I needed to ring up my parents on Sunday to reassure my mother that I hadn’t been abducted by aliens, trampled by a mad cow, or fallen foul of any of the other things that worrying mothers assume might befall their grown offspring in this apparently peril-strewn country. I suspected that my top-up plan was running out of minutes, so I went down to the venerable institution known as the Carphone Warehouse, and set about righting things.
Now, I’ll admit that I’m probably a somewhat trying customer for people who work in the technology sector. When I purchased my plan, the salesperson looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him how to put the chip in the phone, which I felt was a perfectly legitimate question. On this occasion I was probably guilty of replying with a blank stare when the staffmember asked me which plan I had. And boy did the eyes roll when I asked how to check how much credit I had left. In spite of my ignorance of the basics, I do feel that I’m entitled to a more civil level of treatment than was meted out by the aggravated woman behind the counter, who gave me the shortest of shrifts.
This is rather different from the U.S., where salespeople are almost manically cheerful. While it’s nice that people are friendly, sometimes the probing questions are annoying (What do you think I’m going to do with the book? Use it to prop open my window? And ‘I’m just looking’ means exactly that...there’s no need to keep following me around’). So I suppose there’s a fine line between British indifference and U.S. eager-beavery, which doesn’t always seem totally genuine.
‘Have a nice day’, I said through gritted teeth to the Carphone Warehouse Automaton behind the counter, and she gave me a look that suggested I’d just insulted her mother.
But nothing quite compares to the experience of buying shoes in Nairobi. I turned up at the YMCA last summer realising that I’d neglected to pack anything other than hiking boots which, while fine for tramping around the moorland on top of the Aberdares, are less well-suited for Nairobi, where everyone dresses excruciatingly nicely. So out I went to a shop on Moi Avenue to find shoes.
Now the unsolicited opinion of people with fewer social graces than you, dear reader, is that I have flat, wide, and somewhat unsightly feet, so finding shoes that fit well can be a tricky business at the best of times. I’ve learned better than to mention in my sister’s hearing that I’ve bought new shoes, because she’ll say something like, “Oho, what did you do with them then, because it looks like you’re wearing the shoebox!”
The customer service gent who cornered me in Nairobi was far too polite to say anything of the sort, but he seemed to realise immediately that I was going to be a tricky piece of work, because he squinted and furrowed his brow before hurrying over to a pile of shoe boxes in a corner and pulling a pair out. He proceeded to watch me struggle to get them on, and we looked at each other, pained, acknowledging that they weren’t going to do.
He summoned an underling who was despatched to a back room, while he surveyed the shelves. Said underling brought out two more pairs, neither of which was remotely big enough. More underlings and a higher-up materialised, and they proceeded to sit me down and assault me with pair after pair of shoes.
“Come now, you don’t need socks!” one cried over my protestations, wrenching my wretched appendages left and right in an effort to get them into a shoe. Another valiant salesman broke out in a sweat while trying to force a shoe onto my foot which was bent almost double in the process. He only gave up when it became apparent that the seam was going to split.
“Oi, those don’t come off!” I yelped, as an over-eager shop assistant gamely tried to remove my toes, the better to fit my recalcitrant, battered and much-maligned-in-Kiswahili mzungu feet into a shoe plainly meant for a small child.
Just as I was fearing that I was about to become the victim of an amputation, a bespectacled clerk emerged from a back room, holding a shoebox before him as though it was the Holy Grail itself. The ceiling split and sunlight beamed down onto the box, and we all left off our efforts and gazed in wonder. He removed the lid with a flourish, and we gave a collective flinch. Tremulously, the first sales agent removed the shoes from the box and, hands shaking, I slipped them on. Behold! They fit!
We broke into spontaneous applause, and there was much handshaking and backslapping all around. I left the shop to laughter and waves, and jovial calls of “Come back soon and buy another pair!”
That is customer service. Carphone Warehouse, take note.