The customer is always right

Submitted into Contest #246 in response to: Write a story about someone who takes a joke way too far.... view prompt


Fiction African American Contemporary

The customer is always right

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Benard said with all the conviction his thin frame could muster. He was talking to his colleagues about a recent news headline that they had all been following closely. “The protest doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?” Benard was sharing his rather one-sided social commentary with the rest of the office, occasionally quoting an old movie line to give his argument validity and effect.

As more and more people began to gather at the water cooler Benard became increasingly animated. He was gesticulating for emphasis and mimicking a minister’s homiletics. “Why if were the judga’…” Benard continued.

“But you’re not, Benard. You’re an administrative assistant in the Accounts Receivable Department.” Leela interrupted. Her comment seemed to bring an end to Benard’s dynamic monologue.

“Well, I’m just saying—If I were.” Benard retorted in his own voice, to the now dispersing crowd of temporaries and subordinates.

Leela was always going after Benard’s throat like that. Sometimes it was because they were man and woman, and she felt the need for dissension between them. At other times it was because they both worked in the same department as administrative assistants, and she felt the need to be in competition with him. Today it was because they were two of only a handful of blacks that worked in Amsterdam Insurance Company’s isolated corporate offices; and she felt his attitude toward matters which pertain to minorities was subservient and deferential.

It was nine-thirty Monday morning and the entire staff appeared latent. The residual effects of the weekend always brought about a considerable decline in productivity and there was little supervisors could expect to be done during the first few hours of the day. Although the company had explicit policies regarding such inactivity, there were no efforts to reprimand. The employees, though remiss in their duties, were clearly asserting themselves—emailing one another, balancing their checkbooks, and paying bills on-line.

The day was not officially underway until the switchboards began to light up with dissatisfied customers calling in their grievances. That is when the customer service operators would clear their raspy throats and turn into affable representatives. “Good morning—Amsterdam Insurance, where your problems are ours! How might I help you?” They would answer. Then, with the push of a button they would direct calls to the appropriate department and return to the raspy voices they used to speak among one another.

As somewhat of a ritual, the operators would wager candy on which department would get the first call. Today it was Accounts Receivable, and Lori Anne McGillicutty won a pack of M&M’s. “Hold one second sir, I’ll transfer.” She told a rather disgruntled customer. On a deafening intercom system, she could be overheard summoning Benard. “Benard, I have a client who says his account hasn’t been updated and that he has been charged a late fee as a result,” she said. “Okay, put him through.” A husky male voice insisted.

“Hello sir, my name is Benard—what seems to be the problem?” As the caller explained, Benard simply responded “um hm, um hm, um hm”. And once he had completely heard the client’s reason for calling and knew the appropriate next step to take, Benard stated: “Well Mr. Barnett I can assure you, I’ll look into the problem immediately and give you a return call.”

He hung up the phone and began to scavenge his cubicle for the three-ring binder that held account information. He looked on the desk, in the desk, on the shelf, and in the filing cabinet but could not find it. He looked near the printer, in the fax room, and in the lounge but still couldn’t find it. Just as he grew frustrated Leela appeared holding a thick, white, plastic covered binder. “Looking for something?” She ask.

“Yes. Where did you find it?” Benard asked.

“It was in that pigsty that you call an office. Maybe if you arrange things in there you would have been able to find it yourself.” Leela replied.

Benard, who always considered himself to be extremely well-organized, disregarded the woman’s sly remark and said, “Well—thanks anyway”.

When he got back to his desk, he shuffled through the binder’s pages to the section labeled B. “Alexander Barnett. Barbara Barnett. Desiree Barnett. Here it is—John Barnett.” Benard said under his breath. As he looked over the account, he found there was no discrepancy. This was the part of his job Benard hated most. He preferred the customer would be right in situations like this, so he might not have to be the bearer of bad news.

Mr. Barnett owned an antique shop in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The company had insured him for many years and frequently there were break-ins at his store. Mr. Barnett had failed to make a payment in the last two months and his policy was in the process of being terminated. Because he had been such a liability, Benard wondered why the powers-to-be hadn’t cancelled it a long time ago.

It was eleven forty-five when Benard placed a return call to Mr. Barnett about his discovery. The phone rang and rang but no one answered. Benard was headed out to lunch with some of his colleagues, so he decided he would try to reach the man when he returned. As Benard left the office he was in such a rush that he forgot to tell Leela he was gone.

He and several of the other support staffers dined at a rather charming new deli across the street. Benard searched the menu casually for something that suited his tastes. The soup sounded good, but he suspected it wasn’t fresh. He contemplated several other items before settling on the sandwich of the day: Turkey on an onion roll with Russian dressing.

