Happy New Year everyone! Hope you had a wonderful holiday season with family and friends. I thought I would start off the new year with something a bit different.
It’s been just over a year now since I began working part-time at my local camera store. I sought out the job not to earn a living, but because 18 months of Covid had left me socially isolated and mentally desolated. I needed human contact.
Over the course of this past year, I have been blessed with exactly that. I have discovered the wonderous variety of stories each of us has to tell about our lives, experiences and interests. I’ve also discovered that customer service isn’t about transactions – it’s about the relationships formed with the people we serve.
To start off 2023, I wanted to tell you about some of those.
Leading us off is the 80 year old Vietnam War veteran, who was caught by the enemy and escaped. He is also the survivor of a wolf attack in the woods. He came into the store looking for a replacement for his pocket-sized point and shoot camera, and left with a full DSLR kit. He is looking forward to learning all about it, although he said as he was leaving that he might not survive long enough to do so, once his wife found out how much he had spent!
Next is a 90 year old retired school teacher. She recently upgraded her camera to a top line model and also revealed a deep interest in all things space and astrophotography-related, something I am also super interested in. She visits the store regularly and we have become good friends. We both decided to take the leap and invest in full telescope setups this year and we hang out together while we are learning how to use our equipment. We exchange ideas on what to do next and hope to spend much of the coming year photographing the skies together.
How about some intrigue next? One customer was a private investigator and needed equipment that would take close-up shots from a long distance in very low light. Another was a government contractor, who claimed that he could not give us his name or details and insisted that any camera he looked at must not include bluetooth, wifi or any cloud capability.
Coming out of the holiday season, there was the young dad with his first child who wanted to surprise his wife with their first camera to take pictures of their growing family. They came in after Christmas and she was so thrilled with the purchase and thankful for the help we had provided selecting the right camera. She asked questions about how best to use the camera and how it could serve them for years to come. I know I will see them many times as the family grows and thrives.
On the flipside was the 30-year experienced photographer who arrived one day with full kit in tow and stated that he wanted to trade it all in for a completely new and different camera system. Some of his existing equipment had not even been taken out of the original box. There was thousands of dollars of gear and we spent a good hour going through it all, confirming each time that he wanted to dispose of it. He left with one new camera body and lens.
Some of my favourite interactions are with hobbyists who specialize in one type of photography – landscapes or birding. They are often so passionate about their craft that they bring whole portfolios on their phones or tablets to share with us as we talk. Eventually we get to the real purpose of their visit and deal with that in about 5 minutes. It’s always about the next thing that will help make the photographs even better.
Sometimes it isn’t about the subject of the visit that is interesting, but about the way they handle it. Some customers are so apologetic for asking questions. They don’t want to take up a lot of our time but can’t figure out a problem or make the right decision about a purchase without more information. Other customers are the exact opposite, in one case yelling across the store that they didn’t want to wait for someone to help them as they only had one quick thing to do, even though we were all serving other customers. And others either assume you can’t help them or don’t know enough to help them because of some totally irrelevant feature, such as your gender. Oh, well, that is human nature too. It is kind of cool though when repeat customers ask for you by name or wait patiently to see only you. It’s like catching up with an old friend when that happens.
And some of those connections can lead to other things. I’ve been invited to photograph events because of a connection with a customer. I’ve also been able to rent a vacation cottage for a good price because of a connection to a customer. I’ve even gotten some unique food items to try because of a customer.
Some of the most poignant interactions are with customers who have recently lost a loved one. They are preparing for the funeral or memorial service and need some images for that purpose. While we prepare them, I often hear the story of the life of that lost soul and just how many lives they touched. Some of the passings were expected, some were sudden and unexpected. All were painful. I shared them all. And often, those family members also have loads of camera equipment to somehow find a good home for, since they don’t take pictures but their loved one did. I sometimes wonder if my family will have the same challenge with my stuff. Sorry, if so.
By far, the most inspiring interactions are with young people. Visual arts are changing and morphing every day. These energetic folks come in with ideas of projects they want to do, and either not much money or not much knowledge or both. The enthusiasm they bring is infectious though. Perhaps the most intriguing trend with young people is their interest in using film as their preferred medium. We still develop film through the store, but no longer provide negatives along with the returned prints. When I explain this to a young person, I am often met with a blank stare or a simple question: what’s a negative?
One young person in particular shaped my entire year this year. He is a Ukrainian refugee, being hosted here in Canada by a friend of the family. He already was an established wedding and portrait photographer, but lost everything to the war. He had the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen, but it was immediately obvious that there is/was a great sadness behind them, despite his European stoicism. He and his sponsor came in to start to rebuild his career here in Canada but had limited funds to do so. Long story short, in a totally unexpected development, he was able to leave the store with a full, professional kit. I’m told that he broke down in the parking lot. I am also convinced that it was fate that allowed me to meet him that day.
I wanted social interaction. I have had it beyond my wildest dreams. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give recognition and a huge thank you to my colleagues at the store. I’ve come to admire them enormously and regard them all as friends. We all have our own stories and we have shared them through the year as well. Stories of strength in the face of enormous adversity in some cases. I am honoured to be part of the group.
My social cup is now full and I have never been happier. More to come in 2023!
Postscript: it seems that not all of our “customers” have the same spirit of the season as I do. Retail outlets always have to deal with thefts and break-ins. It seems its our turn now. That’s just sad.