Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Talking to the boss

Hello Polite Readers!

I've been asked to talk about standing up to your boss. I had to mull it over for a couple of weeks because I'm not really a normal day job kind of person, and as such, I don't have a lot of experience dealing with bosses. When my husband has an issue at work, I'll say "Well you should tell your boss this and this" and he'll mutter something about how I obviously don't know how business works. Apparently managers don't respond well to my natural snark, so let's go into Politely Worded Mode.

First, decide if the issue is worth making a stand about. If you feel like the boss's current policies are going to cost the business money, or if it's an issue of personal safety (physical or emotional) then you should definitely bring it up. But if you want to complain that your boss's collection of Precious Moments figurines is tacky and makes the office look unprofessional to potential new hires, that's probably not worth the hassle.

If you're pretty sure it's a serious matter, then discuss it with one or two close friends and make sure they agree that it's a big deal and get their opinion on valid points that you can bring up in your argument. For instance, if you have to leave the store at night down an unlit flight of stairs, be sure to bring up employee safety and how if you did fall and break your arm, you'd have to be out on disability until you healed, and then who would do your job?

If it's something that is affecting multiple employees (let's stick with the dangerous staircase above), talk with the rest of them too and get their feelings. Have any of them had a close brush with falling? Have customers noticed and complained? Choose one employee to be the spokesperson (we'll assume it's you) but get permission to mention the others by name.

Before you go to the boss, do a little research or soul-searching on the ideal solution to the problem. For instance, look into the cost of installing a light. Get the name of a good contractor who can do the work. In the case of a less physical, more emotional issue, such as being bullied or forced to work unpaid overtime, decide what you need to have changed to feel comfortable at work.

Now, choose a good time to bring it up. You don't want to start berating your boss during a big rush of customers, nor do you want to start the day off on the wrong foot, nor do you want to start something at the end of the day when you have a pressing appointment right after work. If there's never a convenient time at work, you may need to write an e-mail instead.

Finally, the hard part. Use my favorite firm-but-polite attitude to confront your manager. Stick to the facts and the proposed solution. Continuing with the dangerous staircase scenario, you might say something like this:
Thanks for taking the time to have this meeting with me! I wanted to let you know that we're all really concerned about the back staircase. It's unlit, and those of us who work the closing shift have had a few bad scares on it. Did you know that last week Jane slipped on an icy stair and fell down? Luckily she only had bruises, but if one of us tripped at the top we could break something and possibly be unable to work! I know you prefer us to lock up the front and then go out the back, so for our safety I think it would be best to install a light back there. I did a little poking around on-line and I think it would only cost the company about $xx to put up a fixture. Is that possible?
Now be open to the boss suggesting other possibilities. It may be that the lease doesn't allow any changes to be made to the building, or that there's no money in the budget for improvements. The boss may suggest keeping flash lights by the back door instead. You might suggest being allowed to go out the front at closing. It may take a bit of negotiation to come to an ideal situation.

Keep in mind that no matter how polite and well thought out your argument is, the boss might just say no. Some don't like to be questioned or given suggestions on what to do. At this point you will have to decide whether you can come up with your own work-around (carry a flash light in your purse), take it up the food chain (assuming your boss isn't the owner/CEO/top of the line), pursue legal recourse (is it an OSHA violation?), suck it up (well, you haven't broken your neck yet, after all), or start looking for a job with a better situation and a better boss.

I hope you can adapt this hypothetical situation to whatever real boss-problems you may have. If any of my readers have a specific workplace situation that needs addressing, feel free to e-mail me at and you may be the subject of my next column!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Speak clearly, please

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's question comes courtesy of a friend, and it concerns phone etiquette. Read on:
 I have a hard time understanding accents over the phone, to the point that I sometimes cannot even follow the conversation with customer service representatives. Usually, I claim that there is a bad phone connection, apologize, and ask if they could speak slower and louder for me. Some times, this works just fine--they are equally apologetic, speak slower, and we have a conversation. Other times, this just seems to annoy the phone rep who refuses to talk any slower and, instead, just starts yelling into my ear. If they are in a particularly bad mood, I get snapped at if I ask a second time to repeat themselves. Once, I was hung up on. At this point, I want to ask to be transferred to someone else in hopes I can understand them, but, as I have just claimed it was a poor phone, I don't know how to now say, "I cannot understand your Southern-belle slang coming at me at a hundred miles an hour, so please send me to someone who can speak the King's English. Oh, and your manager, so I can tell him/her that you need some basic customer service skills."
 This is just one of the many reasons why I hate telephones. E-mail or instant message is so much better, as long as you're dealing with someone with good writing skills. However, oftentimes we're forced to call in for tech support or other customer service, and with call centers all over the country and the world, you never know what you're going to get (the last customer service person I dealt with had the sweetest Minnesota accent, but it's rare to be that lucky).

