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My View: Lessons learned at Sears echo through the years

By Elizabeth Skelton

In the late 1960s, I was a freshman in college. I attended a small private college not far from our home, and I had an academic scholarship for tuition costs. However, money for books, fees, transportation and fun was my responsibility, so I had to get a part-time job.

Across the street from campus was a Sears department store. Back in the day Sears was the Amazon of its time – that's where you went to buy whatever you needed, and they did indeed sell just about everything from hairpins to harpoons. You could even buy a kit to build a house.

All over the country, Sears stores were ubiquitous, but just in case you couldn't get to one, you could still order whatever you wanted from the famous Sears catalog. That catalog was the size of a phone book (remember those?) and when it arrived in the mail we pored over every page.

Elizabeth Skelton.

I landed a job in the Sears catalog pickup department. At 19 years old, I had virtually no experience dealing with customers but I wasn't worried. Sears had a training program. On my first day on the job, the store manager took me and another new hire aside for our training; it was some of the best instruction I have ever had and it has been useful to me my whole life.

The manager told us that in addition to handing out the items people had ordered from the catalog, we'd be dealing with some customers who were upset with their purchases, who might be angry and want to return them. When that happens, he said, just remember two things: (1) Get the customer to say "yes." That's fairly easy, he told us; after you listen sympathetically, just repeat their complaint back to them so that they know that you hear them.

ME: “So you say this rug fell apart the first time you had it professionally cleaned?"


The second thing the manager told us was also not difficult. (2) Never tell them what you can’t do; tell them only what you can do.

WRONG WAY ME: "We can't take that rug back – you bought it years ago and you don't have a receipt."

UPSET CUSTOMER: "I'm calling my lawyer!"

RIGHT WAY ME: "I'm so sorry that happened. Let me see what I can do to get you prorated credit on a brand new rug. We have some lovely ones in stock on the second floor right now." 

HAPPY CUSTOMER: "Thank you!"

Looking back, it seems so simple: The most effective strategy to deal with an aggravated customer is to empathize, let them know you hear them, and then offer them a solution. Armed with 20 minutes of training, I had an exemplary four-year career as a part-time Sears catalog pickup girl.

When it came time to interview for my first real job, in an engineering company, I had no experience in the position for which I had applied. However, I used a version of my Sears training with the interviewer:  I got him to say "yes" and then I told him what I could do for his company; I did not apologize for the skills I had yet to learn. I got the job, and I have used the same approach in every interview I've ever had.

When my sons were old enough to start working summer jobs, I sat them down and told them about my Sears training. Like a lot of what Mom says, my words seemed to go in one ear and out the other. But when the older son was about to interview for a real job after college, he called me. "What was that Sears thing you used to tell us about?" he asked. OMG, I thought, he was listening to me. We reviewed the two things; he got the job.

Turns out even great life lessons could be found at Sears.

Elizabeth Skelton, of Lancaster, is grateful to be a former part-time employee at Sears.

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