Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lessons in poor customer service

Part of the job of being someone who offers opinions on politics (or entertainment, sports, etc.) is that, from time to time, you have folks who disagree with you. And, if you write a column (as I have done recently) or publish a blog (as I currently do), you might just get recognized when you go out in public.

Back when I covered high school athletics, I was recognized quite frequently when I'd go out, largely based on my weekly football picks column. You'd be surprised how many folks would be very upset when I'd pick against their particular school. Hell hath no fury like a Cedar Shoals fan scorned.

Still, I'm not sure if anything really prepared me for the angry confrontation I faced this morning by the owner of a local store.

I've considered this particular individual a friend for quite some time, and I've frequented and promoted his business on numerous occasions. And, to be clear, I still think he is genuinely a good guy who runs a good business.

Now, in the understanding of this story, it's important to understand the context - I was patronizing his store with my two-year-old daughter in tow. Be sure to keep that in mind throughout this retelling.

Upon entering, I was greeted not with my name, but rather by 'here's the famous columnist.' I laughed it off, but I recognized right off the bat that he was somewhat tenser than normal. Because we've known each other for some time, we tried to catch up on a few things, and he asked how business was going for me as I did for him. My response is, well, the same for everyone who is a self-employed consultant these days which is 'well, it's just a rough economy.' I talked about how a lot of folks were cutting back and a lot of folks weren't hiring.

Unfortunately, I had just opened the door to what would turn out to be a rather unpleasant, and at times unnerving, political discussion in the middle of his store. He used my comment on the realities of the economy to launch into his many disagreements with President Obama.

After a few general statements about spending and taxes - all of which I just politely nodded to - he went after 'Cash For Clunkers.' He discussed how he didn't like subsidizing the purchase of cars for people he didn't know, doubted its economic viability and didn't think it was doing anything to create jobs (all valid concerns, to be sure). This went on for a few minutes, with my daughter wiggling in my arms, and I offered what I thought was an innocent observation based on my father's experience with the program.

My father, for those who don't know, works as a controller for a Ford dealer. He thinks there is some value to the program because it has helped spur sales dramatically, though he does think it is somewhat slow and cumbersome. He attributes those features to it being a start-up public program that didn't anticipate the rush of sales, as well as difficulties in local dealers with compliance.

So that's what I said.

And his response was a rather dismissive 'well, no disrespect to your father, but I don't believe that at all.'

At this point, my better sense should have recognized he was very angry about something, and whether it was a legitimate frustration with politics or something that was completely unrelated, it was obvious it was clouding his judgment. Instead, in my honest appreciation of debate and discussion (and arguably egged on by the thinly veiled shot at my father's intelligence), I tried to point out what I felt were the positives of the program (i.e. spurring sales for a slumping industry, moving less fuel-efficient vehicles off the road), though, to be fair, I did so rather clumsily.

Safe to say, he wasn't having any of it. So we danced around this for some time, and it reverted back to his displeasure with subsidizing the purchase of vehicles for other people. In what I thought would be a valid counterpoint, I noted that government doesn't actually work like that in most cases. It isn't as if we get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go, and that just as he has a valid philosophical disagreement with, say, 'Cash For Clunkers' I knew a lot of people who didn't support The War In Iraq.

I suppose in hindsight, I should have recognized that, despite the truthfulness of that observation, it was not an effective way to calm down an increasingly tense discussion. His response was 'those people protested the war, and I'm protesting this ... are you against free speech now and are you saying I can't speak out about it?'

Growing more uncomfortable by the minute and sensing his rising agitation, my response was 'not at all' and I said such dissension is good ... and if he disagrees with the policies going on he ought to speak out and go vote in 2010 and 2012.

Let's just say it went dramatically downhill from here.

He glared at me, offered a mocking laugh and said 'oh we will, you can bet your bottom dollar on that one.' And then he angrily thrust his hand toward me and said 'I'll bet you five dollars that your guy gets thrown out on his a-- in 2012.' I laughed, in a sad attempt to diffuse the situation, and he persisted by saying 'Do it ... shake my hand and bet me $5 right now.'

I declined to take the bet because, well, it's hard to predict what's going to happen in two or four years in our political environment and, of course, I was holding an impatient two-year-old. He seized on this as an apparent justification of his line of argument and said 'you won't do it because you're scared and you know I'm right.'

So now I'm getting kinda upset with this whole situation. Not only am I very bothered by his increasingly agitated tone, but I'm rightfully angered that he's doing it when I'm patronizing his store with my daughter.

My response was to say that Obama's poll numbers were low because his support among Democrats, his natural base, had fallen by 10 to 15 points in the past month given their frustration with the health care debate. His numbers with Republicans had bottomed out, as we'd expect, and his independent numbers were in flux given the various attacks on the reform proposals and their uncertainty with his leadership on the economy.

Pass health care, I argued, and his numbers rise among both Democrats and independents. Watch it fail, and Obama and Democrats are going to suffer.

He countered by, for all practical purposes, labeling me an elitist. He said that folks were sick and tired of arrogant people like me and Barney Frank talking down to honest, well-meaning people with questions.

At this point, I was absolutely done.

I responded with 'what in the hell are you talking about ... some lady who doesn't know what she's talking about compares the president to Adolf Hitler and she gets called on it, and that's arrogance?'

To which he angrily said, with a finger jabbing in the air at me, 'It's pure arrogance on Barney Frank's part' and, at that point, I responded with 'whatever, I'm leaving.' He quickly follows me from behind the counter, grabs the door to prevent me from leaving and says 'we're just having a philosophical debate, and you lose your cool and want to storm out?' Of course, the sheer insanity of that comment made me even angrier, and I'm not entirely sure what I said though I know it involved a few choice words and the fact that I thought this was poor behavior on his part considering I had my daughter with me in his store.

I can concede that I probably should have headed off the conversation way before it took such a turn for the worse. I can also concede that I should have worked that much harder to keep a level head, not only for the sake of my argument, but, most importantly, for the sake of my daughter.

Yet ... outside of my final, frustrated outburst, I'm hard-pressed to really see what I did wrong. I tried, perhaps imperfectly, to civily counter some of the arguments he was making and, in areas where appropriate, concede that he had some legitimate concerns. It's just that he wasn't interested, at all, in having that type of conversation.

He was angry, and he decided to throw that anger at me ... even if it meant acting in a wholly irresponsible way toward a parent with a child who was visiting his place of business. And I think it's the latter that really angered me the most.

I can accept (and encourage) having folks challenge my political views, and I'm more than willing to admit that I've been stumped, befuddled and outright lost in debates over politics and policy. However, to show such anger to a friend who is visibily trying to keep a two-year-old from turning his store inside out - a two-year-old who is laughing, drooling and repeatedly saying 'Daddy's beard ... Daddy's beard' - is absolutely beyond me.

The anger and condescending approach he took toward the discussion, and his insistence on perpetuating it - and, on more than one occasion, using physical intimidation to try and get his way - in the presence of my daughter, was deeply disturbing.

Safe to say, I'm going to take some time away from visiting his store.