Yesterday, I behaved in a way that is utterly counter to my stated belief in being compassionate and empathetic. Even before the experience was behind me, I felt pangs of guilt and felt bad about the way I was behaving. Yet I allowed the situation to play out.
My wife and I had decided to buy three pieces of furniture, two identical accent pieces with ample storage behind their decorative doors and one long black buffet, also with lots of storage space. We need more storage space than is available in our kitchen to store glasses, plates, and the like. Yesterday’s visit to the furniture store was our third; we had first seen the pieces two or three days ago, then returned late in the afternoon day before yesterday to look again and to ask the saleswoman some question. The saleswoman was not there, we were told; she had a family emergency.
We returned yesterday, having decided to buy the pieces, but prepared to negotiate hard to get better prices since we were buying three items. I told the saleswoman, who had returned to work, we wanted the pieces, but whether we would buy them depended on how big a price break we could get. She said she would check with her manager and come back to us.
As we waited for her return, we looked at a few other pieces and sat on a sofa to relax for awhile. When she returned, she presented significant price reductions on each piece and then said, if we bought the pieces today only, they would pay the sales tax on each item, which would save us an additional 8 or 9 percent (sales taxes here are fairly high). We mulled the offer for a moment, then said we’d do it.
After we got to the counter, the saleswoman began preparing the paperwork for purchasing the items, pausing for a moment over her efforts and apologized that she had to recalculate something. She looked frustrated and almost in tears, saying something like “I’m sorry, I’m just a little out of it. My dad… Oh, dealing with parents at this age is tough.” I gathered her absence the day before had to do with some issue related to her father. Maybe he was ill, maybe he was in the hospital, maybe he had died. I didn’t know, and still don’t. But she was upset by something and it showed.
After getting back to the calculated, she said words to the effect that “Oh, I see here my manager’s note says because of the steep discounts, we can’t cover the sales tax, but the discounts are really great.”
That’s when I behaved badly. I said “I don’t accept that. We decided to buy the pieces after you told us the discounted price and said if we bought today we would not have to pay the sales tax.”
She looked shocked and said “I’m sorry, it was my mistake. But don’t you see the prices you’re getting are really steeply discounted; we could either do the discounted prices or pay the sales tax, but not both.”
I responded in anger. “I am not buying that. You clearly said we would get the discounted price AND the sales tax reduction. This sort of thing really makes me angry. I absolutely will not accept it.”
Again, she attempted to explain. “It was my fault. I’m kind of out of it; my manager said we couldn’t do the sales tax reduction with the price discounts. Don’t you see what a good price you’re getting…” I interrupted her.
“I see exactly the price I’m getting and it is, indeed, a significant reduction. But we based our purchase decision on the price and the sales tax incentive. And that’s where it stands. We will buy at that price, period.”
I’m sure I raised my voice. She stared at me in shock. She looked like she was about to break down in tears. Finally, she said “All right.” Then she went back to preparing the paperwork. After several attempts to get the numbers right, she produced a figure seemed right. I handed her my credit card and she took it to the machine to run it. She returned and continued to try to produce a sales receipt, but couldn’t seem to get it done properly.
All the while this was happening, she seemed on the verge of tears.
She excused herself to go get help. While she was gone, I said to my wife “I’m just unwilling to let her pull that on me.” She responded with “I don’t think it was intentional; she’s just totally out of it.” Someone told the saleswoman what she had to do and she returned to do it.
When she returned, she recalculated the figures and said the number was lower than she had first calculated. She still had the credit card, so she went to process the figure again. When she came back, I noticed that she still had the original credit card slip (which I had not yet signed) and I asked whether she had voided the original charge. Her shocked look took on an added sense of alarm.
She stuttered as she said, almost inaudibly, “Oh, no, did I already charge it…oh.” Now, the tears in her eyes became visible. She called out to a colleague, “Can you help me?” He came over and, misunderstanding, said it was a simple fix, he would just refund the difference between the two figures to my card. “No,” I said, “she ran both the two amounts, so the first one needs to be voided.”
The saleswoman said “I’m sorry” several times during this process and, during the card refund process, said to her colleague “I’m so upset.” He asked her why she was upset; she said something to the effect that “I’m just out of it.”
Finally, we got the credit card stuff straightened out and got delivery scheduled and we left the store. As we were walking across the parking lot, I said to my wife “I feel for her, but the price she quoted us is the price I was prepared to pay.” But by then I was feeling like I had taken advantage of what may well have been a simple mistake made by someone who was in the midst of a very trying experience. To save $130 or so, I had ruined someone’s day and had not given her the benefit of the doubt. I had treated her as if she was attempting to do a “bait and switch” with the tax discount.
If it weren’t for the fact that I fueled the confrontation by saying I absolutely would not accept that she made a mistake, I might have been able to salvage the interchange without ruining her day and without feeling like I had been such a heartless bastard. But I didn’t take advantage of the power of healing compromise. I was a hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch and stood my ground at the expense of being compassionate and empathizing with someone who obviously was going through a tough time.
I wish I’d taken heed of Plato’s words, words I’ve posted here in the recent past:
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”