Sigh. You are bothering me.

Sigh.  The Sigh is the signal customer service  people give you to let you know how stupid, annoying, disruptive or outrageous your inquiry is.

I recently received The Sigh from a company my doctor had engaged to provide me with some medical equipment.  I have dealt with this company for a few years now and they frequently send the wrong thing or don’t call back when they say they are going to call.

A few weeks ago, I called them to activate an order that was originally placed as I was ending my job in New Jersey.  I had told them to hold the order until I started my new job just to make everything easier for everyone:  this way no one in the doctor’s office or the medical supply company had to run around rushing to get things completed under my old insurance.  By holding the order, they could just wait until my new insurance was active and do things in a sane way.

When I called, the gentleman who received my call was friendly.  He brought up my records and confirmed what I had told him.  He told me he was placing my order right then and that he would personally call me back and let me know what was happening and schedule an appointment for me to receive the new equipment.

About three weeks went by and I had not heard from them, so I called.  The person who answered listened to my explanation:  Hello, I placed an order a few weeks ago and haven’t heard anything back.  Sigh.  Big, long,  drawn out sigh.

This tells me something immediately.  She’s not on my side.  I’m irritating her with my questions.  She doesn’t want to help me.  She asked me who I talked with in the previous conversation.  I told her that I had not gotten his name.  Another big sigh.  I then had to explain further about the whole …holding the order while I switched insurers routine.  She was not happy.  She put me on hold for awhile and then finally came back, asked me a few questions and actually seemed in a better mood.  She assured me she’d get back to me; but, I won’t hold my breath.

I’ve done the sigh.  I mean how could I have not, after basically being in customer service for about 30 years, starting with my first retail job when I was 15.  In fact, I confess to doing quite a bit of sighing while working for a bookstore in my twenties.  I’ve been on both sides of The Sigh.

The Sigh is an obvious signal that the person doesn’t want to help you.  What are other the other more subtle signals?  Eye rolling, not exactly subtle is a sure sign they think you are annoying or stupid.

Customer service is not just what we say.  It is how we say it and it is our body language and the visual clues we reveal when helping or not helping someone.

It’s important, when cleaning up your service act, to review what your face is revealing.  Or maybe it is that you don’t rise out of your chair and just flick a finger in the direction the person needs to go to get what they need.

Smiling, eye contact, a tone in your voice that is inviting, eagerness to get up and help are all part of being an engaged service provider.  I looked up the word, engaged in the Merriam Webster’s dictionary.  Greatly interested.  Perfect.  As service providers, we should be greatly interested in the needs of our customers.  Are you?

I am the customer.

Photo: Craig Howarth via Flickr Creative Commons!


I am the customer again.  When you work in a public library, whether it’s in the town where you reside or not, you tend to be self serving.  Even when I did not live in the same town as the public library where I worked, I exclusively used my work library.  I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never even been to the Asbury Park library and I lived there for two years.

I work in an academic library now and let’s face it, most of the fun books are in public libraries.  So, once again I’m the patron of a public library system.  This time, it is the Brooklyn Public library’s job to meet my library needs.  I live closest to the Bedford branch of the BPL.  I’ve been there three times.  Let’s just say, I’m not impressed.

I’m a librarian, like many of you that read this blog, so, I’m mostly self sufficient in public libraries.  I rarely ask “stupid” questions or do annoying things like come 5 minutes before closing and want to apply for a library card.  I really just ask to be treated kindly, for the folks helping me to be informed or be willing to find out the answer if they don’t know it and for the systems to be semi-efficient.

Over the next year, I might be using Brooklyn Public Library to illustrate a point.  It’s not that I’m picking on them; they just happen to be the ones who are serving me under my particular microscope.

So.  Let’s start with the library card application process.

I was not greeted.  The clerk took my credentials (license and proof of address) without saying anything at all.  I suppose had I not set them on the counter she would have asked for them.  She made some sort of mistake on my card and the she flagged me down and had me come back to the counter to fix it.  People make mistakes, so no big deal.  I had to ask, “Am I done?”  because she gave me no indication that our interaction was over.  She didn’t tell me the circulation period.  She didn’t tell me anything about the library, nor give me any brochures that would tell me about basic policies, etc.  In fact, she barely said a word to me, though she did answer my questions.

