Crucial Conversations QA

Talking to a Needy Customer

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I own a furniture consignment shop. We have a new customer who is seventy-five years old, very lonely, and needy. He constantly comes in the shop or calls to talk about how he used to be a Hollywood star and a millionaire, or to tell us about each of his seven marriages.

I don’t know how to tell him we are busy, but we have each heard his story three or four times and it’s starting to make us all feel uncomfortable. How can I tell my needy customer that I don’t have time to talk without offending him?

At a Loss

A Dear Loss,

Thanks for the question and for your genuine concern for a person in need. Let me start by suggesting that this situation calls for a tactful discussion instead of a full-blown crucial conversation where you jointly brainstorm a solution.

You’re right in worrying about hurting the fellow’s feelings. He’s a human being and like all of us, he deserves to be treated with respect. Obviously, you don’t want to bluntly tell him to stop talking so much or repeating himself so frequently. And while it’s true that he may be lonely and is looking for simple conversation, even companionship, it’s not the responsibility of a shop owner to meet those needs (more on this later).

The kind thing to do is to pull the gentleman aside and set your ground rules. Explain that you appreciate his business and enjoy the conversation, yet you face a challenge. The shop requires your careful attention and does not allow you to carry on long conversations, enjoyable or otherwise. So you’re asking him to conduct his future business quickly—without lengthy discussions—so you can fulfill your responsibilities as a shop owner. Then thank him for his cooperation.

All of this should be done pleasantly, with a slight smile, and with genuine compassion for another person. You’re not opening the conversation up for debate, nor are you asking for suggestions. You’re professionally and politely defining the boundaries of your relationship.

Now, having said this, let me return to the issue of a lonely gentleman who appears to be looking for more than a simple purchase. Let me write, not just to you, but to all of us—myself included.

Not long ago, I was taking a brisk walk when I passed near an older fellow, a complete stranger, walking the other way. He signaled me to stop and when I did he chatted me up for a full five minutes. I was in a hurry to get back to work, but the gentleman seemed oblivious to the fact that I was trying to exit the conversation at every turn. Later that same day, I stood in line to buy a handful of groceries while an elderly woman in front of me wrote out and recorded a check—seemingly in slow motion—while casually chatting with the clerk. I almost climbed out of my skin.

At the end of the day, my mind turned to the intersection of two factors. One, my own lack of patience, and two, a growing number of elderly people who are likely to tax my ability to slow down and smell their roses. As I thought of these two events, I remembered the fact that as baby boomers age (and I’m one of them), they’ll put a massive burden on the healthcare system—leading to a huge shortage of healthcare professionals. I also recalled reading that, in 1950, for every person over 65 there were twelve people of working age, but in 2050, that number will drop to three—burdening social security. I was aware of both the medical and financial burden that will accompany the gray wave. We hear about those issues nearly every day. What I hadn’t thought about was the need for love, kindness, a gentle word, and yes—time—from those who will have so much of it on their hands.

The awkward situation at your shop provides evidence that there will come a clash between those who are frantically running about their daily tasks—stretched to do the job of two people—and those who will want to slowly write out a check, go on casual walks, and talk with shop owners about the old days.

And while it’s true that the shop owner can’t always meet the needs of aging customers, it is equally true that the rest of society will have to come to grips with living alongside a growing number of seniors who are finding their senior years more lonely than golden. As our life paces and interests come in conflict, we’ll continually face the question: What do I really want here?

I wrote earlier about my father who had largely gone blind, working on my pride and joy—the flowers in front of our house. Dad really wanted to contribute to the effort and eagerly put on his gloves every time I watered, mulched, or planted. Because dad couldn’t see all that well, he often damaged or even killed flowers every time he lent a hand. This bothered me until one day I asked: “What do I really want?” I decided I wanted my dad to work alongside me more than I wanted perfect flowers. We’ll be faced with the same question in years to come as more and more elderly people will ask for our time and attention at a stage in our lives when our free time will, if anything, be growing scarcer.

Hopefully, as we ask the question of what we want for ourselves and for others, we’ll find both the desire and the methods to spend time with those who have given us so much. Perhaps outside the shop someone will talk with your needy customer about the good old days. Maybe a neighbor will bring by a fresh-made loaf of bread, and then sit and chat for a while—doubling the gift. Perhaps his son will call with a short item of business, and then lengthen the conversation to cover whatever Dad wants to discuss. Perhaps all of us will learn to find ways to stop and smell the roses.