A Little Girl Asked if She Could Help Me

By Sallie W. Boyles

Are you ready to start something new? When beginning a new endeavor, I often think of the day I crossed a big hurdle in my first job.

My First Job

My parents owned and operated a retail store, and from an early age, I helped with various tasks. By the time I was eight, I was familiar with the merchandise and knew where it belonged on display or in a stockroom, drawer, or cabinet. I further handled breakables with care (never damaged a single thing!) and was trusted to unbox fragile shipments as well as gift wrap such items. Having learned to wrap a neat package and make a pretty bow since the age of five, I was a pro in that department.

I also knew what to say upon approaching a customer: “How may I help you?”

Popping the question was more easily said that done. Oh, I was painfully shy! Therefore, if anyone had asked my opinion, I would have said I would not be ready for sales until I was 12 or 13. My mother had a different viewpoint.

After picking me up from school one gorgeous, Friday afternoon, she mentioned “dropping by” the store to finish some work. Accustomed to those stops, I understood the demands my parents faced. Yes, I would sometimes whine, “Do we have to?” Once there, though, I was usually happy, particularly when given a job to keep me occupied.

I liked helping, but on that day, for the same reasons I was eager to go home and play outside, many people were downtown shopping. As they filled our store, my mother had to put her project aside to attend to customers, and I was growing impatient. Seeing me sitting on a stool and sulking like a spoiled princess, she announced, “We’re not leaving here until you serve a customer!”

Embarrassed by her annoyance, which I knew she’d express more publicly if I didn’t immediately react to her edict, I quickly got up from that stool.

That Little Girl Asked if She Could Help Me

Scanning the store, I felt some relief upon spotting two teenaged girls at the greeting card rack. If all they wanted was a card, I could walk them to the checkout counter and find an adult to ring up their purchase. That would be helping. The hard part would be mustering the courage to address them. For the longest minute of my life, I stood a short distance away. When one finally noticed me, I meekly asked, “May I help you?”

“No, thanks,” she said. “I’m just looking.”

She then turned to her friend and said, “That little girl just asked if she could help me!” Unaware I was lingering in earshot, they giggled. Although it was unintentional, their response left me humiliated … and furious. Shaking, I returned to my mother.

“Did you serve a customer?” my mother asked.

“I asked two girls, and they laughed at me,” I said.

“Then find someone else to help,” she insisted. I was stunned. My gallant effort merely delayed the inevitable. I would have to serve someone.

My mother did not want to torture me. She intended me to overcome my shyness and more fully appreciate the effort involved in selling. Seeing the terror on my face, she came to my rescue. As if on cue, a kind woman and regular customer was coming toward us, and my mother seized the opportunity.

“Mrs. Johnson, Sallie needs to serve her first customer,” she stated. “Would you mind if she helped you?”

Some kids would have been embarrassed by the blunt pronouncement. I was relieved. Mrs. Johnson had been warned, allowing her either to refuse help from a novice or to accept with the understanding that I might work slowly and possibly need to ask my mom for help.

“Oh, I’d love for Sallie to serve me!” the sweet lady exclaimed. She continued to put me at ease with friendly conversation. Also, as my mother had assumed, I was perfectly capable of taking care of her. Mrs. Johnson was there to purchase two of her go-to items for presents, so my main task was to gift wrap them.

Her praise for my salesmanship and wrapping skills was over the top, but her gracious manner boosted my confidence to the moon. I was so less apprehensive over serving my next customer that I don’t even remember the second time!

In return for her kindness, I always hoped Mrs. Johnson knew what she’d done for me. Of course, she left with an amusing story to tell about being “little Sallie’s first customer.”

Fake It or Make It Real

A fake-it-until-you-make-it strategy can offer advantages. At times, something must be done, so taking it on with an air of confidence and performing to the best of one’s ability are favorable to sitting back and not trying. In other instances, people accept new challenges (and succeed) from knowing and showing they have the capability and determination to learn the ropes.

Nevertheless, faking it creates big problems when lazy and/or incompetent know-it-alls don’t put forth the necessary effort and/or don’t ask for help when they need it. 

The Message

The memory of serving my first customer at the age of eight makes me a big fan of people who admit they are in a new role and proceed to do their best. My admiration increases if they ask forgiveness and take responsibility upon causing any delay or mishap.

From having Mrs. Johnson set the example as my first customer, I am also more patient with newbies and typically encourage them: Take your time. You’re doing a great job. I’ll also tell their boss if they do well. As a result, they get less flustered, make fewer mistakes, and carry on with a greater willingness to serve.

If my message resonates with you on some level, take it to heart. Importantly, speak encouraging words to yourself the next time you take on a new challenge.

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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