Workplace dilemmas: my customer is over familiar and it makes me uncomfortable

What do you do when a customer is overly attentive?

The latest in our series sees Just Recruitment’s agony uncle advise someone who feels their customer is overstepping the mark

Dear Tim,

I work in a customer-facing role for a local motor parts supplier. I’m a twenty-something female and we’re encouraged to be bubbly and friendly with everyone who comes into the warehouse*.

A lot of our customers are regulars. They work at local garages and use us as a quick fix when they need a part urgently.

I like this contact with people. It helps build rapport, and I know there are some customers, male and female, who will ask to deal with me because we get on well. I don’t want to boast, but I know my stuff, so they can be confident they’ll get a good service and sound advice.

Obviously, it makes me feel great when a customer specifically asks for me. But there is one person, a middle-aged man who runs a local workshop, whose attentions I’m less keen on.

Over the last couple of months, he’s asked for me every time he’s come in, and I don’t think it would be overstating things to say he’s been acting flirtatiously. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve doubted that he really needed to be there. One time, he asked if he could come out to the racks with me to help search for a product, saying he needed a very particular specification.

Again, I don’t want to overstate things, but I’ve also become aware that he looks at me really intently. And if I’m pretty sure I’ve caught him trying to look down my top more than once.

Now obviously, I don’t want to make a fuss. He’s a loyal customer who spends a lot with us, so I need to stay on good terms with him. But I feel increasingly uneasy when he’s around and I want to avoid his attentions. That’s well and good, but I often work on our front desk by myself, so it’s not even as if I can make myself scarce when I catch sight of him.

I worry that if I mention this to my supervisor he’ll think I’m overreacting. But, as I say, I feel really uncomfortable, so would welcome any advice you can give.

*Note: the identity of this correspondent and details of her workplace have been disguised to preserve anonymity.

Tim writes:

It’s always difficult to respond to letters like this without seeming to virtue signal, but the first thing to say is pretty straightforward: please stop apologising. If the Me Too movement teaches us anything it is that women have felt for too long as if they can’t speak out when men pay them unwelcome attention, for fear of seeming to exaggerate their concerns.

Well, here’s the thing: if you feel uncomfortable as a result of this man’s attentions, that’s the only measure you need to worry about. He could be perfectly innocent in his intentions. He may think he’s just being friendly. Then again, he may feel you have a connection and think that he’s doing a fantastic job of wooing you.

Or, in the worst case, he could be a predatory male who you need to be extremely wary of.

It’s difficult to say which of these categories he falls into without seeing the situation at first hand. But in one sense it doesn’t matter – because, if his behaviour makes you feel uneasy, it needs to stop.

Sadly, women have been forced to devise all sorts of techniques to fend off unwanted male attention. Although you say that you often work on the front desk alone, it may be worth alerting your colleagues in the warehouse to your predicament. If the customer comes in when you’re on duty, you could pop back and tell them so they know to come and take over while you stay out of the way. Or, if it’s hard to leave your desk, maybe you could ring them with an agreed code word that prompts their appearance, maybe by asking for a particular part number, so as not to arouse suspicion.

As an alternative, you could have a conversation with the customer to make it clear you’re not interested. I appreciate that you may not like this idea, since it would be easy for him to deny that he’s paying you any particular attention. But, even so, it may just be what he needs to back off.

Go down this route and I’d strongly advise that you have a witness to the conversation. It needn’t be your manager, but a supportive colleague who can loiter in the background and listen in. That will ensure you have someone to corroborate your experience, and to step in if things turn ugly.

I wish you well in dealing with this difficult situation. As you say, it could all be perfectly innocent. But if it’s making you feel anxious, you’re perfectly within your rights to deal with it. And no one should make you feel silly for raising it as an issue.

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

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