Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Talking to a Needy Customer

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I own a furniture consignment shop. We have a new customer who is seventy-five years old, very lonely, and needy. He constantly comes in the shop or calls to talk about how he used to be a Hollywood star and a millionaire, or to tell us about each of his seven marriages.

I don’t know how to tell him we are busy, but we have each heard his story three or four times and it’s starting to make us all feel uncomfortable. How can I tell my needy customer that I don’t have time to talk without offending him?

At a Loss

A Dear Loss,

Thanks for the question and for your genuine concern for a person in need. Let me start by suggesting that this situation calls for a tactful discussion instead of a full-blown crucial conversation where you jointly brainstorm a solution.

You’re right in worrying about hurting the fellow’s feelings. He’s a human being and like all of us, he deserves to be treated with respect. Obviously, you don’t want to bluntly tell him to stop talking so much or repeating himself so frequently. And while it’s true that he may be lonely and is looking for simple conversation, even companionship, it’s not the responsibility of a shop owner to meet those needs (more on this later).

The kind thing to do is to pull the gentleman aside and set your ground rules. Explain that you appreciate his business and enjoy the conversation, yet you face a challenge. The shop requires your careful attention and does not allow you to carry on long conversations, enjoyable or otherwise. So you’re asking him to conduct his future business quickly—without lengthy discussions—so you can fulfill your responsibilities as a shop owner. Then thank him for his cooperation.

All of this should be done pleasantly, with a slight smile, and with genuine compassion for another person. You’re not opening the conversation up for debate, nor are you asking for suggestions. You’re professionally and politely defining the boundaries of your relationship.

Now, having said this, let me return to the issue of a lonely gentleman who appears to be looking for more than a simple purchase. Let me write, not just to you, but to all of us—myself included.

Not long ago, I was taking a brisk walk when I passed near an older fellow, a complete stranger, walking the other way. He signaled me to stop and when I did he chatted me up for a full five minutes. I was in a hurry to get back to work, but the gentleman seemed oblivious to the fact that I was trying to exit the conversation at every turn. Later that same day, I stood in line to buy a handful of groceries while an elderly woman in front of me wrote out and recorded a check—seemingly in slow motion—while casually chatting with the clerk. I almost climbed out of my skin.

At the end of the day, my mind turned to the intersection of two factors. One, my own lack of patience, and two, a growing number of elderly people who are likely to tax my ability to slow down and smell their roses. As I thought of these two events, I remembered the fact that as baby boomers age (and I’m one of them), they’ll put a massive burden on the healthcare system—leading to a huge shortage of healthcare professionals. I also recalled reading that, in 1950, for every person over 65 there were twelve people of working age, but in 2050, that number will drop to three—burdening social security. I was aware of both the medical and financial burden that will accompany the gray wave. We hear about those issues nearly every day. What I hadn’t thought about was the need for love, kindness, a gentle word, and yes—time—from those who will have so much of it on their hands.

The awkward situation at your shop provides evidence that there will come a clash between those who are frantically running about their daily tasks—stretched to do the job of two people—and those who will want to slowly write out a check, go on casual walks, and talk with shop owners about the old days.

And while it’s true that the shop owner can’t always meet the needs of aging customers, it is equally true that the rest of society will have to come to grips with living alongside a growing number of seniors who are finding their senior years more lonely than golden. As our life paces and interests come in conflict, we’ll continually face the question: What do I really want here?

I wrote earlier about my father who had largely gone blind, working on my pride and joy—the flowers in front of our house. Dad really wanted to contribute to the effort and eagerly put on his gloves every time I watered, mulched, or planted. Because dad couldn’t see all that well, he often damaged or even killed flowers every time he lent a hand. This bothered me until one day I asked: “What do I really want?” I decided I wanted my dad to work alongside me more than I wanted perfect flowers. We’ll be faced with the same question in years to come as more and more elderly people will ask for our time and attention at a stage in our lives when our free time will, if anything, be growing scarcer.

