The place where they sell phones, internet plans and ‘Yes Moments’ isn’t the obvious setting for a lesson in compassion. But, just as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears and it seemed that the sales crew (and myself) were due for a refresher course in how to be kind.
A visit to the phone store is no pleasure cruise – it’s a place you go to only when you absolutely have to. I’d tried all the links on the website, waited for someone in the off-shore call centre to help, but no. In the end I had to make a physical trip.
There’s no subtlety about the commercial design decisions of these shop fronts. The sterile white counters and hard edges clearly aren’t meant to be welcoming and the devices secured with retractable wire all but scream a basic lack of faith in humanity.
As for the staff - there’s often more than a hint of Handmaid’s-Tale-level burden about those with the job of providing face-to-face customer service. Maybe they know that the people who make the trip to the store are only there as a last resort.
As I waited for the next available member of the sales team, I perched on the edge of a hard seat and wondered why the music video on the flat screen TV was turned up so loud. It soon became clear that even The Killers couldn’t drown out the raised voice of the customer who had been shepherded toward the back of the store.
Rapid-fire looks were being exchanged between sales team members, their discomfort (irritation?) obvious. The awkwardness spread like a disease to the other customers who averted their eyes and got busy scrutinising the chained up devices.
It seemed that, despite coming into the store for assistance, an elderly, wheel-chair bound woman had been handed a phone, parked at the back of the store, out of the way and palmed off to the company’s call centre.
While she struggled to communicate with the disembodied voice on the phone, sales team members cruised the shelves as though it was a car showroom, detailing the latest must-have features of different devices.
Providing assistance to an existing customer in need of help, however, seemed to fall outside of their scope of work - Yes Moments are apparently reserved for those of us hungry for data and susceptible to sales gimmicks, viable targets happy to sign up for yet another 24-month contract.
The elderly woman explained, for at least the third time, that her home phone wasn’t working, she didn’t have a mobile phone, she was disabled and had a serious medical condition. Her home phone was literally her life-line and she needed it fixed urgently.
Everyone knows that dealing with a call centre can be challenging enough, but when your hearing and speech is impaired it becomes virtually impossible. The woman's voice began to falter as she struggled to hear and understand what the person on the other end of the line was telling her.
Still, members of the sales team carried on as though it was business as usual – nothing to see here folks! Customers like me played along, pretending not to listen despite the butt-clenching tension in the store.
I became aware that I was part of a really shameful display – gross incompetence (or was it callous disregard?) from the customer service staff and a studied detachment from everyone else.
The woman had come to the store only because she absolutely had to. Unlike those of us who wanted an upgraded phone or more data, her issue was one of personal safety and, despite her obvious distress, no one was in any rush to help.
As the sales guy tapped away at the computer sorting out my request, the phone call between the woman and the call centre continued to go around in agonising circles.
Suddenly the customer next to me decided enough was enough.
While I’d been standing there, feeling uncomfortable and furiously wishing that one of the sales team would step up and do their bloody job, a young woman walked across the store, crouched down beside the woman and offered to speak to the call centre for her.
Within just a few minutes the issue was resolved. The woman’s relief and gratitude was palpable.
With one decisive act of compassion a young person had schooled the Optus staff in how to treat a customer with basic humanity.
She also reminded me that showing up and offering kindness should be a default position instead of waiting for someone else to step in and do it for us.