Human Nature

Customers can often be the biggest uncertainty in your business.




Once a year, I like to take a step away from business as usual—from talking directly about herps—and instead discuss that most confounding and dangerous of creatures, the human (Homo sapiens). It seems like there would be no better time to tackle this subject than April 1st. It’s hard not to get a bit calloused about people when you work in retail. I often find myself walking though the store shaking my head and muttering “Humans!” under my breath…


I start thinking about this column months in advance, looking back over the year to cull some of the best—and worst—interactions I have had. Sometimes all I need for this column is one good day.


We’ll start with one of the most jaw-dropping telephone conversations I have ever had. This happened a few months ago and started with me answering the phone in my habitual manner:


“East Bay Vivarium; this is Owen. How can I help you?”


“Yeah, hi Owen. I’m the guy you helped on Monday with the pump. Remember me?”


“No sir. I don’t work on Mondays; it must have been somebody else.”


“You own the store, right?”


“Yes, but I have a partner. Perhaps you were talking to him.”


“No, I’m pretty sure it was you. Anyway, you showed me a bunch of newts and then we spent a long time talking about pumps. I ended up buying the one you suggested, remember?”


“I wasn’t here on Monday. It wasn’t me. But no matter, what can I do for you?”


“Well, the pump doesn’t work for my application.”


“Is it defective?”


“No, it just doesn’t do what I need it to do.”


“OK, just bring it back in and we’ll find you one that does or refund your money.”


“I talked to your manager about this. I spent half a day driving to your store and I don’t want to do that again. He suggested I ship it to you, but that’s not convenient for me either.”


“Sir, what would you like me to do?”


“Can you drive over to me, pick it up and refund my money?”


“Sir, with all due respect, the presumption for most businesses—including mine—is that the customer is welcome to return defective products, but it’s up to you to bring it back. It’s not even defective. And by the way, where are you?”


“San Francisco.”


“That’s half an hour, not half a day. And I won’t pick it up.”


“It was half a day for me to drive over, find parking, buy it and drive home.”


“Well, that’s on you. You decided to make that trip.”


“Yeah, but you’ve inconvenienced me. If I bring it back, you’re even, but I’m out.”


“I’m not at all even. I’ll have a used product I can’t return, plus the time my salesperson—who wasn’t me—spent with you. Plus, the time my manager spent on the phone with you, plus the time I’m spending with you right now.”


“Look, I used to drive from New Jersey to Connecticut to go to Ikea, so I know about inconvenience. But you should pick it up.”


“Let’s use that as an example: if Ikea sold you a defective product—much less a product you just decided you didn’t like—do you really think they would drive to your house to pick it up?”


“Well, no, but they’re a major chain. You’re an independent specialist store of experts. You should do more.”


“We do more. We provide you a level of expertise that chain stores cannot offer. We provide you a range of choices that chains do not. But we don’t pick up products you don’t like.”




Just as I was about to scream and pull my hair out, I got called from the office to the counter. Somebody wanted to see me.


At the counter was a young lady.


“Hi Owen. My name is Lori. Remember me?”

I thought to myself “Here we go again,” but things took a dramatically different course.


She explained that she had come in about a year ago asking me how to take care of garden slugs. She had discovered one in her produce and decided she liked it. She is the kind of person who, once you are in her good graces, she will shower you with care and affection.


That was going to be one lucky slug.


I didn’t know much about slug care specifically, but I had kept banana slugs before and I was delighted to have a conversation with someone who could recognize beauty in such a “lowly” creature, so I told her the few tips I knew. But mostly, I encouraged her to follow her dream.


A year later, she was back to tell me that my encouragement paid off. She pursued various online slug forums, contacted biologists, kept copious notes and kept her slug. She not only kept it, it apparently lived a record lifespan for a captive slug.


Her slug had babies. Lori raised the babies and produced an F2 generation (meaning, in laymen’s terms, grandchildren), which was apparently a first for captive slug breeding (not that she had a lot of competition).


She had not only come back in to the store to tell me of her progress; she wanted to book my traveling reptile program for her next birthday party—even though I did not feature any slugs in the show!


As salespeople, we deal with the public at often very difficult levels. A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 39th anniversary with the store. Many of my friends wonder at my ability at this stage of the game to still stand behind that counter, bagging crickets and doling out words of wisdom regarding leopard gecko breeding and vine snake diets. Or—on some days—pumps and slugs.


But we also deal with a public that can inspire and delight us, and by keeping our focus on the positive—and treasuring wonderful folks like Lori the Slug Lady—we can overcome incidents, like Inconvenience Man.


So this April Fool’s Day, accentuate the positive and value your own work. Your customers do.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 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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