Saturday, June 28, 2008

Customer service for curmudgeons

The subtitle for this blog is not a joke. Not that I necessarily believe in reincarnation or karmic debt, but the metaphor is useful.

I'm one of those introverted people whose temperament is most suited to solitary intellectual and creative pursuits, or to interesting conversation and recreation with a few close friends.

My fantasy job would be to sit in my favorite Tenbucks coffeehouse with my laptop (if I actually had one) running the Ask a Librarian operator's software in background, so that I could do what I really want to do: read books and write all day.

Irony of ironies, for the whole thirtysome years of my professional life I have been in public service jobs. Worse, the last twentysome have been in the helping professions—first clinical counseling and now reference librarianship.

"But you asked for the job!" the smart-alecky reader might say.

Yes, well...I'm a Preacher's Kid, son of another shy, introverted, bookish man who really cared about people in the abstract—but didn't want them to get too close.

Dad was my hero when I was young, and the helper's skills are in the genes, even though they are paradoxically mixed with the "leave me alone" genes.


I'm sure that a number of you will recognize the perennial dilemma of the public service librarian. You're at the Ask Here desk, multitasking in email, WorkFlows, a Word or Excel file and maybe some other stuff, and someone comes up to the desk.

"Doggone it," you think. "If it weren't for these customers, I could get my work done!"

Or, for the nth time, someone asks you to help them get into their email because they've forgotten the password—or to create an email account or a resume, because they don't know how to use a computer.

Or for the nth-squared time, someone asks another dumb question, revealing that they suffer from Star Trek Syndrome:
A cognitive disorder of people who grew up watching Star Trek and believe that computers actually work like that now, that you can ask an ill-formed question in street dialect, when you're not really sure what you want, and the computer will figure out what you actually need and tell you in simple English.
Ah, you know the symptoms....

So why do I do this? And...I'm not meaning to brag come I do it so well?

The "why" is easy: no one will pay me enough to sit in Tenbucks all day writing unpublishable fantasy novels.

The "how come" is way more difficult.

It's partly the curmudgeon's determination to do professional things, especially public things, well enough that he can't be blamed for...whatever.

But it's also that same PK curs... uh... inheritance: I really do care about people—even though it takes a lot of energy to pay genuine attention to them, even though that means letting them get closer to me than I really want them to.

So...a lot of routine transactions I'll acknowledge I do somewhat on autopilot. My level of customer service competence and my understanding of the resources we provides mean that I can "play back" appropriate scripts, coaching customers through whichever process they need help with.

Fortunately, though, they sometimes manage to get through to me as actual people. It might be when they present their questions. It might be later, when my resentment of their "interrupting" me shifts into professional eagerness to search out the solution...

...which sometimes shifts into a genuine exchange of satisfaction with a real human being, when we both realized that we have tracked down—or at least stumbled across—the best answer to the query.

Even though it makes for good jokes in the workroom or on a blog, I'm not too proud of my curmudgeonly resentment of customers.

I am grateful, though, that they insist upon becoming human beings, so that I have to become human, too.

I guess that's another reason I'm in this line of work.

It ain't easy, being human.

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