My friend, you are starting out with the right idea, blaming the phone rather than the person's accent. My suggestion would be to shift the blame even further, to yourself. Say simply "I'm sorry, sometimes I have a really hard time understanding people over the phone. Could you speak more slowly?" Retain the apologetic tone that you've been using so far. Hopefully if you make it seem like you have a hearing problem (even if the "problem" is that the agent is talking at a mile a minute and there's all sorts of office background noise coming through the connection) and emphasize that you need them to talk more slowly, they won't resort to shouting.

If you still can't understand them, say something like "I'm so sorry, I still can't understand you. Your voice just isn't coming through well. Could you possibly transfer to someone else?" Hopefully they will understand that some people just can't hear some voices -- my husband has a voice like that, which tends to lead to a lot of mis-heard orders at restaurants. Good thing he's not a picky eater.

But what about when the agent gets snippy with you? Absolutely ask to be transferred to the manager right away! Summon your best icy politeness and say "I still can't understand you. Please transfer me to your supervisor." Then when you get the supervisor, calmly explain what happened and request to be helped by someone else.

In the case of being hung up on (really? I know a lot of people who have worked in call centers and you're generally only allowed to hang up when the customer gets truly belligerent, as in cursing and making threats), you should call back and ask immediately to be transferred to a supervisor. Then provide the name of the employee who hung up on you! Hopefully your call will have been monitored for quality assurance (or whatever they call it) and they will have proof of how poorly you were treated.

The important thing is to stick to just the facts. While it would be very satisfying to say that you think the agent needs some "basic customer service skills" after being yelled at, you look so much better when you are the one calmly saying "All I did was ask her to repeat the product number I needed to order" and she's the one who hung up on you.

I hope this helps, and I hope that you don't encounter too many irrationally irritable customer service representatives any time soon!

Do you have a question that you'd like to see answered in this blog? E-mail me at and you could be one of my next letters!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Staggeringly Rude

Hello Polite Readers!

Chances are at some point in your life, someone has said something jaw-droppingly rude to you. It might have been street harassment, or someone suggesting that bellydancing is the same as stripping, or an unprovoked insult about your appearance. And chances are that you were either left speechless, or you responded with something equally rude. Well, don't feel bad. For the most part we don't go through life expecting that random people (or sometimes, our own friends and family!) will say awful things to us.

In a perfect world, we'd all be ready with a clever quip for every occasion, but when wit fails you there are other options. When someone is rude to you, it actually is a pretty good idea to just ignore them, because you're denying them the satisfaction of the response and possibly saving yourself from being drawn into an argument or even a physical fight!

If you feel like you have to respond, there are a couple of options which work well in most situations. Often you can give them an either shocked, perplexed, or hurt look and (matching the tone to your expression) say "Why would you say that?" it gives them pause, and prompts them to apologize if they didn't mean it that, or to explain exactly why they think your art is the ugliest thing they've ever seen. For those of you who are more directly confrontational, you can say "That was very rude/hurtful and if you're going to continue to talk like that I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

The most important thing is to resist the urge to respond in kind. It's tempting to try to hurt someone who has hurt you, but returning insult for insult just drags you down to their level. By all means, think of a snide comeback if it makes you feel better, but don't say it. Rise above it all by remaining cool and collected, and you will earn the respect of onlookers.

Do you need help dealing with the rude people of the world? E-mail me at and I may feature you in my next column!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When a seller is dragging their feet

Hello Polite Readers!

I've written a lot of columns from the seller's point of view, dealing with difficult customers and requests for freebies. But this week we're going to switch things up a bit and talk about how a buyer should deal with a slow, non-responsive vendor.

This request comes courtesy of a dear friend who recently had a troublesome run-in with a vendor. Last year around this time, she finally made a long-awaited purchase of a custom item. Due to the handmade nature of the item and the popularity of the vendor, she was told she wouldn't receive the item until September, November at the latest. This was fine with her and she dutifully made her down payment and began the long wait for her item.

September came and went, as did October and November, and still no item, plus no communication from the vendor explaining the delay. So she decided to contact them and got an explanation and a promise that her item would be ready soon. Again she settled in patiently to wait... but her item still never arrived, and the vendor once again did not step forward with an explanation.

Finally, last month, patience began to wear thin. My friend had wanted to have this item available for Fall and Winter use, and here it is almost Spring in AZ. It's been nearly a year since the original order date, and still no (very pricy) item. Her husband decided to send them a letter, and because he did not ask for my Politely Worded advice ahead of time (shame shame!) it came across a little strongly and set the vendor on the defensive. Rather than providing the info he wanted, they responded with their own dose of snark. After a bit more communication, my friend was finally able to get an update, and last week her item was delivered at last and is quite lovely, but she's asked me to share some advice to spare other people from having similar problems.

