I moved out of my childhood home at 19.
*This isn’t a picture of the real Ken*
I was adamant I was moving. Much to my younger sister’s jealous resentment and my Dad promising me I wouldn’t be able to afford the rent and would have to live off beans on toast or one egg for dinner.
As it turned out, there was a time when I lived off one egg for dinner, but that’s another story.
Anyway, like all good 19 year olds, I wanted to prove my Dad wrong and show him, (and the world, god damn it), that I could work part-time, pay the bills, run my car, complete my degree and have enough money to hang out with friends.
I can be pretty determined when I want to be.
Working girl (no, not that kind)
So, I worked two jobs alongside my studies. The first job was in telesales. I can’t even recall what I was selling now, but I remember if you made five sales, you got a large bottle of blue WKD.
The second job was as a home help assistant.
The advert had stated the job would involve ‘assisting elderly people with their evening routine’. Or words to that effect.
The reality was somewhat different. I was partnered with a more experienced member, Jo, and we would take it in turns to drive each other around Southend, Shoebury, Leigh and Chalkwell, helping old people out of their day clothes and into bed.
Before I started the job, I imagined all old people to be like my grandparents. Kind, friendly and warm characters, who made fruit cake and really good Yorkshire puddings.
And then I met Ken.
But more on him later.
Tea and commodes
Each home had its own routine, so no two homes were the same, but they did always follow a similar pattern. Jo and I would visit in the evening, after the customer had eaten dinner.
Jo and I would both engage in a cup of tea and a five minute chat with the customer. (These elderly people normally lived alone and always wanted to talk for longer. But in order to fit everyone in on our round, we could only spend thirty minutes in total at each home.)
After a chat, either Jo or I would get the commode ready. Once the customer had used the commode, one of us would empty and clean it, whilst the other person would prepare the bedroom (getting bed clothes out, lotions etc).
The next stage was to put the customer in their bed clothes. This would take time because older people are frail and we also had to wash them and apply lotions and creams before we put their bed clothes on.
Once, one of the ladies I was washing started crying. I asked her why she was upset and she just said she was so sorry I had to see her body. She said she was ashamed.
It was a pretty emotional job for a 19 year old.
After the person had been cleaned, we would then lift (always lift in a pair! Never by yourself!) the elderly person and get them into bed. If we were lucky, there would be a hoist, but more often than not, there wasn’t.
This part would take ages because:
- Sometimes the person would be in lots of pain, so we had to go really slowly
- Old people are heavier than they look. It was sometimes awkward for Jo and me to move heavier patients
Once they were in bed, we would fit catheters, if they needed one, or prepare colostomy bags. The less glamorous side of the job. Not that there was any glamour anyway.
Ken was a man on our round.
Ken had one leg, a thick white moustache and was very heavy.
Ken was our youngest customer, in his late sixties. He was as sharp as the army penknife he kept in his top pocket. He was no fool.
Ken lived alone in a small one-bedroom bungalow in a nice part of Southend. There were no photos in Ken’s home.
Ken told us, many times, how he used to be a high-ranking officer in the army. Jo and I would just nod politely and silently get on with the job whilst he spoke about his achievements and shared his misogynistic and racist views with us. He was not pleasant company. But we just did our job and kept our mouths shut when he would go off on one.
Once I was alone in the room with Ken and we had this exchange,
Ken: “You girls come round too early,”
Me: “But you said you wanted us round at 8pm, we always come round at 8pm,”
Ken: “I might not want to go to bed at 8pm. I want to go to bed at 9.30pm,”
Me: “Ken, we have seven people we have to see a in a night, everyone has to have a slot,”
Ken: “I want mine changed,”
So, when I went back to the office, to sign off and hand back the keys, I said to the duty manager that Ken wanted his slot changed to later in the evening.
The next week, I came in for my shift and Ken was last on our list. Just as he had requested, management had spoken to him and his slot had been changed.
But when we got round there, Ken was still not happy.
Ken: “Why did you change my slot?”
Me: “You said you wanted to go to bed at 9.30pm?”
Ken: “No, I didn’t,”
Men: “Ken, you said…”
Ken (through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes): “Listen, you stupid little girl, I know what I said. You women never listen. You will do as I say. You will change that slot.”
Ken then threw a load more abuse at me because he wasn’t happy with his new slot. Jo came back and he started swearing at her too.
We both left, feeling angry and upset. We tried to rationalise it, “oh, but he is old”, “he’s probably tired,”, “he didn’t mean it”.
But Ken was always like this. Rude, aggressive and just plain nasty. We had told management before about him, but they didn’t care. “Someone has to deal with him,” they would say to us.
I was so upset that night. I remember sitting in Jo’s car, chain-smoking and listening to the Prodigy, whilst we drove around Southend venting about our jobs. And Ken.
The Ken incident was the first time I had dealt with conflict from a customer. But it’s definitely not been the last.
Ken taught me that a customer’s words and actions say more about them, than you. The way they deal with a problem, whether that’s spitting abuse from behind a snow-white moustache, or verbally abusing you over email or on the phone is a reflection on the type of person they are. Not you.
You don’t have to take shit from a customer. Or anyone. I took shit from Ken that night, and previous nights, because I was scared of him and thought keeping schtum and carrying on was the right thing to do.
We all have our tolerance levels. Now, if a customer is rude to me, I cease to work with them. Simple. There’s no begging or fake friendliness on the phone with crossed fingers behind my back.
I don’t deal with rude people. That’s it.
There’s some excellent examples of more shitty customer behaviour here.
If a customer doesn’t treat you with the same amount of respect you treat them with, it’s ok to say Adios. You’re not obligated to work with them and you don’t need any permission to leave them.
So what happened to Ken? Well, after that episode I handed in my notice and worked in a toy shop instead. Much easier. And more importantly, TOYS.
Years later, I saw Ken again, in Boots the Chemist. He looked at me and did a double-take. I felt a familiar pang of anxiety in my stomach and my mouth went dry.
I don’t know if he recognised me. I doubt it. But he did moan about the amount of customers in Boots and I caught his carer rolling her eyes.
Some customers are miserable. You don’t have to make yourself miserable by continuing to work with them.
Note: Ken isn’t his real name. Obviously.
Have you ever dealt with a horrible customer? What’s your story? Did they have a snow-white moustache too?