone who worked in the shop had the opportunity to explain to the youngster that medieval weaponry was outside the realm of our expertise, and always the same response: a wordless hang-up. 

Finally, his tactic changed. One day he called requesting ballistics. I happened to take that call as well, to basically the same verbal plot line and, true to form, he hung up, only to continue calling over several days requesting ballistics. 

On one such phone encounter, I happened to be sitting at my desk in a leisure moment, and decided to press in a different direction. 

“Please tell me why you keep calling us asking for things like axes and guns! Why do you think we have them?” 

“I don’t want axes or guns. I want the lizard!” 

“What lizard?” 

“The one that walks on the water! You know: the ballistics!” he exclaimed, clearly as frustrated as we were. 

The poor kid had been asking for a basilisk all along. 

We get odd phone calls all the time, and even stranger phone messages. Just a few weeks ago, I got a lengthy and quite detailed message from a customer alerting me that a product we carried contained carcinogens, and requesting that we contact the manufacturer to get information as to the specific carcinogen and any relevant studies on the effects on the carcinogens to Leopard Geckoes. She also recommended that we remove the products from our shelves. The only problem was she neglected to mention what the product was. A return phone number might have helped as well.

That same day brought a phone call from a gentleman who had an adult male leopard gecko. His question, and this is pretty much verbatim: “If I buy a female leopard gecko and put her in his cage, will he know what to do?” Feel free to pause for a moment as your imagination runs wild with potential smart-ass answers, as mine did. I surgically removed the sarcasm from my tone and cooly, calmly informed him that, yes, lizards know “what to do” without prompting, demonstrations or visual aids.

Phone Etiquette
Many years ago, I decided that most paid advertising was fruitless for a small retail business such as mine. Advertising works through repetition, and the budget to put together a truly successful ad campaign is really beyond the ken of most small retailers. We concentrate on being good enough at what we do to achieve good word-of-mouth, and we pay attention to being web-savvy and phone-savvy. 

All my employees know that the ultimate end result we want from phone calls is the caller’s physical presence in the store. We achieve that by being polite and generous with our knowledge and time, but firm in the sense that if a caller reveals an unwillingness to consider coming in, or at least making a phone purchase, it’s time for us to move on. 

Most people understand. They appreciate what we are willing to do and are happy with us. On occasion, we get somebody like the woman who called seeking information on raising bearded dragons. A few minutes into the call, I realized that what she was really after was a step-by-step tutorial on Everything She Wanted to Know About Bearded Dragons. I also came to understand that she already had the pet in question, and, furthermore, she was an hour away from us and had no intention of coming in. When I explained to her that I had actual customers waiting to talk to me and would have to cut our call short, she was incensed. 

“But the store I bought it from gave me your number for the care instructions,” she screamed at me. I was flabbergasted. I guess that’s the price you pay for knowing about the things you sell.

Most phone conversations are straightforward and business-as-usual. Some are absolutely fun to take—customers called with funny stories about their pets, questions about the ever-changing legal landscape with regard to exotic pets, interesting tales of wildlife encounters in the area and more. Even after almost 40 years in the field, I still look forward to answering the phone. 

That said, there are some calls that I dread. I remember some years back a gentleman who called expressing an interest in crocodile monitors. It so happens that crocodile monitors are a special love of mine as well, so I took some time and went through the basics with him. He thanked me and hung up. A few days later, I noticed one of my employees embroiled in a long conversation about crocodile monitors—and a few days later, another employee, another conversation, same subject. My staff and I had a little confab on the subject, and all of us had the same experience: the caller was friendly, curious, and wanted to talk about crocodile monitors from square one. I asked that the next call from him be routed to me, and when it happened, I asked him point blank what he was after. 

“Well, I’m interested in them because they’re my favorite animal,” he asserted.

“We happen to have three of them in stock,” I replied. “You should come by and check them out.”

“Oh, I would love to. I really would. I’ve heard all about them from your staff. But I live on the other side of the country, so I don’t think I’ll be able to.”

“Well, we do ship,”  I countered.

“Oh, I live in a one-bedroom apartment. I wouldn’t have the space or the money. But thanks!” 

Poor guy was just lonely, and he happened upon a place that would talk to him about his favorite topic. 

Then there was one of the few phone callers I ever had to hang up on in my career. It was early one morning. We weren’t yet open, and I was alone in the store. But, as I said, I believe in the phone, so I always take calls. The young man at the end of the line asked if we carried Mexican spitting pythons. 

I explained to him that such an animal didn’t exist, and that in fact Mexico didn’t have any native pythons. His end of the conversation then got very, very blue, and I hung up on him. 

Later that day, several customers mentioned to me that they heard the comedy bit I did on the radio. To my utter surprise and anger, it had been a prank call from one of the Morning Zoo style shows, and I had been the butt of their very stupid joke. 

But what the pranksters didn’t know is that I too had a background in radio, and that I knew it was illegal to broadcast someone’s voice without their consent. I consequently handily won the only lawsuit I have ever filed, and received a tidy sum in compensation. See? Even a bad call can do some good.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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