Feel Like I’m Being Stalked By a Customer

Question: I am a general manager at a coffee shop. A customer has been coming in a couple of years who is a college or graduate studies girl. She has been really pushy lately with wanting me to hang out with her. About a year ago, I sat down with her on my lunch break at the shop just twice to talk to her because she was nice and enjoyable to talk to. These are the ONLY times outside my work schedule that I took time out of my busy schedule to hang out with her.

My schedule is very hectic (40 hours weekly at the shop) plus volunteering weekends. I spend all the rest of my time with my boyfriend and we live together. Over the past year the customer has sent me messages for Thanksgiving and Christmas wishing me happy holidays but it started getting strange when I didn’t respond when she said “I miss you and love you precious friend” and wanting to hang out (even though she comes in the shop every single day!). I haven’t hung out outside of work with her just during those 2 lunch breaks. She started getting super pushy once I didn’t respond and after I told her I have a boyfriend. I really think she is mental and obsessed.

If I am on the computer at work, she will come up to me and hug me/rub my back. I don’t hug back but just sit still. It’s uncomfortable. When she comes in and she sits down near me at another table(which now is all the time) I go back behind the counter because I don’t want to be touched.

Now she is coming in during my scheduled hours gazing at me for hours when I am working on shift. It’s making me super uncomfortable because she has gotten so obsessed with me.

I told her I have a boyfriend, but it’s not phasing her. She comes up to the register multiple times being kind of pushy for verbal interaction like she is manipulating me into talking to her. I’m getting kind of concerned she becomes in around the time I arrive and also right before I leave work (like she knows my schedule). She continually finds ways when I am working to find trivial things to ask me when I am behind the counter.

I am 100% straight. I can’t talk to owners at my shop because they’ll think I’m overreacting (in the past they haven’t taken me seriously when I say a customer is bothering me. They wait until it gets too serious before taking action). If it were my shop totally, I would tell her flat out to leave me alone but I don’t want her to complain to the owners saying that I’m being paranoid, but this is totally happening. It’s a tough situation because I’m a general manager at the shop so I can’t always tell off frequent customers because it falls back on the owners and the reviews.

The main thing concerning me is how many hours she comes in the shop watching me and especially since she has memorized my schedule (when I arrive and right as I leave work) hoping for interaction. I’m afraid she might be scoping the area seeing what kind of car I drive. Any advice would help!

Response: I’m glad you decided to write to us. As you have discovered, quite often other people don’t realize the seriousness of these situations. We do—and we hope to provide you with some useful suggestions. You know your situation best, but perhaps our thoughts will get you started on a plan of action.

Trust your instincts about this customer (who I will refer to as “Jen” for ease of writing.) Your description certainly fits that of someone who has gone past feeling a casual friendliness, to someone who is obsessed with you and who is scheduling her life around your activities. It may be sexual in some way or just an obsession. But such obsessions can turn to even more serious stalking, harassment or even violence. At the very least, Jen’s actions are a worrisome distraction for you and your work and life.

Responding effectively to someone like that requires care to avoid having her obsession turn from liking you to hating you—or to hating your boyfriend, who she may feel is an obstacle to her friendship with you. Your goal is to pry her away, then keep her at a distance. Of course, it would be best if she stopped coming to the coffee shop and also stop contacting you, but I don’t think it will happen right away.
I do think that if you don’t do something about the situation, you will find that she has encroached even further. She will meet you at your car and walk to the shop with you or walk with you to your car, or offer to follow you to make sure you’re OK, or some other bizarre thing.

I also want you to think about the fact that it seems odd she can adjust her schedule to fit yours. I recall an ER nurse at a hospital near the police academy in my city. She would take her daily walk in the area of the building and began to stop there and talk to the staff who were outside at the time. The time they were outside varied, but she nearly always seemed to be taking her walk then. She wore scrubs and had a stretchy cap tucked in her pocket and usually a stethoscope in the other pocket. Once she checked the heart beat of one of the academy staff and teased him about it.

The group started having her come in for coffee and occasionally took her to lunch with them. One time she was in tears about a tragic accident victim in ER that morning. Another time she told them about saving a woman’s life and the woman named her baby after her. They thought she was wonderful—and cute.

A few weeks later the newspaper had an article about her being arrested for impersonating a medical person, by going into the hospital and talking to patients. She had a lot of people fooled. As you know from reading the news, such things happen all the time. Your problem person may or may not be a full-time student.

You might also want to check on the recent news of the Mount Holyoke art professor who tried to kill the coworker she “loved”, but with whom she had never had a relationship. One of the most common comments in such situations is, “I know she (or he) was odd, but I never thought she’d do something like that.”

Here are some things for you to consider doing:
1.) Make a written timeline of this situation. It will give you something in writing to show the owners of the store, if you talk to them about it. (More about that, next.) It will also remind you, if you ever doubt yourself, that Jen’s actions are a problem that can’t be ignored. Also, although I hope it would never come to this, you may need that timeline to show to the police or an attorney, if you feel you need to take more serious action.

