Friday, January 22, 2010

Online customers I have known and loved

10:49 PM
I'm waiting for an eBay customer to pay me so I can put a shipping label on her package and order a carrier pickup for Saturday morning. I have another order going out, but it's a large, 14-pound box of yarn and the customer chose Parcel Post--wisely, I believe, since it cut her shipping fees in half--but I can't ask for pickup on it unless someone else pays me for a Priority order. Too much detail for you? Sorry.

But as I'm sitting here next to this 14-pound box of yarn, I am reminded of a customer I loved--not because she ordered large amounts of yarn at a time, although that didn't hurt. :o) She had a serious medical condition and spent a great deal of time knitting and crocheting. I think she was bed-ridden a fair amount and probably spent some time in hospitals and in doctor's waiting rooms, yet she never complained and seldom mentioned her illness. I think perhaps she didn't want to burden me, but it was no burden. She was a tower of strength and it was inspiring to talk with her through sporadic emails.

I try not to latch onto customers too much. They will tell me little things about their personal lives, but it's still a business arrangement, so I have no business asking endless questions about why they are in the hospital or why they are making so many chemo hats. I listen to them. I tell them that I admire what they do. I treat them like any interesting person. But all too often, they will slip away and--I'm completely sincere when I say this--it's not their yarn orders I miss. It's not about the money at all.

This customer I am thinking of would sometimes tell me how frustrated she was because Paypal wasn't working for her and she could not make a payment. Sometimes she would buy $500 or $1600 worth of yarn at a time, and... well, Paypal can get a bit crazy with large payments, especially on a large shipment going to another country. Early on in my relationship with this customer, I said something that now strikes me as very stupid. I whimsically said, "It's okay! Relax! It's just yarn. Not a liver transplant."

That was when she confessed that I was right, that she was too stressed, that it is, indeed, just yarn. And that she wasn't being much use to her clients when she was in this state of mind. She never did volunteer to me what she did for a living, but it was around this time that she mentioned that she had a tumor. I felt like a total jerk for my crack about a liver transplant. I have not made such a mistake often, because I learned not to say such things. You never know what a customer is going through. Divorce. Bereavement. Cancer. You just never know.

She ordered yarn from me several times a year, for years. I tried to listen and accept whatever she did choose to tell me. One of my last orders from her went unpaid for a few weeks. I was terribly worried and wanted to know if she was okay. I sent emails that went unanswered. I had no business calling her. Well, okay, I suppose eBay does allow that. But what if she had died? Can you imagine an eBay seller calling you right after a family member has died? Just what you need, people hounding you for money in your hour of grief! I don't know. Maybe the family would have taken it as a friendly call. More likely they would have seen me as a pushy seller wanting her money and I wasn't willing to risk being perceived that way. When this woman did finally contact me, it turns out she had, indeed, been in the hospital. I cried to learn that she was still alive.

But the day did come when she stopped ordering. I went to her eBay feedback page every week or so, but the feedback stopped appearing and she stopped ordering from everyone--not just me. I had grown to care about a woman I had never met, a woman whose career was a mystery to me, yet a woman for whom I had created affectionate nicknames and with whom I felt a bond as she went through various medical incidents and household crises.

I will not send a letter to the woman's family to ask if she still lives. The fact that she no longer answers emails makes it likely that she no longer does. But I carry a special place for her in my heart. She sometimes told me that she was having such a rotten day that the only thing that went right was receiving a box of yarn from me. She meant it, too. I made a difference in her life and she made a difference in mine. I will never forget her.

I wish that were the end of this story, but it isn't. I used the plural of "customers" in the headline. There have been others. A woman in New York had diabetes, lung cancer and Lyme disease. I once named a yarn after her and she got a kick out of that. A woman in San Francisco nursed her father with cancer. A long list indeed. These women knitted up a storm and donated time to nursing the sick. Sometimes they were the sick. I packed those yarn orders with a lot of love. I hope they felt the love and not just the yarn.

dj runnels
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