There’s an old (but hilarious) story floating around which details the triumph of an airline customer service agent over a self-important person, and it reads like this:

‘An airport ticket agent has just finished announcing that the flight will board soon, and gave the requisite directions for the order of boarding.  A famous person runs up to the counter at a gate in the airport, sweating and breathing heavily.  He tells the ticket agent that he needs a last-minute ticket to *wherever* so he can make a meeting, and the ticket agent replies, “I’m sorry, but this flight is sold out.”

“Sold out?  What do you mean it’s sold out?  I have to get on this flight!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but there are no more seats left.”

“But I MUST get on this flight!  Can’t you kick someone else off?”

“Why would we do that, sir?”

“Because I am famous!  DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

At this point the calm and collected ticket agent picks up her microphone, and announces to the entire gate, “Excuse me, but this person in front of me does not know who he is.  If anybody out there can help him with that, he would very much appreciate it.”  Upon hearing this, the guy slouches and slinks away from the counter amid the laughs of everyone in the gate.’


When I was growing up, my Mom built a reputation among my siblings and I (and all of our friends–and probably hers, too) as the de-facto go-to person to get things done.  If a call needed to be made to Dell customer service, or my food came out cold, or the cash register rang up the regular price instead of the sale price at the grocery store, Mom was like a bull on a leash.  She couldn’t stand being cheated or wronged, and instead of justifying to herself why she could deal with it and move on (as many of us do), she fought ferociously to make things right.  She wouldn’t hesitate to go to a supervisor or higher-manager to get a situation rectified.  It was fantastic to have her on my side, since I was (unconsciously) so weak and insecure at dealing with confrontation.  (I still am, but I’m working on it.  The truth is, it takes courage to stand up for yourself.)

Mom’s greatest challenge in dealing with people, in my opinion, was that she was terrible at keeping her frustration over the situation away from the transaction.  I often wonder if she let that happen on purpose to prove to whomever she was dealing with that she meant business–after all, in the ’80s and ’90s, women were only just beginning to gain true societal legitimacy in many ways.  Or maybe it happened because of her past years dealing with uncaring, uncooperative customer service people, and her default method to get the job done was to use as much leverage as she could find, so she didn’t have to waste time bartering to make things right.  My siblings and I used to joke that we’d “Sic Denise on ’em” whenever something came up at school or our part-time jobs in high school, and one time, we laughed about Mom’s reputation so hard that the tagline “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?  I’M DENISE FU**IN’ [last name redacted]!” was born.

I consider myself to be, effectively, Denise V. 2.0.  I learned so much from her during those years–for example, when a customer service person either cannot help you or refuses to, you should speak to a higher manager, if it’s possible.  Find the quickest way to talk to the person who has the authority to make a decision.  That last sentence is only half the sentence, though.  I’ve learned that the other half of it is “…and be nice to them.”  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been able to get things done on the phone or in person, simply by being (or trying to be) pleasant when I approach them.  Instead of bracing myself for a fight or for pushback, I lay out a case calmly, and explain why I think “X” needs to be rectified.  Having worked several customer service jobs in the past (from waiting tables in school to working on planes as a career), I can empathize with what it must be like to have people call you up and be immediately angry at someone they do not know.  I think people forget that the person who deals with anger and disdain all day, every day for work is the person who will most be willing to help you if you make their job a little more cheerful.  Sometimes their job environment is so bad that they’ll even settle for “a little less hostile.”  Either way, you’ve made their day easier to get through, and it will generally pay off for you.

Of course, this method doesn’t always work–sometimes there are people who will cheat you or steamroll you into something that isn’t fair or right, but it never hurts to lead with the calm and collected mentality first.  I had a guy back into me in a parking lot, and he doesn’t think he’s at fault.  I need his insurance information, and he doesn’t want to give it to me.  If there’s one thing Mom taught me, it’s that it’s never okay if someone takes advantage of you, but it’s up to you to pluck up the courage and take care of your business.  No one else will.  There’s always a way to get things done.  I’ll let the air out of his tires if I have to, but I’m leading with civility and diplomacy first.  He better pray that it works, because if he pushes me far enough, I might just have to sic Denise on ‘im.

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