Start with an opening statement. For example:
*Jen Wilson is about 25 years old. She is Anglo, about 5’ 6” tall and about 140 lbs. She nearly always is wearing jeans and a t-shirt or sweat shirt. She says she is a student at Central University. She often has books and school work with her. She has never mentioned having other work. She says she is single and lives in an apartment nearby. (If you have a photo of her, perhaps on a Facebook page or some other resource, include it.)

*The first time Jen came to the coffee shop was about . Since then she has come in the shop almost every day, with only a few exceptions. She nearly always orders ___.

*As part of your opening statement, compare her with other customers. For example, “There are about a dozen customers who come in as regularly as Jen. However, none of them have ever communicated with me away from work or acted unusually friendly in the shop.” Or, “There are only two other customers who come in as often as Jen, and neither of them have ever communicated with me about anything except their purchases.” Or, “There are three other customers who come in as often as Jen and with whom I have had conversations while they’re in the shop. None of them have ever done more than casually chat with me.”

*Or even, “I never have had many conversations with other customers. A few of my personal friends come to the shop occasionally and I talk with them more than I do with regular customers. However, Jen is not one of those friends.”

*Finally. in your opening statement, give your overall concern. Such as, “At first Jen seemed just like a routine customer who would have coffee while doing classwork. For at least the last___months she has seemed to be more focused on coming in to see me than on coming in just for coffee or to study. It’s become a concern to me and a constant distraction. I’m creating this timeline so I can clearly show how the situation has developed.

Then start your timeline, maybe with the date or time span in bold. It may not be lengthy. However, you may think of other things to add as you consider it further. Examples follow.

Early January, 2019: Jen was sitting by a window and started a conversation while I was on my lunch break. I moved to her table and we had a pleasant conversation about general topics.
A week later in January, 2019: I was eating lunch and Jen asked if she could sit with me. I said yes and we had a pleasant conversation about her school studies and my work. I told her I lived with my boyfriend. (At some point in your timeline, establish that Jen knows you live with your boyfriend.

April, 2019 and multiple times since then: Jen came up behind me while I was at a table and working on my computer. She rubbed my shoulders and talked. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t encourage it. I pulled away after a few seconds and went back to behind the counter. She has done this several times, to the point that when I see her I make sure I go to behind the counter.

Then give other dates and actions by Jen, including the text messages, or any other communications away from the shop. Include what you did or said in response.

Thanksgiving, 2019: Sent me a text…..etc.
August 2019 until now: Jen started coming in when I start work and right before I leave. It appears to me that she knows my work schedule. Here are some of the things she does that are concerning to me: (list a few things, including the constant coming to the cash register to talk to you.

After the timeline, repeat how all of it makes you feel and state that you are taking actions to distance yourself from her, but are open to any suggestions.

What you’re after is a clear statement of facts, so you don’t have to try to verbally explain the situation repeatedly, if you talk to someone else about it. There may also come a time when she will go so far with her obsession that you have to tell her to not come into the store, and having the timeline will allow you it justify that action.

2.) Even though you don’t think the shop owners will take it seriously, you should talk to them about this, after you’ve given them your written material. You work for them, so anything you do is their responsibility. Further, anything that happens to you is their responsibility as well—and they probably are aware of that fact, or should be. By giving them a written timeline they are more likely to realize they have to take it seriously, to protect themselves if for no other reason. In the future, any time you feel you need to ask for their assistance in dealing with a problematic person, put it in writing.

There may be nothing specific for them to do at this point, but at least they will be aware of it and may also be more alert to other things about which they become aware, related to the customer.

3.) Starting immediately, put clear distance between you and Jen, as you probably wish you would have done from the beginning. Just start now to build the wall, a bit at a time. She doesn’t know anything about what goes on behind the scenes at the shop, so you can even make up new rules to justify the changes. You shouldn’t have to do that, but with an unstable person it might be the best way.

*If she asks you why you aren’t talk much to her, tell her the owners have told you that they think you spend too much time talking to customers. As a result, you can say hello and a few words, but that’s all. Or, that other customers said they thought you didn’t act professional enough with some of the customers. Or, that starting the first of the year the manager said, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Or, that you have to set an example for the other employees. Or, something else that will allow you to look at your watch and say, “Can’t talk now, gotta get to work.” Or, “Oops, too much time in one spot, I have to move on.” Or something else that makes sense, to keep from engaging with her.

*When you do talk to her, talk as if she is nothing but a customer to whom you’re being courteous. That way your voice won’t sound especially friendly or encouraging. That might be difficult at this stage, but you can at least try to tone down extra words. Say hello, comment on the weather, say thank you and that’s about all.

She may notice the difference. If she comments on it, tell her something like, “Yes, I’m having to change a lot of my communication with customers, to fit with the owner’s expectations for managers. They want their managers to be courteous to everyone, but not personal with anyone.” If you want to really be obvious the fact that you don’t consider her a friend, you can say, “I can talk a little bit more to family or close friends, but with customers they want it toned down.”

