And the Prize for the Most Tragic Phrase Goes To...

By Martha Mendoza

If you happened to catch Oprah's premier episode of her 20th year on television, then you saw Oprah tell her audience (of millions) about being turned away at a Hermes store in Paris in June.

If you didn't catch the episode, here is the story in a nutshell:

Oprah arrived at the posh Hermes boutique at 6:45, even though closing time was at 6:30. It's standard and customary for the swanky boutiques in this particular area to stay open past closing time for VIPs, celebrities and other shoppers. As Oprah puts it, “The doors were not locked. My friends and I were standing inside the doorway, and there was much discussion among the staff about whether or not to let us in. That's what was embarrassing.” She goes on to say, "I was not upset about not getting to buy a bag—I was upset because one person at the store was so rude."

This snub caused Oprah to boycott Hermes, call the CEO to complain, cancel a $10,000 order and air the whole story on national TV…all because of the actions of one solitary salesperson. 

You'd think the prize for the Most Tragic Phrase goes to this rude salesperson. Alas, it does not (although she's a close second).
The prize actually goes to Hermes USA's CEO, Robert Chavez, whom Oprah called to discuss the problem.

The Ultimate Tragic Phrase Revealed

Oprah had Chavez on her premier show as she elaborated to her audience the details of her visit to the Paris store. And you know what Mr. Chavez said, on national TV, in front of millions, after a summer of tabloid frenzy?

  • "Oprah, she didn't know who you were." 
The whole audience moaned.

Didn't know who Oprah was? Now, it's true, there are some people on this planet who don't know who Oprah is. (I personally know someone who's never seen her show; not one episode.) And it's true; Europeans don't have a celebrity culture such as the US. So, it's conceivable Oprah is not such a household name in France as it is here. But, is that still an excuse? Hardly.

That is not the worst of it, there were more excuses - the shop was setting up for an after hours PR event. This certainly does not excuse the fact that the salesperson was rigid.

Nevertheless don't worry, Hermes says they have instituted “sensitivity training” since all this occurred. But, is sensitivity training enough? Don't they know what they really need is a dose of MAGIC?

How to Turn a Fiasco into an Opportunity 

Why was it so hard to do something so easy? How come it isn't a habit to be MAGIC? Rather, it's a habit to defend and make excuses thereby leaving a poor impression on the customer.

Had the rude salesperson chosen to Make a Connection and Act Positively, the entire fiasco (and negative PR) could have been avoided. Imagine if the salesperson had said, “Thanks for stopping by our boutique. I'm in the process of closing the store, and I'm finalizing these last orders. I'll be closing in five minutes. Is there something I can help you find in these last few minutes?”

With these few words, the salesperson acts positively in a helpful, constructive way. What's more, Oprah was there to pick up a $6,500 watch for her friend Tina Turner, so the answer would have been, “yes, I only need five minutes of your time.”

A keen salesperson would have reveled in the opportunity to sell such a high-ticket item. And, a true professional would have suggested the matching bracelet, purse, scarf and gloves. All of this could have been accomplished regardless of Oprah's celebrity status.

The same goes for Mr. Chavez. Had he chosen to be empathic and apologetic, rather than defensive, he could have created a positive outcome. We probably never would have heard about the story had he said, “Oprah, I can imagine how upset you must have felt standing at the door and being kept from buying a special gift for your friend. You have fine taste and I'm glad you chose Hermes. You were certainly hoping for an efficient and pleasant shopping experience and instead received rude service. I apologize one person made you feel so uncomfortable. Please accept my sincere apologies.

The Keys to Success

The irony is that in a recent interview with Business Week, Chavez explains that Hermes is looking for “bright, passionate people - and the more retail sales experience, the better.

The interviewer asks two key questions:
Q: What about the glamour of the industry?
A: Some of the best advice I can give is, don't [work in luxury goods] because it looks fun or glamorous. You have to really have a passion for the business. You'll know it if you do, and you'll now it if you don't. To do well in luxury, you have to love what you're doing and love your team and love your clients. It's not for everyone; and if you don't have those things, you'll be mediocre.
Q: What's the key to getting ahead in this business when one is starting out?
A: Someone asked me [about that] the other day. And, I say, "Honestly? Go work on the sales floor." That experience will help you grow and will help you make better decisions throughout your entire career. And return to the floor often, too.

Sounds like Mr. Chavez needs some time on the floor.


Martha Mendoza is a training consultant certified in MAGIC and in EQ assessment and coaching. She writes a blog that focuses on EQ called Create Stronger Connections. Visit it at:

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.