If the Brooklyn Public Library had competitors, I would definitely try one after that initial experience.  You go to one coffee shop and are treated indifferently; you feel no loyalty and might try a different one.  Libraries don’t have that sort of competition; but, that doesn’t mean they get to forget that they are providing a service and should be trying to deliver it with some excellence.  In this crazy time for public libraries, they need all the vocal supporters they can get.

I’m there to get a library card!  A new user!  This is the BPL’s opportunity to welcome me, explain a few policies like fines, hours, circulation periods.  Offer me help if I need it.  It is the opportunity to set the tone for our relationship and for them to win some new rabidly loyal customers.  They kind of blew it.  Not that I won’t be an advocate for my local library, I will; but, it’s kind of….despite my personal experience, I see your value.

I, obviously, will be going back to my little branch again and again to pick up holds or browse their collection and I’ll head out to the Central branch too.  Perhaps becoming a regular will warm things up over there.  I’ll keep you posted.

I see this as an opportunity to remind myself of the customer perspective.  It’s a great exercise and the first lesson is greet all customers, old and new, warmly and make sure they feel welcome.

Liar, Liar

What do you do when the customer is clearly lying?  We recently had a book returned with dog chew marks all over the spine.  The book was withdrawn from the collection.  The customer insisted that she had borrowed the book in that condition.  A lot of times when we have empowered staff on the front desk, we are asking them to use their judgement.  And a good portion of that judgement is based on whether we believe the customer or not.

Several times a week we have customers that insist on things:  they returned the movie/book on time, they paid that fine already, the item was in that condition when they borrowed it.

I could write a book on the number of times the insistent customer was proven to be wrong.  In general we have already given in to these customers.  This is especially true if they don’t have a track record of losing/damaging items or having fines written off.

It’s a balancing act.  Customer tells us something.  We have to determine if we believe the story or not and then we determine whether to write off the fines/damaged item.   I’m always a little fascinated by the liars because they are assuming that extreme denial will get them off the hook for paying when chances are if the item is relatively inexpensive and we have other copies and the person has come to us and just honestly told us what happened, we’re going to write it off.  But lying puts us off.  Most times we might have a sense of lying but we can’t know for sure if they returned something or borrowed it in damaged condition.  But, there are times when there is NO doubt a person is lying.

In the case of the dog chewed book, what the customer didn’t know is that she was the only person to borrow that book.  We had about 25 brand new copies in my office being used to fill book club requests.  The copy she borrowed was from that pile on my office floor.  She was trying to create doubt by raising the idea that another customer had damaged the book  and she just happened to borrow it in that condition.  But, there was no other customer before her.  She was lying.

This bothers me.  It removes the opportunity to give the person the benefit of doubt.   In the end, we wrote off the damaged book because we had so many copies; but, it really bothered me that she lied so freely to us.    It is hard not to knee jerk punish her by leaving the fines on her record.  I don’t really want to be that person and I don’t want us to run our department that way.  If we had left the fines on her record it would have been to punish her for lying because in the bigger picture it was an item that was easy to write off and one we would routinely write off in different circumstances.

Each instance where a customer perspective differs with ours brings the opportunity to negotiate; but, when faced with undeniable proof, for some reason, we automatically lean towards feeling that there is no need for negotiation.  I beg to differ.  At our library we reached 1 million circulation last year.  Even if we remove renewals from the equation and had a check-in error rate of just 1% (which seems impossibly low to me), we would have 6,000 human errors.  And customers make mistakes too, they damage things; they think they returned things when in all actuality the item is in their kid’s backpack or under a car seat or stuffed behind a couch cushion.

I consider all of this part of doing business and honestly the more errors on our part and lost items on the customer’s part means that we are doing a lot business.    Any business factors loss into the budget.  At another public library, where I worked as the Fiction Librarian, we would purchase the full collection of Donald Goines paperbacks twice a year because they were stolen so frequently.  A lot of libraries would stop purchasing them; but, we felt that the cost associated with this practice was low enough and the demand for the books high enough that it was worth the loss.

We are going to encounter customers who lie; but, I believe it is in the best interest of the institution to resist automatically punishing this person and to make your decisions based on all the factors that you would ordinarily use to negotiate the outcome.

Score: You Lose. I Lose.

In my many jobs over the years in various industries I have encountered a person who I call, The Scorekeeper, in almost every single place.  The Scorekeeper spends untold amounts of energy keeping track of what others are doing.  I’ve seen scorekeepers keep track of other people’s sick days, how many hours other people were stationed on cash registers, reference desks and other service desks.   I’ve seen Scorekeepers who track how many hours other people spend in committee meetings, how much money they get to spend from acquisition budgets and how many times another person came in late, took breaks, took personal phone calls and a whole host of things that are really not their business.   I’ve even seen one scorekeeper keep track of how many treats other people took from a shared plate of brownies, cookies, bars, etc.

