Downsides: Dealing with Problem Patrons

I’d love to tell you that my life is perfect now that I have a job I feel passionate about and I’m building a career that’s about helping people. But if I’m being honest, working in public libraries is not all rainbows and unicorns. Yes there is those wonderful patrons for whom I know I’ve made a difference. And there are my “regulars” who always offer me a smile and a hello (and some very “punny” jokes). But there are the others. The ones that can’t help but react to everything that happens negatively. These are the people who make me sad because I couldn’t help them or angry because they got mad at me for something I had no control over. And this is my reaction to most of these people:

And to be honest, I never see most of these people again and I’m glad for it. But there is one gentleman, let’s call him Mr. Newspaper, who comes in every day and reads that day’s newspapers. The library has obviously become sort of his second home, so much so that he doesn’t respect our rules. He consistently talks on his cell phone loud, despite numerous and pointed reminders that cell phone usage is not allowed. He spread his newspapers and magazines over several tables and a couch. And he looks for any excuse to complain – about our brand new copiers being junk, about there being no close parking spaces in the lot, about the local newspapers that we have behind the desk always being checked out, about other people talking on their cell phones and disturbing him… The list goes on and on. 

Number one customer service lesson I've learned.

The number one customer service lesson I’ve learned.

My approach to customer service has always been based on two edicts: Don’t take it personal and remember that you never know what is going on behind the scenes in their life. For the most part I am able shrug off most of the comments uttered by my “problem patrons.” Unfortunately, Mr. Newspaper has consistently managed to wear down even my constant attempts to be accommodating in his presence.

So what do you do when everything about a person just gets under your skin? My library manager tells us to leave the desk and take a breather in the break room. For the most part this can help, but over time, it just wasn’t enough.

By February, I was over Mr. Newspaper’s attitude. It seemed I had three choices. Refuse to serve him (that was definitely out). Be completely emotionless around him (a possibility, although it breaks my “Always smile while you serve” rule). The third choice became the choice I went with: Overwhelm him with niceness. Now I don’t mean just being polite, because that just isn’t proactive enough. I mean finding some way to go out of your way to be nice, to smile, to be overwhelmingly cheerful in the face of utter negativity. And at first it didn’t make a difference. And then, after he complained for the fifth time in one day about one of our local papers still being out, the opportunity presented itself. A few minutes after he walked away, the paper was returned. I fully expected Mr. Newspaper to rush up to grab it. But he didn’t. A few minutes later I decided to act, and I brought the newspaper out to him. And he was so flabbergasted at this show of kindness that he is still thanking me, three days later. He hasn’t used his cell phone once since then. And he hasn’t complained about papers not being behind the desk. He even allowed me to give him a mini-lesson on the new copiers and praised their usefulness in front of my boss (at whom he had previously bellowed). I can only imagine that this new attitude won’t last, but I’ll take the reprieve. And, it just goes to show that every act of kindness is worth it.


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