In a similar situation, after being told that, the problem person asked the employee, “Well, we ARE friends, aren’t we???” The employee said, “You’re a customer I talk to when I have time, but that’s not like a close personal friend.” When the employee said that, it hurt the other person’s feelings—but he stopped bothering her.

If Jen asks you if you’re her friend, tell her she’s a “customerquaintance.” That should get the message across. And you can say that in a generally pleasant way.

*Don’t let her touch you at all. Sit where she can’t get behind you. Or pull away and say, “Uh oh, can’t do that. We’ve gotten strict rules that we’re not supposed to have any physical contact with customers or let them have it with us. Big liability worries nowadays.” (Which IS the truth and not a lie.) Just make sure you stick to that with everyone else.

*Don’t let her be a special customer, just because she’s there so much. For example, if you can avoid it, don’t make her coffee in some special way without her asking, just because she always has it that way. Ask every time. A friend always tells me that when she goes to her favorite coffee shop, she just says, “The usual.” and they make it just right for her. I think that’s pretentious, but in your case, I think it implies a connection you don’t want to have. Ask her what she wants, as if you don’t know. Or, let someone else help her all the time.

*Consider having your boyfriend come to work with you occasionally or meet you before you leave work, so she sees you with him. Don’t introduce him to her. If she’s already met him, have him come in again a time or two and the two of you can have lunch together, away from her. Preferably leave with him, so it is clearly established that you have another life.

*If she comes up while you’re at the cash register and not obviously busy with a customer, look intently at the register and motion “just a second” to her. Do something or write something down or whatever, then you can say, “Sorry, I was working on something. Can I help you?” If she starts with a personal conversation you can briefly acknowledge what she said, then move away. “No, I didn’t see that movie. Sounds good, but, I’ve got so many things to be doing, I can’t chat.”

*Don’t respond to her text or voice mail messages. If she asks you about it, say that you get quite a few messages from people you’ve met through the business and you just delete them, because you don’t like to get involved with customers away from work. If she says she’s not just a business customer, you can use the line about her being a “customerquaintance”. Like, “I find it easier to not deal with texts and calls from customerquaintances, no matter how often I see them in here. It keeps work and home separate, which I think is the healthiest thing to do.”

4.) About the staring behavior. There are two options for that—ignore it or confront it. I think you should confront it. You can make the next time she does it like the first time. When you realize she’s staring at you, ask her, in a pleasantly business-like way, “Do you need something?” If she says no, you can say, “You were looking this way for a long time, so I thought you might need something.” If she does it again, ask again. The third time, you are completely within reason to say something with a perplexed or slightly exasperated tone, like, “Are you staring at me or at something else?” If needed you can add, “It’s really distracting.” Or, “Jen, I have to tell you, it’s a bit unnerving to be stared at.” You can say those things with a bit of a smile it you want to take the sting out of them, or you can sound more stern, as the situation requires.

A friend wouldn’t keep doing it, once you’ve brought it to her attention. So, that might give you the reason you need to separate even further from her. You can say that you’ve mentioned it to her but she still keeps doing it, so you view it as threatening rather than being friendly.

5.) Be aware of your surroundings outside when you arrive and leave. If you have ever seen Jen in a car, put the description in your written documentation and give it to your boyfriend, so he can be aware of it as well. If Jen was a man you would certainly be wary and I think the same precautions apply. If you’re away from the shop, don’t let her get close enough to you to grab you. Don’t answer the door if she comes to your house and don’t answer if she calls you on your personal phone. Your goal always is to make it abundantly clear that you are not encouraging any friendship with her or any communication other than bland comments in the shop.

6.) If it’s possible, alter your work schedule a bit, now and then, so she won’t be so certain about the time you arrive and leave.
7.) If there are other employees, they can be told to not give out personal information about you or to tell any customers about your work schedule or activities for the day. You will want to be careful about that, because some employees might not be able to resist the urge to talk directly to Jen about it, just out of curiosity.

8.) At some point things will either change a little or a lot and eventually (hopefully) she will lose interest and go back to being a customer or stop coming in at all. However, if her obsessive behavior continues, especially staring, trying to touch you or contacting you, you will have to be more direct. If that happens, the store owners should be the ones to talk to her about it and telling that she is making employees, including you, uncomfortable because of her excessive interest. I believe they should then tell her that they don’t want her to come into the shop again and that if she does, they will take that as a threatening action and will notify the police.

If the store owners won’t take that step, and you truly do not want her in the store again, I strongly suggest that you contact the police department and ask them for assistance. If you know anyone on the department, it would be helpful to talk to them first, because they may have ideas based on the information you give them. That is where your written information will really come in handy. They won’t have to write much down when you’ve already created a document for them to refer to.

With luck, the situation will get better before you get to such a need. However, I do want to emphasize that you are not mistaken about feeling very concerned about her. So, don’t doubt yourself and don’t be lulled into trusting her.

Best wishes to you through all of this. If something changes that you wonder about, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Update:
Thanks Tina!  This is great advice and helpful!  I am documenting everything that happens just in case it escalates and becomes more of a serious problem.  Thanks again!