Hopefully, as we ask the question of what we want for ourselves and for others, we’ll find both the desire and the methods to spend time with those who have given us so much. Perhaps outside the shop someone will talk with your needy customer about the good old days. Maybe a neighbor will bring by a fresh-made loaf of bread, and then sit and chat for a while—doubling the gift. Perhaps his son will call with a short item of business, and then lengthen the conversation to cover whatever Dad wants to discuss. Perhaps all of us will learn to find ways to stop and smell the roses.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

32 thoughts on “Talking to a Needy Customer”

  1. Heather

    Thank you for this letter. It is well written and sincere. I think we should all step back and relook at our aging population…this from a 37 year old!

  2. Sufia Amir Khan

    Indeed, ‘Perhaps all of us will learn to find ways to stop and smell the roses.’ with the children as well as with the elderly… what a lot we miss out on when we miss out on these beautiful moments to connect accross generations… to touch a heart with love and kindness. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  3. Joyce

    I really agree with Kerry’s column. As we all age, our active life becomes more slow in motion. It is wise to notice those around us and realize the kind word we give now will return to us later. We hope!

  4. Ange

    Kerry, thanks so much for this. For seniors, the need to feel relevant is strong. Some seniors living alone without family say that the only time they feel the touch of another person is when they go to the doctor. Perhaps the shop employees could go together to give him a journal for the purpose of recording his life and memories, as a kind way of diverting his energies while honoring his stories.

  5. Linda

    You have pegged it! I think about this very issue frequently — no one seems to stop and chat anymore — much less with a lonely older person. Soon we will be the older person, perhaps alone . . . pay it forward now.

  6. Kelly Reynolds RN

    I am a bedside nurse in an ICU. I work hard, and as quickly as possible. All too often I find that my patients are far more alone in the world than they should be, and it is only by listening to them that I can intervene. The staffing in my unit does not truly allow for this on a day to day basis. There is a national nursing shortage, and with the way the healthcare industry treats nurses bodies and minds it is going to continue to worsen daily (I am looking for a way out, after 20 years). This is a no win situation. I learned to slow down and listen as my Grandfather was becoming more frail, near the end of his life. If you cut everyone short, set too tight of limits you may be sending them out into an unsafe environment… These people may be reaching out for a reason.

  7. Ed

    One more “perhaps” that the old man may find the socialization that the storekeeper cannot give him: perhaps he is not the only man to operate at his pace with interest in lengthy anecdotes; perhaps he may befriend another person in the same plight, and they minister to each other. Matchmaking is important not only for young couples, but also for the elderly.

  8. SLC

    Thank you for the kind response to this increasingly common situation.

    I guess I do wonder how “really busy” we are… and how much of our discomfort with these conversations is just frankly impatience at hearing stories for the third or fourth time, or being a bit bored with a subject that we don’t find interesting?

    I also wonder if the gentleman in the story could be given some useful task or other – perhaps a little “part time job” helping in that shop. If the firm is that busy – they could probably use someone who would appreciate a chance to be useful and who might be thrilled to have “work” to go to for a modest sum. That way, he’d be contributing while chatting. Win-win?

  9. Maureen

    Really lovely column. The Vital Smarts email is one of the few that I read regularly, and this column is a good example why..

  10. Ciro Giammona

    Thank you for publishing the letter of concern, and Kerry, for your thoughtful response. I have a father who just turned 85 who demonstrates the behaviors (particularly the repeated stories) that were described in the letter. Even though I live in a different State, we visit often and communicate on a regular basis but because he appears normal in so many ways, it wasn’t until recently that I realized through a diagnosis from his doctor that he was afflicted with dementia, a loss of brain function that can have many causes besides aging. His ability to reason has been affected, and his short-term memory decreased rapidly over a period of less than 2 years to the point where if he were the gentleman in the situation, after 5 minutes he would not remember the conversation with the shopkeeper.

    I write because what this gentleman may need if he lives alone, is someone to be an advocate for him to make sure that that he is capable of self-care, that his bills are being paid to keep the lights and heat on, and that he has access to medical care. If family and friends are not close by, there is a chance that social services through his church or the community are available to provide more than just the companionship that he seems to need on the surface. In my father’s case, he was either too proud to ask for help or unaware of his condition, and I am grateful that we were able to recognize the situation and intercede for his safety and care.

