Know your customer

The most interesting thing happened to me today. Let me tell it to you from my perspective first then afterwards I’ll tell it to you from the other party’s perspective as I understand it.

So, I walked into a supermarket at about 4:00 PM, picked up the things that I wanted then went to the checkout to pay for them. A pretty ordinary thing that I’ve done many times before as I am sure you have too. In fact, earlier that day, at about 8:00AM, I had shopped at the very same supermarket and nothing extraordinary had happened.

At the checkout, this extraordinary thing happened: the first thing that the lady at the checkout said to me is, “You have a different card?” There I am unloading my items from the basket onto the counter and she’s asking me for a different card. I was a bit puzzled but didn’t think much of her question and continued to unload my items. She however insisted on an answer to her question: “Do I have a different card?”

I am very puzzled at this point about what a “different card” means.

This is how our conversation went. Keep in mind that at this point, I have not presented any card for payment.

Me: “Different from what?”

Her: (being polite but you can tell that she is getting a bit irritated with me) “You need a different card. Your card cannot pay for these items.”

Me: “I am so lost. I’m not following this conversation.”

Her: “Your card will not work. It needs to be different.”

Me: (thinking that I have understood the issue). “Oh, so is there a maximum amount you can charge for each purchase. (This purchase had many more items than the previous purchase which I had made earlier in the day so maybe the problem is that you can only charge so much on a card for each purchase.)

Her: “No, there is no maximum amount per purchase.”

Me: ” “

I don’t know about you but for me there are times when a conversation becomes so puzzling that I stop talking so that I can process the information I have been given so far. I also hope that if I stop talking, it will prompt my conversation partner to fill in the silence with more information that can help me understand what they are trying to tell me. When I get to that point in a puzzling conversation, I really have no intelligent question to ask that would help me make the conversation clearer. So, I opt to stay silent.

Her: “Maybe you can come back after 20 minutes.”

Me: (even more confused) “Why?”

(My thoughts at this time:

I can’t figure out what will have changed in 20 minutes. This conversation will not make any more sense in 20 minutes than it does now.

Maybe she’s asking for a different kind of card?

Why has she already assumed that the card I am about to present needs to be different? Does she think that I can’t have a card with enough to fund my purchase?

What other card could she possibly be asking for even when she hasn’t seen the card that I want to present for payment?)

Her: “Ma’am, the machine will not let you make another purchase until 20 minutes have passed since the last purchase.”

Me: “The last time that I used my card here was in the morning at 8:00am. It is now 4:00PM!”

Her: “Oh, are you a different person?! I’m sorry.”

Me: (Finally understanding her perspective.) “Oh!”

Here’s her perspective: she is from the Philippines. I am from Kenya. There was a customer who had checked out from her till a few minutes before me. That customer looked African. To the lady at the checkout who is from the Philippines, we black Africans must all look alike. I can’t blame her.

Also, the customer she had served before me had tried to make two purchases within minutes of each other and earlier, the cashier had explained to her that she couldn’t do that. That she had to wait at least 20 minutes between purchases.

From the cashier’s perspective, I was being slow, or stubborn or had a very short memory because she thought I was the same customer who had just purchased items a few minutes she had already explained this 20 minute wait rule to me.

If I had been in a different mood or she had been in a different mood, this conversation may have turned ugly. Instead, we both burst out laughing when we realized that she had me confused with someone else.


  • Know and understand your customer. Don’t assume that you know. Strive to know them and understand them.
  • If your customer looks puzzled, start taking a look at things from their perspective to understand why they would be puzzled about your services. Normally, the customer is puzzled because you are not meeting her expectations.
  • Always explain your instructions / conditions clearly. When the lady kept asking for a different card I honestly could not understand what different means and why the card needed to be different.