5 Essential Customer-Service Tips

City Light Customer Account Operators

City Light customer account operators. Photo Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archive (via Flickr)

Some people are great at cuddling up in their cubicle and designing something beautiful, others shine in with numbers and esoteric policies, my thing has always been customer service. Whether as a teenager helping at my local library’s book sale, or making foot-longs as a Sandwich Artist at Subway, or now as a reference librarian, serving people has been my gift and pleasure. That being the case, good customer service behaviors come naturally to me. That isn’t to say that someone who isn’t instinctively adept at customer service can’t master the behaviors associated with excelling at it. Below are some tips I’ve identified that are essential to that end:

1) Pay Attention

I say it all the time, the public servant, no matter what the profession, must be aware of what is going on around him in the public area. It is obvious why this is important but I will say it anyway: You miss the opportunity to make somebody’s day, or even just make someone a little more comfortable if you aren’t paying attention to the signals people send out. Certainly someone may come up to you and ask for assistance, but studies show that in the library, at least, that means you’re missing 60% of the people that have questions. By paying attention when you’re sitting at a desk, you’ll see the confused person walking by and help out. By paying attention when you’re walking through the building you’ll increase the chance of serendipitous encounters. It isn’t hard, just look and listen; if you hold yourself to scanning your environment at regular intervals it becomes second nature and you develop a special sense for discerning people who need you.

I have a volunteer that comes in once every two weeks who is amazing at this. His main job is helping people with computer issues. Yet, he doesn’t ever sit at a desk, instead he sort-of floats in the computer area looking and listening. Somehow he just happens to find people who need help, though I rarely see anyone reaching out to him initially. By the end however, everyone knows that he’s there to assist. His winning demeanor helps, but I think his secret is simply an intense awareness of his surroundings. Note: We have 24 computers split into two sections so he manages to spread himself out to quite a large area.

2) Never Argue

Oh man, this is one of the hardest and most important things to do in any public-facing job. Sometimes you get customers who are so awful that you just have to give them what they deserve — they’re wrong and you want to tell them so in no uncertain terms. Dont! It’s not worth it. You will escalate the situation, fail to convince anyone of anything, and end up losing your composure for nothing. Here are some scripts contrasting what you want to say with what you should say:

Want to say: No ma’am, our computer did not charge you for ten extra prints, YOU failed to check the print preview to avoid blank pages and then you asked for 5 copies of a 2-page document!

What to say: I see what happened, yes, some websites don’t render properly when being sent to the printer. Here let me credit you for a few pages and let’s go to the computer so I can show you how to avoid this issue in the future.

Want to say: My colleague wasn’t rude to you! It’s obvious that YOU were the loud and obnoxious one! Now get outta my library!

What to say: I see you had a difficult time earlier. What can I help you with?

Want to say: You must think you’re the center of the universe the way you think you can cut ahead of everyone and ask for special favors!

What to say: (acknowledge whatever he needs help with, as long as he doesn’t go on too long then…) Sir, the line is over there. I’ll be able to help you with X just as soon as I finish helping these folks.

Notice in each of these situations, your response refuses to engage beyond acknowledging the customer’s issue; you don’t make it personal. Once you understand the problem, you reframe the interaction from a emotionally-charged encounter to a helping interview; sometimes that means helping them with a inanimate library system, other times it involves “hearing” their complaint and assuring them that you’ll pass it on. Two final points: First, you don’t have to agree with the customer, in fact, I recommend maintaining a neutral approach whenever possible (unless its a computer problem, go ahead and blame the computer, you won’t hurt its feelings). Second, after the first few moments, you do not need to accept rudeness; in that case, calmly inform them either that, “I can help you when you X” where X is the opposite of their specific inappropriate behavior. X should not equal something general like “being rude” which means too much to be useful. Be specific by saying “I can help you once you lower your voice”.

3) Remember People

Isn’t it weird when the people you see everyday pretend like you’re a stranger? I think it is. Whether it’s in a coffee shop, library, or store where you’re a regular, it sends the wrong message when people at desks pretend like they’re seeing you for the first time even though they saw you only 24 hours ago. What message does it send? It tells people that they’re not important, it signals to them that you don’t care about their presence, it makes them feel alienated from the organization you represent. For a for-profit business those consequences undercut the bottom line, and it’s no different in the public sector. The mission of most libraries involves helping people connect with the information/resources they need or want to improve their lives in some way. I believe it is antithetical to that goal when people aren’t treated as welcome guests in the library. Librarians are less effective at establishing relationships with those they serve if they don’t remember people — relationships that typically lead to positive work interactions.

You don’t have to remember everything about a person either. At the West Hollywood Library, we take people’s names when we sign them up for study rooms. After somebody has signed up a few times, I typically make it a point to remember their name, and it seems like people get a kick out of that (especially if their name is long or unusual). But remembering names isn’t necessary, just acknowledging that you’ve seen a person before is good customer service. Better yet, if you can follow up on a previous conversation or reference interaction, you get a million points. Chatting with frequent and semi-frequent customers establishes a rapport with a particular person and the community as a whole. That’s a good thing for it’s own sake, and it’s an excellent thing when advocacy time rolls around.

4) Be Available

When at a public service desk, the duty of a worker is to be present to assist people. Too often, librarians are too caught up with the work they’d brought out to the desk, a book, or something in the computer screen to even notice when a customer is standing in front of them. That should never happen. I’ve written before that it is a wise goal to make eye contact with everyone who passes your desk. Doing that acknowledges their presence and shows that you are available. I usually nod or say hello if it seems appropriate.

In the last paragraph, I used “available” as a synonym for “approachable”, which is how someone appears to the outside world. Available also refers to a mental state of being ready to help. Sometimes, especially on afternoons when I am feeling ornery for some reason (usually I’m tired or hungry), there is a constant internal struggle going on. Every librarian knows how easy it is to take the lazy way out in reference interactions; to do the least work possible by not executing a proper reference interview or providing the easiest (but not the best) possible resource for a patron. The reason we can shirk or responsibilities that way is because patrons rarely recognize our lackadaisical efforts. At those, when I realize I’m not feeling up-to-it, I do my darnedest to be “available” and open to providing the best customer service I can. Soon the shift will be over and I’ll be able to go and take a nap in the break room. But while I’m out in public, I am available.

5) Smile!

I don’t truly need to explain this one, I will say that a smile is one of the most useful tools in the arsenal of anyone involved in customer service. A smile can make a good interaction awesome and a difficult one better, it can also improve your mood! Do it, and often.

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3 Responses to 5 Essential Customer-Service Tips

  1. Ashley says:

    Nice post, Mr. Kagan! :-)

  2. Nuria says:

    Very helpful!

  3. Becky says:

    Great advice :)

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