  11. J. Nielsen

    Terrific response. We all want to feel of use sometimes that is a choice. I have a 93 yr old friend who goes to exercise 3 days a week, swims & helps pack healthy snacks for the homeless & on she goes choosing to be a part of life. Stereotyping people keeps us from healthy responses. It might be a wonderful contribution for folks with high traffic in Seniors to keep some senior center brochures & community events on hand and make that a part of his conversation pointing out that he thought this person might be of real help to this project & meet some new friends along the way. None of us would exist without our seniors but gray hair just like youth does not always equate with wisdom some of us need to be redirected to achieve the results we want. yes there are those who have physical limitations however I help at a senior community where some arrive by bus in wheelchairs to visit, complete projects & learn new hobbies. “old people” don’t come in one shape or size respecting their ability to make a choice to contribute a whatever level they ca is respecting the dignity if other human beings. Allowing this person to buy someone to listen with his business is not helping him anymore than it is helping the store owner.Kindness comes in many disguises.

  12. Roger Frame

    I agree with your comments as far as they went, but since the shop keeper seems to be a compassionate person, I wonder if he/she could contact a few senior centers and see what programs are available in the community to help these lonely people. Many communities offer activity programs during the day to address these needs. This would be a true win/win solution where the shop keeper is not longer bothered by the lonely person, while the lonely person has his needs met. This loneliness may be a problem many of us will face soon. Before my mom died at 90 she commented that all here friends were either dead or crazy.

  13. Randy

    I have been using the VitalSmart book at my university for years to develop leaders in my peer mentor program. Learning the CC skills and having an understanding of Influencer strategies has been incredibly helpful to my students. And the reason I so enjoy teaching using VitalSmart resources is that the underlying message it sends is to be respectful to others while being honest with our responses. Kerry’s response about the elderly gentleman speaks directly to this. Thank you Kerry and the VitalSmart team for helping all of us treat others with respect as we have a genuine concern for their well being. As a retiring professor who may soon have a need to talk to others, I hope many others react as you have to the elderly.

  14. Patti Linscott

    I just read “Talking to a Needy Customer.” I see this has already been mentioned, but I agree with Roger–The owners of the shop might look on-line for the Senior Services organization in their area, or contact a local senior center, and introduce the gentlemen to the staff. Senior centers have activities and volunteer projects to ease feelings of isolation and loneliness. Chances are, the talkative gentleman does not have access to the internet, and may not be aware of organizations who would welcome him with open hearts and ears! My thanks to the owners of the shop for listening to him, and caring enough to help. One of my favorite quotes is: “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” St. Augustine

  15. Brenda Howard

    What an awesome story. I’m sure it will tug on the heartstrings of a lot of people. I just lost my mom this year and I would give anything to hear one of her stories again.

  16. Sharon Davis

    Thank you for reminding us of the Human Factor one we will all face and some of us even sooner if illness were to strike. I was hauled into the hospital for emergency surgery at 47. After so many years of being healthy and avoiding the continuious dr appts. or hospital stays some go through; I found myself in a scary and lonely place. The kindness of Nurses, Smiles from Strangers and Support of Family and Friends helped get me through. I’d taken them and my health for granted. When you can’t move, think, react quickly like you’re accustomed, you have to rely on others, it gives you a new pair of glasses. Thank God they were kind and present when I needed them to be. I think it has a bit to do with the CHOICES I made to make time (though not much) for others, no matter how hectic it gets. Those of us who move quickly physically and mentally armed with smart phones, tablets and long work days, can’t imagine a time when we’re forced to slow down. We’ll all have to face that question, WHAT DO I WANT NOW? I’ll depend on what CHOICES we’ve made ahead for us to grab.

  17. David Nicholas

    You are truly a wise and compassionate man! I truly enoy and wait for your writings each newsletter! What a gifted writer!

  18. Rebecca

    This is a wonderful column, especially since the holidays are upon us and folks who are alone seem to need more company at this time. I am a talker. However, I also have limited time. I have found that if I am just purely honest–like I need to get home to prepare dinner, as I’m already over an hour later than usual–has worked when shopping, for example. I think if one just treats another courteously and with respect, this is honored. It is nice, though, to stop and smell the roses with one from another generation. Sometimes, I have to change my priorities to “do the right thing”.

    I feel for this business owner, as it seems the visits have become like going out for coffee–habitual. That also means that he has been well-received at this business–a compliment to him and his employees. The fact that he is struggling over what to do also means he cares about people–another wonderful strength. I fell that with your comments and others’, he will be able to take the steps necessary for himself and his business.