As the butcher was preparing Benard’s selection there came a news flash from the television behind the counter. “Turn that up!” Benard told the man.

Reporting live from the scene the poised and articulate news anchor began, “This afternoon’s headline story—Protest on the city’s West side turns into riot, as police attempt to break up crowd. Demonstrators in the Manuel Ignatius march get unruly and begin to fight and loot. You may recall that Manuel Ignatius was the Mexican teen who was allegedly beaten by police officers last February…”

Benard’s jaw dropped out of shock. This was the story he had been discussing earlier with his colleagues. They all remembered his comments about the protest and harshly criticized him on the way back to the office. He wished he could take it all back.

When they entered the office, Leela was waiting for Benard. The moment she saw him she immediately accosted him about leaving without informing her.

“Benard! Our agreement was that if one of us leaves this office then they should tell the other.” Leela said. Her tone of voice was harsh and castigating. “You left and never said a word to me.”

“I apologize Leela. It completely slipped my mind.” Benard said in a rational voice. He was hoping to calm the woman down.

“No Benard. You knew very well what you were doing. You left me here all alone and the phone was ringing like crazy. I could not get anything done. There were several calls from Mr. Barnett, who insisted upon speaking to you. But obviously that was not possible because you were not here. Benard you are so irresponsible.” The more Leela talked, the more Benard could tell that something other than his absent-mindedness was bothering her. Somehow, he knew she was getting emotional about the riot. She went on for what seemed like an eternity before she finally broke down and cried.

He tried to console the distraught woman, but she would have no such thing. She continued to chastise him as though he were a child. As people began to come out of their cubicles to see what was going on, the deafening sound of the intercom came again. It was Lori Anne calling for Benard. “Benard there is a Mr. Barnett on the line for you.”

He took a deep breath and collected himself before picking Anne’s call up on the speaker phone. “Okay, put him through.” Benard said.

“Yes sir, Mr. Barnett. I have investigated your account and found no discrepancies. You have not paid in two months and Amsterdam has decided to cancel your policy.” Bernard explained.

The man on the phone was yelling so loudly that he could be heard all the way across the room shouting, “Cancel my policy!”

“Yes sir, that is correct.” Benard told the man.

At this point everyone in the office turned their attention toward the conversation between Benard and the perturbed Mr. Barnett, who had begun to exalt obscenities.

Benard fumbled nervously to find the button to transfer the phone from speaker to receiver. And though he finally managed to make the conversation more private, it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a person in the office unaware of the situation or uninterested in the outcome.

“No sir, I am not a GDI. And I am aware of the fact that there were riots today in your part of town. But I do not believe the protestors should be drawn and quartered. Nor should young master Ignatius just drop dead. In fact, sir, I do believe this is America and people do have the right to assemble. Furthermore, and I do not expect you to understand this, minorities in this country are human beings as well. And so long as they are treated unfairly, there will be demonstrations and marches if I must coordinate them myself. Also, sir, If I may say, I have no sympathy for a person like you and I am glad the rioters chose your store to loot. I’ll be expecting your lawyer’s call. Good day!” Benard concluded.

As he hung up the phone there was a loud clattering in the office. People were standing and pounding their hands together in celebration of him. This made Benard proud. He was even prouder when he saw Leela too, applauding his bravery and poise.

Though his confrontation resulted in a civil settlement by the company with Mr. Barnett and subsequently his employment being terminated, Benard had gained some much-needed insight into himself: both as a man and a man designated as a minority in America.

April 14, 2024 05:08

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Jeff Macloud
19:30 Apr 25, 2024

Hey Juan - creative story. I like the start at the water cooler. Bernard is an interesting cat. If I had advice, it would be to lean more on subtext and less on "on-the-nose" commentary in both descriptions and dialog.


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Darvico Ulmeli
17:17 Apr 25, 2024

Nice and clean. Had some situations like that before. Customers can be vicious species.


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Jim LaFleur
12:35 Apr 22, 2024

Juan, your story captures workplace dynamics and society's realities beautifully. Outstanding job!


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Juan Farris
20:56 Apr 21, 2024

That is my line of work, too. I think he'll bounce back. It took a lesson in appropriate discourse and his sense of humor to change him. He luckily proved himself a protagonist.


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Helen A Smith
10:49 Apr 21, 2024

Good story. I liked the back and forth between the characters. I get the feeling Bernard is destined for a different kind of life, one he will find more rewarding. Dealing with difficult customers is no picnic!


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