One of the unexpected aspects of my new role as Credit Manager was getting involved with “Customer Relations” in ways I never had before. In retrospect, I should have taken a series of trips through our territories, just to see the customers’ stores and meet the owners and managers. But those first few years, I was so busy learning the job, I didn’t really have time for anything else.
We were fortunate in that we had an established sales force and customer base, so things ran pretty smoothly, overall. My initial focus was on learning the customers’ buying patterns, and setting up procedures to monitor the customer accounts and identify problems. So I worked on those things first. Some of the customers presented humorous issues. One such account was a long-time general store in Hardeeville, SC, just across the Savannah River. I had seen the owner, “Mr. Paul,” when I was just an order clerk, and he sometimes came to pick up his orders in person, not wanting to wait for the next scheduled delivery. He was a dapper sort of fellow, and always made me think of an Englishman: he always wore a beret-type of cap, dress shorts with brown shoes, and had a mustache, in an era when most men didn’t.
When “Mr. Paul” died, his wife continued to run the store, sometimes with assistance from their son David, who was also the town barber. “Mrs. Paul,” however, was not very good with math, and often made mistakes when sending us her check for the month’s purchases.
Sometimes she’d add her discounts or credits, instead of subtracting them. Other times she would overlook an invoice or two, and pay the rest of them, or even pay some of them twice. I could always manage to figure out what she did, however, so after a while, the bookkeeper would just bring me her checks and say, “You figure it out!”
So when I went through Hardeeville on my way north, one trip, I stopped by to pay a courtesy call. I also brought her a credit memo for some error she’d made the week before and overpaid us. I smiled when I gave it to her, and told her that the bookkeeping staff said they were going to buy her a calculator for Christmas. She just laughed and said, “That’s nice, but I already have two of them! You just tell me, do I owe you, or do you owe me, and we will get it straight.” That’s the kind of relationship we had with most of our customers.
Several years later, when she passed into spirit, I made the trip back across the river, to attend her funeral. That little Baptist church was packed; everybody knew and liked that gentle soul. Another star in Heaven. Another time, we had a customer in the small farming community of North, South Carolina, an hour or so up the road towards Columbia. Approaching the one crossroads the town had, I saw four signs, one on each corner, with a smiling picture of the hardware store owner, and an arrow pointing to the block (one of only two in that tiny downtown) where his store was located. Of course I had to stop in and ask him, why did he have signs on all four corners of that intersection, as surely everybody in North, SC, knew who he was? His answer was that he’d sold some paint and supplies on credit to a local sign painter, and when the fellow had a hard time paying the bill, he just “took it out in trade.” I just laughed.
“More than one way to skin a cat,” as the old saying goes.
That same shop owner also had a real temper sometimes. One day our salesman called me up, half an hour before he was to stop in there, to warn me that we had made a mistake on his last order, and the guy was likely to give him a fit about it.
I replied that I knew about that error, and we had already mailed him a credit, two days earlier. The salesman said that was fine, but the fellow was likely going to want to blow off some steam about it, so if he got there and that happened, he would call me, and to just take the phone and listen, and not to worry, he would call me back later. That’s exactly what happened. 15 minutes later, the salesman called from the store, and said the owner wanted a few words with me. I then had to listen as he proceeded to blister my ears for a solid ten minutes, and I never was able to get a word in edgewise! Then he hung up the phone. I was sure we had just lost the account, but half an hour later, the salesman called me from a pay phone down the street, and said not to worry, the man would be fine.
Sure enough, two weeks later, he sent in his usual big order.
People are funny! More in my next installment.
Rafe Semmes is a native of Savannah and a proud graduate of (the “original”) Savannah High School on Washington Avenue and the University of Georgia. He has resided in Liberty County since 1986, where he and his wife share their half-acre with six cats and assorted