  19. Carole Marlowe

    I never want to miss anything you write, and this was a wonderful piece! It really struck a cord with me. I’m old enough to retire from a fulltime job but do not. I am fortunate enough to love my work – which includes facilitating Crucial Conversations classes – but don’t relish retirement. I live alone and will miss my younger friends at work and already wonder how I will fill that gap. I think your response was perfect. It acknowledged the business owner’s problem and gave useful suggestions. But you also helped him continue to feel something and still think about what he might choose to do – sometimes – to lessen the lonliness of an aging senior.

  20. SLCCOM

    I really enjoy my talks with lonely elders. I have learned so much from them, and, I hope, they have learned from me. When I can, I direct them to resources in the community, and suggest ways they could volunteer their skills to young folks.

    And yes, I hope I’m paying it forward so that I can get the same consideration later.

    This business owner could consider setting a periodic “date” with the gentleman, or even hiring him to help out a bit for short periods. The best job would be greeter. However, I can see where this might not work out, so helping the gentleman to find other ways to fill his time would be a real kindness. This is the kind of store where having brochures for senior centers, writers who help seniors with their life stories, etc. would be appropriate and potentially drive additional business.

  21. Tammie
  22. Tammie

    This column was very helpful to reinterating the fact that customers are people. I run into this situation often. Sometimes I am busier than others, so then I need to be honest and say “I’m sorry but I need to get back to work.” But when I am not so busy I try to listen as best as I can. Wish I could do more. When you are not so busy you can ask about what they had been talking earlier when they were interupted by your work. It shows that you care enough to ask what happened later.


  23. Tammie

    I work in a retail store and wondered if it would be proper to ask the gentleman to get carts or do something so that he might feel useful and it wouldn’t cost any money at all. But is that a type of abuse and how do you know if the person is actually capable for the task in the first place and what if something bad happened while he was helping. So I guess the answer is No, but it was worth a thought. I know I always bring in carts at other stores, what happens if I get hurt? I still do it anyway. It would be a form of volunteering for this gentleman.

  24. Tammie

    Love this idea.

  25. Tammie

    Just had another thought. Give this gentleman a time limit. Say “I’m sorry but I can only talk for 2 (or any specific amount like maybe 5) more min. and then I must get back to work.

  26. Tammie

    He might get the hint that your time is valuable as well.

  27. Karen Gehne

    Not only is there an aging retired population but there is an aging work force. In the workplace there is more pressure on fewer staff members causing people to look around at their co-workers to see who is not producing as much. Because of the multi-generational work force, there are some staff members who easily loose their patience with co-workers who do not have the same technological and productivity level. Finding the balance between production and peace of heart is sometimes challenging. How do you want to be treated as you age in the workforce? I really have to think about this.

  28. Monica Kane

    Kerry, I think I love you! Every time you write a response, it melts my heart. Your thoughts that you share with so many, give me a great deal of hope and healing in my heart.

  29. Shirley

    Kerry: Excellent column, always. I often think I’m too busy for non-essential interruptions. Then, I catch myself asking who watched the football game last night, or listening to a cute story about someone’s child, or joining in some impromptu political commentary. My point is, we all waste time chatting. It just seems like a bigger waste if someone else initiates it. Your column encouraged me to limit my chatter, so I can save some conversation for lonely people who really need it.

  30. Patti

    At the Clinic where I work, I will often find myself behind slow moving elderlies. When they notice, often they will try to move. I try to take this opportunity to always say and mean, that if I am in that much of a hurry I need to rethink my journey. It struck me also that soon we Baby Boomers will be the elderly. We have a responsibility to teach our future generations (as role models) how to treat people like we would want to be treated. Our work is not done here.

  31. Joyce

    As I get older, I often find myself taking up a bit too much of someone’s time. Perhaps I see a glance at their watch, or a quick look-around. At those times, I am reminded that it is not about me all the time. This article will make me more aware of what I am doing. It is not my intent to monopolize anyone’s time, but it sure is eary to do when we think we have alot to say! Thank you once again for your kindness and thoughtfulness and tenderness when dealing with thest tupes of situations. I echo Monica when she ways – I think I love you!!

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