‘My MBA degree from India had taught me nothing when it came to working in retail in America’

In a new book, an Indian immigrant to the United States writes about the challenges of working as a salesman in small-town America.

A few more days passed. Although I had learned a good number of things, I often found myself clueless when trying to answer questions from the customers. In order to avoid embarrassment, I came up with excuses like, “I am new,” “I am still training,” and, “Today is my sixth day – or eighth day.”

Some of the customers were nice and waited until I figured out what they wanted, and some of them were not so nice. It shook my confidence. I dreaded going to work on busy days, mostly weekends, when the store would be filled with customers, and Jackie, Cindy, and Ron were all on the sales floor helping customers and had no time to answer my questions.

I’d be stuck with tricky questions. “Y’all program radio scanners?” “I live in Scottsville and I don’t get no reception on my cell phone. Y’know what service works in my area?” “I’m a truck driver and I’m lookin’ for an antenna for my CB radio, y’all have ‘em?” “I’m trynna come outta a quarter-inch jack of an audio receiver, goin’ into a one-eighth-inch jack of an MP3 player – you got that kinda cable?” Not able to understand what they were talking about, I’d look at them with an empty expression as if they were speaking another language, which, in a way, they were. I would have to wait for one of my colleagues to help me decipher where the customer was coming from and where he wanted to go, what worked in Scottsville, and what CB radio antenna would be best for him.

It frustrated me that I had to rely on other people for every other question. Sometimes, Cindy would get irritated, point towards the computer, and say, “Look it up on the company’s website, you’ll find it.” But computers only understand the specific name of a product, not a convoluted phrase like, “I am trynna to come outta.” I would continue to wait for someone to help me.

It got to the point where I started hiding from the customers. If I saw someone walking into the store, my first reaction would be to walk in the opposite direction, bend down under the counter, or hide behind a shelf pretending I was looking for something or dusting the merchandise.

I desperately hoped that someone else would take care of the customer. My two college degrees – with concentrations in sales, marketing, human resource management, and consumer behaviour – hadn’t taught me anything about working sales in America.

This brought to mind my friend in India who worked in a call center. His job was to call Americans and remind them to pay their credit card bills. He often complained about not being able to understand their accents and having trouble making himself understood. Although he had gone through several weeks of voice and accent training, he still complained about Americans yelling at him. Now I could relate to what he was going through, since I had trouble talking with them even when I was there in person.

One time, the district manager paid a surprise visit to our store. Cindy wasn’t prepared for it. She panicked, and started saying to every employee in a hushed voice, “Offer every customer accessories, awright?” “Greet the customers!” “Don’t forget to wear your badges!” I had never seen her so scared. The district manager stood in one corner of the store and watched everyone. Cindy, Ron, and Jackie all seemed to be extra courteous to the customers, saying hellos, welcomes, and thank yous more enthusiastically than ever before. Watching everyone act differently, I started doing the same thing, but also I didn’t want to be caught not being able to answer a customer’s question.

I saw a tall white man taking long strides into the store towards me. The chances of me being able to answer his question were fifty-fifty. If he asked for something simple, like batteries, a digital camera, a portable radio, or an alarm clock, I could just grab it from the backroom, but if he had a question that involved hooking up two devices, programming a cell phone, or something of an equally complicated nature, I would be clueless.

I didn’t want to have to ask for help from other employees on a day when the district manager was visiting. That would have been a surefire way of getting fired. I walked away from the customer and heard someone else greet him. He had only came in to ask how late we were open. The district manager was quick to notice what I had done.

He gestured at me with his index finger to follow him outside the store’s front door, and gestured for Cindy to come out too. When she came, he asked me, “What’s your name?”

“Deepak,” I said.

“What are you supposed to do when a customer walks into your store?” He was a tall, middle-aged white man in a suit and tie, with a leather bag in his right hand.

It took me a while before I could utter any words. Cindy looked at me in the way a parent looks at a child to encourage him to recite the poem to the guests.

I forced out a sentence, “Greet him, and then ask him how we could help him.”

“Exactly. Then why did you start walking away from him? Why?” I didn’t say anything. “Do you have an answer?” I kept quiet, because I didn’t have an answer. I noticed Cindy tapping fingers on her thigh, looking in a different direction. “Can I get your word that this won’t happen again?”

“Yes,” I said. He shook my hand firmly, and smiled. I walked back onto the floor and prayed to god that he’d leave soon. When he had gone, Cindy called everyone for a quick meeting. She said, “Listen, guys, I want to make this clear to you all: if my ass is gonna be chewed, be sure that I will chew yours.”

She paused for a second and looked everyone in the eye, one after the other. “You know what I mean?” Everyone nodded. She continued, “The DM gave me a real hard time about the sales numbers – we are not making it. The goal for last month was thirty thousand dollars, and we didn’t even get close to that figure.” She paused to reveal her gritted teeth. “And the customer service was pathetic today.” She turned to me and rested her gaze on my face until I got fidgety. She said, “Deepak, I am gonna have to put you on a month’s notice.”

Silence followed after she said that. Jackie and Ron looked grim. I could tell that this was bad news for me, but wasn’t sure how bad. “What does that mean?” I asked. She replied, “It means if your sales numbers don’t improve by next month, I will have to let you go.” I didn’t say anything. “I’m sorry, but I have been sent to this store only a month ago, and my job is to straighten things out here,” she said. “The last manager was an asshole, and he is the reason why no one comes to shop in this store.”

She looked at everyone and smiled. “I can’t do this without the help of my employees.” She asked, “Are you guys gonna help me?”

Jackie raised a fist and said, “Yesss!”
 Ron said, “I always help everybody.”
 She looked at me and said, “Deepak, you’ve got a month to prove yourself.”

Excerpted with permission from How May I Help You: An Immigrant’s Journey From MBA to Minimum Wage, Deepak Singh, Penguin Random House India.

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