Onward & Upward

I’ve written three posts over the past few weeks exploring lessons I’ve learned about customer service through a variety of past jobs and experiences, as well as from my more recent years as a public librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over my working life and mining it for all the wisdom I can.

There’s a reason for this retrospection:

On June 11th, I begin a new job. I’m leaving the Kansas City Public Library—today is my last day, actually.

I’ve accepted a position with the Johnson County Library system in Johnson County, Kansas (the Kansas side of the KC metro area). I’ll be the Branch Manager for three of their locations: Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill.

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I Hate Saying “I’m Sorry”

I’ve done customer service in a lot of different jobs and in every one, a typical exchange goes like this:

Angry Customer: I need you to do [something completely unreasonable]!

Customer Service Rep: I’m sorry but I can’t do that.
*or*
I’m sorry but that’s against policy.

For a long time, every time I heard a customer service rep say, “I’m sorry but…,” I cringed. I hated hearing it. I tried never to say those words. Why?

Because I’m not sorry. Because I haven’t done anything wrong. Because my employer hasn’t done anything wrong. We’re not at fault.

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My Customer Service Philosophy: Lessons from a Ten Year Old

I was asked recently what my customer service philosophy is. I responded with this:

The customer isn’t always right but they’re usually not wrong.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that some behavior is simply unacceptable. Customers don’t have the right to abuse staff, to expect preferential treatment, to demand we make exceptions just for them. Basic human decency and respect are still required. I won’t tolerate threats to the safety of staff members.

However, in my experience, when someone is acting out there’s usually a reason for it. There’s usually a need or a want that isn’t being met—and that need or want is usually legitimate. Problematic behavior arises when someone can’t figure out how to get what they need or want. And while the behavior may be a problem, this underlying reason can be productively addressed.

A ten year old boy taught me this lesson.

Continue reading “My Customer Service Philosophy: Lessons from a Ten Year Old”

Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

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Some Thoughts on Libraries & Neutrality

At the 2018 Midwinter Conference of the American Library Association, the President’s Program was a panel discussion titled, “Are Libraries Neutral? Have They Ever Been? Should They Be?” There were debaters and commentators assigned to represent both sides of the argument. This debate inspired a vigorous parallel discussion among librarians and library professionals on Twitter.

I approach the issue of library neutrality from two different directions: ideology and pragmatism. Let’s start with ideology.

When we talk about neutral library spaces and services, we talk about being a place where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, where everyone has the freedom to make their voices heard and have their needs met. As James LaRue stated for the pro side of the debate: “Everyone gets a seat at the table.”

I passionately agree with Mr. LaRue on this point: libraries should be spaces where everyone gets a seat at the table.

But these words don’t describe neutrality—they describe equality. They envision a space where everyone is equal in access, representation, voice.

The world we all live and serve in is not equal.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Libraries & Neutrality”

How Can Libraries Compete with Amazon?

I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:

  • Amazon can’t be part of a community.
  • Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
  • Amazon can’t provide communal space.
  • Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
  • Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
  • Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
  • Amazon can’t build trust with people.

Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.

Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.

Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.

The truth is this:

Amazon can’t compete with us.

This Is Why I Love Libraries

In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)

And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.

Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.

All our stories.

I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.

Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.