We had a lot of speakers virtually visit my reference class. My favorite one was a teen librarian. He really highlighted that to be a good librarian you had to love what you did (which is basically what everyone says), but to be a great librarian you had to put the patron before yourself (which is what no one really wants to hear). For him that meant that while he would have loved to have a weekly music-writing program, none of his patrons were interested and he had to cancel it. He did this because he realized he had to accept that his job was to give the patrons what they wanted, and not to just do what he wanted all the time.
When I decided I wanted a career in librarianship, I had to accept that I would have to focus on my customer service skills outside of class since that’s really not something you can learn in grad school.
I’ve never worked in food service or most other traditional customer service jobs. In fact, not counting my job as a library assistant in undergrad, all the jobs I’ve ever held have mainly been working with animals or a small group of coworkers. Customer service has never really been on my radar. Until now, that is. But one thing I’ve learned since I began this journey is that I can bring lessons from all my life experiences to the new life experience I hope to begin upon graduation. So I’ve attempted to increase these skills by volunteering to fill in when our front desk person is otherwise busy. And I’ve also sought to gather together a list of what I’ve learned about customer service from the jobs I’ve held and my experiences as a customer.
- The customer is not always right, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
From my job helping people who come into our newspaper office, I’ve discovered that people rarely know what they want or how to ask for it. In newspapers, especially, most readers don’t know the difference between an “ad” and an entry in the calendar. Many will come in and ask for one thing when what they mean is something completely different. You have to be willing to accept that while the customer sounds wrong, they aren’t. They just don’t know how to ask the question. This seems extremely counterintuitive, but readings from my reference class this semester also suggest that many patrons will even knowingly withhold the question they want to ask in favor of one that is more vague. There are many reasons for this, but the solution is to always take every question seriously and seek to clarify exactly what the patron wants before attempting to help them. Making assumptions is what leads to you being wrong.
- A smile goes a long way.
As a customer myself, I find that I am always put at ease when someone smiles at me. For two different classes we had to “go undercover” at a library and write about our experiences getting help from those reference librarians. The first time I was annoyed with the librarian. The second time I wrote a glowing report. This turned out to be the same library (different librarians) and the main difference between the two experiences was that the second librarian smiled when I approached and greeted me warmly. Both librarians helped me, but only one left me with a good impression. Don’t knock the smile! Just don’t let it become the creepy smile, like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory:
- Admit your mistake or failure gracefully.
Everybody makes mistakes and customers know that. I’ve found that if I own up to the mistake and say that we will fix it immediately, originally irate customers will change their tone. Does this work every time? No, but working at a newspaper has also taught me to, well, I’ll tell you all about it in number 5. Just know that angry customers very often have a reason to be angry, and you should at least try to figure out why so you can help them.
- Students (and non-students) will always procrastinate.
When I worked as a library assistant in an academic library I learned that students will ALWAYS procrastinate. They will arrive at the desk generally in a panic, hoping against hope that they can get an article from InterLibrary Loan in five minutes. Never mind that they knew about the paper two months ago. No, that’s not their fault. What our ILL guy always tried to do was get them what they needed, even if it meant he had to stay late or get charged a rush fee. He was willing to do that because most students just don’t understand the concept that information isn’t always right at our fingertips. Of course, this is a widespread myth which means that you don’t always have to be a student to ask for help right before something is due. But if a customer sees that you’re attempting to bend over backwards for them – even if you can’t help them in time – they are more likely to view the experience in a positive light and return. Explaining to them that time can play a huge factor in getting information convince them to avoid procrastination. One can dream, anyway.
- Don’t take it personally.
When all is said and done, you can only do so much to help an irate customer. Sometimes people are just combative. Sometimes there is something else going on in their life that is making them verbally attack you. In the end, you can’t take it personally. If you did all you could do to help, then that is all you can hope to do. Be empathetic to their situation. If a person yells at you or requests a manager, stay calm and get your supervisor. They’re paid to handle these tough situations. If you take every negative experience personally, you won’t be able to serve patrons for very long. And, if you’re like me, and want to be a librarian, you will most definitely have to spend a great deal of your time helping people, so get used to it.
I’m still learning about this whole customer service thing, so if you’ve got more tips for me, or if you take offense from one of my lessons, let me know by leaving a comment.