Right in Front of You

Kelly Bennett —  May 17, 2013 — 2 Comments

iStock_000014719608XSmall The first lessons I learned at the wonderful Library of Michigan’s Beginning Workshop were at the front desk of the conference hotel. As a long-time library employee, I have become as self-sufficient as possible in service situations -I’m the last one to ask for help, I wave off salespeople – so when I do ask for help, I really need it. I was hot, had just driven four hours over unfamiliar terrain and could not, after several circumnavigations of the building, find my room. I stopped at the desk, asked if my room number was right, because there was no such number on the map provided me and soon became face to face with at least two of the no-nos of customer service.

1. A falsely friendly implication of ignorance

“Are you sure you didn’t see it?” I was asked. As a customer, this is not helpful. In retrospect, this experience made me think of all the times I’ve asked patrons, “Did you try X?” or “Are you sure it wasn’t there?” From now on, I will try to remember my exasperating encounter and instead say, “What were you trying to do?” or “How can I help you fix it?”

2. Lack of customer prioritization skills

This problem is otherwise known as “answering the phone before you’ve finished your business with the person in front of you”. Ok, maybe your business doesn’t want you to let any calls go to voicemail, I get it. But if you’re going to leave an agitated, paying customer for a phone call, you’d better put that call on hold. What happened in my situation is that the clerk began answering multiple questions and booking a reservation without even acknowledging that I was still there. After about two minutes, I grumbled and walked away. Think of the last really angry patron you encountered. What would have happened if you had broken eye contact with them, answered the phone or walked away to take care of other issues before you were finished with their business? I can think of less egregious slights that have warranted supervisor, director or even police involvement. Even if such incidents don’t turn into massive patron outbursts, they are still major customer service issues. As a person who was reluctantly asked for help I felt stupid, unskilled, and a bother. After being ignored, those self-depreciating feelings turned outward into anger, embarrassment and frustration. Those feelings turn into actions by even the meekest of people.

Every customer service book/resource I’ve read suggests putting one’s self in the customer’s shoes and asks readers to consider, “How would YOU have liked the situation to be resolved?” Here’s my stab at it, from both the old, customer service-centric library lady point of view and the new, angry, slighted customer.

1. Acknowledgement of the problem

Yes, our hotel has a lot of convoluted hallways. You’re not the only one who has trouble navigating it. Or, even, simply, what can I help you find? Don’t be judgmental. On a single glance, you have no idea what someone’s limitations are. You’ll never know by my oh-so-cool (ha!) exterior that I couldn’t navigate myself out of a paper bag without the Google Maps app. Or that I thought it was good road-trip planning to buy and consume two bottles of Diet Mt. Dew for a four-hour drive. What you, or any good customer-service inclined staff member should know is that I’ve asked you for help. It’s your job at service desk to figure out what someone needs, not judge them.

2. Give the person an answer they can use

Whether it’s directions, a title, or another source of info, it’s up to us, as service employees to determine, based on the information gleaned from our patrons (Angela Semifero from Marshall District Library, illustrated this point in her session on the Reference Interview at the Beginning Workshop), to figure out what the person standing in front of us needs. In my case, what I needed was someone to point at the X already drawn on my map and say, “your room number range is here. If you turn right (or left, I still don’t really know :/) you’ll see a sign that has your room range on it. OR SOMETHING. Another thing I was reminded of by Angela this morning is that pointing is not only rude, but it is seldom helpful. Look, I suck at directions. I was born that way. I muddle my way through with technology and maps and help from the very kind. This not a rare affliction. There is no need to make me feel dumber than I already feel. Come out from behind your desk and walk with me – maybe you can’t make it all the way to the stack (room), but maybe to that first sign.

3. Handle the person that bothered to come in FIRST

This has been my philosophy at my Circulation Desk since before I was the head of that department. You shuffled your tired bones into the building; you win. Do I frequently pause with live, in-front-of-me patrons to answer the phone, put them on hold or transfer them, sure. Does it usually take more than 20 seconds, NO. I don’t care what century it is, people in front of us WIN. Even if I’m on a call before a patron walks up, I’ll make eye contact, mouth “I’ll be with you shortly” and if necessary, ring our “I need help” bell. This, more than the sarcastic “help” I received torqued my jaws. It made me feel epically unimportant. I don’t think there’s anything more human, and frankly anything more difficult than the in-person interaction. But there is nothing more important for your library, business or organization. Until we all plug our brain-stems into the Matrix, we still feel that intense positive or negative reaction of personal contact. All I really wanted was reassurance  a) that yes, my room was in this portion of a large complex of lodgings; b)and that if I just took these verbal directions, I could make it to my room.

What I’m trying to do here is take a complaint and turn it into a lesson. We can’t assume that everyone has the same abilities that we have, even if those abilities seem pretty darn basic. Copy machine anyone? Assume the folks you are trying to help have made all the effort they are capable of before they came to talk to you. While it may not be true, it will put you in the right mind-set for helping anyone. Lastly, honor the effort your patrons have made. Even if it’s a poorly worded Facebook Timeline post; they’ve reached out to you for an answer they are confident you can provide. Prove them right…with a smile.

Kelly Bennett


Kelly Bennett has worked in libraries for nearly half of her life. She is the Head of Circulation at Ferndale Public Library, where she also purchases music, curates a local music collection and runs a monthly rock concert series, First Stop Friday. She has presented on her music programming at the Michigan Library Association annual conference and at Public Library Association's national conference. Follow her @stomper4x4 and check out her blog http://780s.blogspot.com/ for more information about her concert series and music collection.

2 responses to Right in Front of You


    Wow, I completely agree…nothing urks me more than a lenghty phone call being taken care of before a question that I have already asked that may take 20 seconds to answer. Don’t get me wrong, all queries are important, but at least taking them in the order they arrive is appreciated…I don’t mind waiting my turn, but also don’t appreciate being brushed off.

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