In four decades of working I have only told one customer to stop talking. I did, he did, and the action was taken out of need- mine.
If there were an APB out for the man who walked into the bike store where I work his description would read a lot like mine: White male, mid fifties, approximately six feet tall, 225 pounds, no visible tattoos or scars.
We looked a lot alike, though I am taller, slightly thinner and currently have my “No Shave November” Wolf Blitzer beard going, while he was clean shaven. Seeing how this was Tampa, Florida we were both dressed in shorts and short sleeved shirts; mine was black and had our shop name on it, his was an orange polo.
I greeted him, asked him how he was and if I could help. He was open to help and, as many bike shop customers do, quickly ran down his curricula vitae concerning his small stable of cycles. “Yeah, I’m new to the area and I’m thinking about a road bike. I got a Rocky Mountain duelie, a Giant Roam and a Specialized hard-tail.”
I smile and say, “Yeah, seems like a road bike might make sense; you seem to be in a rut.”
“Yeah,” he replies drawing out the word, “up in West Virginia we didn’t have a lot of places to go road riding but now that I’m down here in Florida I definitely am thinking about a road bike.”
“Cool. You want me to show you some?” Asking permission to help a customer may seem odd if you’ve never worked retail but over half the time when a customer walks in and I greet him I get the, ‘I’mjustlooking,’ single word answer. Of course, it’s my job to sell products and services to folks who walk into my shop so frequently I have to do the, ‘OkayfineI’llleaveyoualoneforawhile,’ dance. It’s always nice when a customer actually thinks that my thirty years in the industry and over 180,000 miles of riding in over 2/3 of our 50 states in all kinds of weather may actually give me some insight into theirs needs.
A long time ago I learned not to judge a book by its cover. I learned this through gross error. I’ve made this mistake many times in my life but I’m getting better. I think I know what style of road bike will work for orange shirt but right now all I know is that, like me, he’s old and overweight. Road bikes come in a lot of variations so the next thing to do is narrow the field.
I’ve been taught to ask some fairly specific questions that help clarify and qualify a customer’s desires. I frequently ask, “More speed or more comfort?”
Orange shirt’s brow wrinkles. “Well, right now I can average about 15 on my Roam. I’d like to go faster than that.”
“Sure, sure. Not a problem. Stepping up to any of the road bikes we’ll look at will probably gain you ten, maybe twenty percent more speed for the same effort. And you’ll see the difference no matter which one you settle on. Going from the Roam to a road bike is the big, critical factor. I like to ask speed or comfort because some people are willing to put themselves in less comfortable, more aerodynamically efficient positions to gain top speed while others, like me, aren’t.”
“Well, show me what you’re talking about.”
And I do. We quickly run through head tube heights, top tube lengths, variation in tire width, how a 25 mm wide tire is actually faster than a 23 at the speeds he’ll be traveling and a host of other variables. Somewhere along the line I ask his name and he tells me, “Ronald.”
Ronald says, “I won’t be looking to buy until after the first of the year. Just moved down here and I knew the house needed a new AC unit when I bought it. We figured it would last through the winter but no such luck. And I replaced the old, worn out wooden fence in the backyard with a new vinyl one. Both guys showed up on the same day! I’m tapped right now.”
I assure Ronald that his decision to wait until January isn’t a problem, throw out that he is missing prime Florida riding weather and mention that we have twelve month, interest free financing.
“No, I don’t think so. I doubt I could even qualify.”
“No problem,” I answer. “But, if you change your mind we can always put in your application and see if that goes through.”
We talk a while.I show Ronald bikes and we discuss West Virginia versus Florida, how it feels to be retired and how he’s looking forward to seeing his grand-kids over the Christmas holiday. We also talk bikes. It is no surprise to me that Ronald gravitates toward the longer distance, more comfort oriented end of the road bike spectrum.
We are two dogs sniffing each others butts. My former boss, Bill Stepanek, was fond of saying that customers are a whole lot more likely to buy from you if they know, like and trust you; a lesson I learned as a teenager.
Turns out Ronald is a retired school teacher. He has spent a lot of time in special education classes and worked with kids with behavioral disorder, or “BD” kids, something I have a lot of experience with as a substitute. He tells me a great story about a high school kid who was in his BD class because he would fall asleep in class. “Now, we both know that’s no reason to put a kid in BD so I ask him why he’s falling asleep all the time. Turns out he’s got school, practice and a part time job. No wonder he’s falling asleep. So I say to him, ‘Listen, you got to stay awake,’ and he says, ‘I know, Coach, but I just cant.’ So I tell him I’ll come check on him and sure enough I find him sleeping. So I say, ‘Listen, if I catch you sleeping I’m a give you a wet Willie.’ You know what a wet Willie is?”
“Sure,” I say. “When you lick your finger and stick it in his ear.”
“Lick my finger? Oh, no. I’m a gonna stick my tongue in his ear and then nibble on it. That’s a wet Willie.”
I raise my eyebrows and Ronald keeps talking. “So, I tell him that and then I find him sleeping in class; so what do I do? I give him a wet Willie. That boy jumped clean out of his seat. Never fell asleep in class again.”
“Probably never fell asleep again ever!” I laughed. “You traumatized him for life.”
“Yeah, maybe. I sure hope this road biking will help me lose some of this weight. My doctor’s got me on some medicine for my heart and it makes me gain weight.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s too bad. Wonder what my excuse is; I’m up at least twenty pounds higher than I should be.”
“Yeah. I had me a major heart attack playing softball.”
“No shit? Wow.”
“I was clinically dead for three hours. Luckily one of the fellows had paddles in his car. Kept me alive…”
Ronald kept talking but I stopped listening. I am not ashamed to show emotions, I do not consider feelings to be either a sign of weakness nor un-masculine. What I didn’t want was to subject this stranger to me breaking down and blubbering.
Ronald had had a massive heart attack and been saved. My 15 year-old niece had had a massive coronary and fallen dead to the ground half a year ago. Ronald had folks around him who saw his plight and were able to comfort and revive him. My niece had died alone in the dark. Tears welled, sobs threatened to erupt. I managed to croak, “Stop, man, stop.”
He looked at me with concern in his eyes and I said, “I’m sorry. My niece died of heart failure this spring. Sorry. I just couldn’t hear anymore.”
We talked a bit more. About my young, seemingly healthy niece who was here and then gone. About how precious family and life is and how we need to cherish and help one another. Then Ronald prepared to leave, telling me he’d be back after Christmas.
Life is a cycle; be sure to make the most of your time while you’re here.