First, let's talk about how to avoid this sort of problem in the first place. Oftentimes you can dodge a bullet by researching a seller ahead of time. This is one reason why I like sites like Etsy and eBay... the feedback system gives a good indication of how reliable a seller is. Lacking that, you can ask your friends, or do a Google search for the company name to see if anyone is complaining. This doesn't always work, of course. My friend had many personal recommendations for the vendor she used, and I've also seen sellers drop rapidly from having 100% feedback when a purchase was made to 97% as they suddenly lose the ability to run their business properly.

Next, if you've done your due diligence but things still start to look poorly, don't just wait around for the item to show up. As soon as it starts to feel like your order should have been fulfilled, start looking into your options. If purchased on eBay or Etsy, see what you need to do to request a refund. Also look into getting refunds via PayPal or your credit card company or bank account if applicable. I recommend doing this right away because sometimes there's a deadline involved, and in the past I have waited too long and lost out on my money. You want to know what your deadline is so you can invoke it with the seller if need-be.

Now once you're armed with the necessary facts, start out with a polite letter that outlines the facts but also assumes that this must be a simple misunderstanding or oversight or problem outside of their control. For instance, say something like:
Hello, on January 1st I purchased a set of fuzzy slippers from you (insert link to listing/receipt). I thought they'd make the perfect birthday present for my mom, and from viewing your shipping policies I knew they'd arrive in plenty of time for her birthday on March 2nd. However, it is now February 4th and I still haven't received them, nor have I received any shipping notification. Do you have a tracking number? I want to make sure that USPS didn't lose them somewhere along the way.
This lets them either provide said tracking number or admit that they are SO sorry, they thought they mailed your package but it actually slipped under the seat of the car and has been sitting there for weeks. They'll mail it right away and here's a coupon for $5 off your next order to make up for the delay. Hopefully that will be the end of it and the item will soon be in your hands (or you'll find that the tracking number shows a problem, in which case you have to deal with USPS. That's beyond my scope, sorry).

However, you may find that either they don't respond at all, or they respond with fishy excuses and you still don't get your item. This is when you need to get a little tougher, but of course still polite. Lay out the facts again and offer a proposed solution and an ultimatum.
Hi, it's me again. I wrote you on February 4th to inquire about the slippers I ordered on January 1st (again, insert link to listing/receipt). At that time you didn't respond to me/gave me an invalid tracking number/told me you were mailing it tomorrow. I still have not received the slippers, and my mom's birthday is getting really close. I don't want to have to leave you negative feedback and start PayPal's conflict resolution process, but I am afraid that if I have not received the item or a refund by February 28th, I will be forced to take action. I'd really appreciate an update on the status of my order, and I hope we can work this out to both of our satisfaction.
If the seller is just a little flaky, this should scare them straight and you should get your item. If they are just a rip-off artist trying to bilk as many people as they can as fast as they can before eBay/Etsy/whoever catches on and shuts them down, they will probably either ignore you or give you more excuses ("I'm sorry, my hamster died and things have been so chaotic"). This is when you give up on being patient and set things in motion. Send one more note informing them of your intent and then start the necessary process to get your money back!
Hello, it is now February 28th and I still have not received the slippers that I ordered from you, nor a valid tracking number. My mother's birthday is the day after tomorrow and now I am forced to go to the mall and find her a replacement gift. It is clear to me that you never had any intention of fulfilling my order. I have already contacted PayPal for a refund and I will be leaving appropriate feedback on Etsy.
 It's my understanding that Etsy has a "kiss and make-up" feature which encourages buyers to let the seller make it up to them. Honestly, I am not into that. Unless the seller genuinely had real circumstances beyond their control that made them unable to fulfill orders or e-mail customers (ie, their house was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, they had a serious stroke and have been in the hospital and PT ever since, etc etc), I think they deserve their negative feedback! If you've waited months and not received your item, that is a serious problem and future would-be buyers need to know about it.

And what if you're not using a service like eBay or Etsy with built-in feedback but you want to warn friends away? I'd stick to the facts. Say "Hey, I know some of you have also been checking out this website and were thinking of ordering some things, but I just had to request that Visa reverse the charges because they never responded to my order or sent my items." Avoid inserting an opinion about how they are lazy, stupid, or bad at business. Remain professional -- that will put you ahead of them.

Please note that I am of course not qualified to offer legal advice and if there's a lot of money on the line (for instance, you bought a sports car on eBay), you might want to consult with a lawyer rather than an internet advice columnist. My advice is geared towards purchases in the tens to hundreds of dollars range, not thousands and up.

Are you looking for the best way to navigate dangerous communication waters? Contact me at and I'll help!