Choose your words carefully


Aside from working at Deloitte as a Management Consultant where I work longer hours than I did at the Government and being Division D Governor for Toastmasters, I have only so much time to do the other things in my life (badminton, gym, reading, etc.) but I’m going to try to get back on track even though inevitably things always come up. Your patience and understanding would be great =)

I have an interesting problem I want to share about choosing your words carefully and I wanted to share my opinion on how I would tackle the problem.


Imagine that you are working at Safeway as a cashier. You are at the self-serve machines where customers can take their groceries to the self-serve machines, ring it through and pay for it with little to no help from any cashier. It seems that these machines have popped up in the last 5 years or so and there’s probably a few reasons why:

  • Customers are empowered to scan all their own groceries and pay for it 
  • Customers feel that they can do it faster
  • Line-ups at the self-serve machines are usually shorter (and some of those machines are express lines

As you are watching customers and making sure that they are scanning their groceries properly and not having any issues, you notice that one customer is trying to scan in some meat from the deli department that has been nicely wrapped up in the butcher paper and it has a sticker on it that says 50% discount. Normally, the stickers are placed on produce that is set to expire shortly and can be a nice way to sell produce that otherwise wouldn’t sell if it was set at full price. The customers (a man and a woman), try as they might, just cannot get the meat to scan properly on the machine. You walk over and try to help them out.

This is where the problem is, meat from the deli usually does not have a 50% discount sticker on it. The meat from the deli is usually fresh and if it wasn’t, it most likely wouldn’t be sold to customers in that fashion (Wang: This is just what I think; it might not be true). You have never seen any meat have a discount sticker on it, let alone a 50% discount sticker and the customers are waiting for you to fix their problem.

What do you do?


I can tell you what happened in the actual scenario as I was at a self-serve machine when all of this went down. A woman working at Safeway was the attendant manning the self-serve machines and the man and the woman walked over with the meat in hand to ask for some assistance. The woman, immediately noticing that there was a 50% discount sticker on the meat, decided to explain to the man and woman that it was unusual for deli meat to have a discount sticker on it and decided to call the meat department to ask. The man was immediately disgruntled and I heard him say “This is incredibly insulting. I don’t have time for this, I’ll pay for everything else but forget about the meat.” I suppose its entirely possible that the man could have found a sticker from somewhere else and stuck it on the meat (or someone else did so and left the meat and consequently the man and woman found it after) but given that all of these are possibilities and you (or the attendant) could not rule them out, what would you do?

Was it wrong for the attendant to call the meat department? I don’t believe so; however, I do think there might have been other ways to handle the situation that would leave the customer feeling better about the situation.

Different strategies to handle the problem:

If I was the attendant, I think there could have two ways to handle the problem differently and that might improve the customer experience.

  • “I’m sorry, I’m new here and I’m not sure how to fix this issue for you. Do you mind if I get the manager?”
    • I don’t think the couple would have been as mad seeing as how the attendant was new to Safeway and wasn’t sure of the policies around discounts and such. The woman could then phone up her manager, ask her to check with the meat department and then understand whether or not that this was an anomaly or whether there was a mistake of some sort.
  • “Let me ring that in for you”
    • Unless the man and woman were buying a huge amount of meat (and they weren’t), I’d like to think that just ringing the meat through and letting the customers make off with a good deal would have been acceptable (I don’t know about the policies at Safeway so maybe this might not be the best way). The customer would have got a good deal on some meat but the thought of never coming back to Safeway would not have crossed their minds. Once the customers left, you could then ask the deli department or the manager so that you know better for next time

What do you think? Is there a different way of approaching the problem that would satisfy everyone? Regardless of the solution, it’s important to think and choose the words you say carefully, lest the person you’re speaking to gets the wrong idea.