In personal relationships, I’ve had conversations with friends/family where they have told me about “injustices” they have encountered while keeping score on household chores, budgets, sick days, hours spent at work, time spent with children and even details of their relationships with intimate partners.

I’m am going to make a proclamation that is wholly unproven; but, substantiated by a mountain of anecdotal evidence.

Keeping score creates suffering and no one ever wins.

I know.  It may seem unfair if you are the one that ALWAYS gets up early to take the dog for a walk or at work, it may seem unfair that you have more responsibilities for the same pay as a coworker.  In the for profit sector , you could just go in to your boss’s office and ask for more money.  In the public sector, with unions and civil service rules, this is just not possible.  So, what do you do?  Stop keeping score.  Just stop.

I’m not talking about big injustices such as discrimination or illegal activity.  I’m talking about the little things that seem unfair and could drive you crazy if you let them.

I have found that where there is in imbalance not in my favor, there is frequently another imbalance that is in my favor.  In the 19 years, I was with my ex, I can honestly admit I doubt I did laundry (by myself) more than two dozen times.  That is a lot of laundry.  On the other hand, I doubt my ex made dinner for us more than six times a year, if that.   Early in our relationship, we quickly learned that keeping score benefits no one and only becomes fuel for arguments over stupid things.

The same can be true in the workplace.  The Scorekeeper in a workplace is NEVER happy.  Oh, I’m sure there are moments of happiness when they think they’ve won in some way; but, I’m going to guess that it doesn’t happen very frequently.  In most places I’ve worked, The Scorekeeper is the least happy person.  I don’t think this is a surprise.  How could they be happy?  They are constantly monitoring and measuring everything around them instead of focusing on what they can control: their own tasks and goals.

If you are a scorekeeper, I think there are a couple of things you can do to start giving up that role.

Remove the following words from your vocabulary:  “always” and “never”

If you find yourself thinking “she always….”  stop yourself.    If it’s a thought related to work, ask yourself this:  what can I do today (at work) to have a good day?  It might be that you need to feel a sense of accomplishment.  It might be that you need to get out of the building at lunch and take a walk.  Think about the things you can do to stop worrying about what your coworkers are doing and just focus on YOUR workday.  I find that list making can help.  Make a list of the things at work that are important to you.  It could look like this:

1.  finish next week’s schedule
2. check with Jane about software issues
3.  schedule community room for computer class
4.  contact potential volunteers
5.  ask Sally how her dad is doing

If you find your mind noticing that a coworker only has one hour on the reference desk and you have 3, tell yourself: this is not my concern.  That is outside my control.  I only need to be concerned with my own job duties and the things within my control.  And then think about those duties.  Think about how you are going to use your time at the reference desk.  Distract yourself from the score.   Remind yourself of how the flexibility in your workplace allows you the freedom to enjoy your work.  You will naturally gravitate towards the parts of your job you enjoy and gladly take on a bigger burden for those tasks.  I would much rather help people with computer problems than talk with people doing genealogies or researching local history. So, I handle more of those questions and I get to pass on the history questions to a colleague that enjoys those.  If we were keeping score this would not happen.

Scorekeeping in the workplace generally makes administrators/managers tighten their enforcement of rules and policies.  Life is not black and white.  It just isn’t.  There is grey in-between and sometimes grey creates judgement calls.  These sorts of tightening usually result in lose/lose/lose.  The original complainer loses.  Their coworker loses.  And management loses too because now they have to be rigid and that only ticks people off.

When I was little and my sister and I had scrapes we would, of course, mess with the scabs that formed and my mother would say:  if you keeping picking at that, you’re going to make it bleed.

That’s what scorekeeping is:  picking at something until it bleeds.

I guarantee that you will enjoy work more and be happier in general if you make a commitment to stop keeping score at work and in your personal life.

I’d rather be….

In the morning, on the way to my car, I pass another car owned by someone in my building.  It has a bumper sticker on it that says:  I’d rather be in New York.  There are actually two people in my building who have “I’d rather be…” stickers.  When I see them, I automatically think:  then go be in New York or Maine or fishing or wherever you’d rather be doing what you’d rather be doing.

Take the steps necessary to reduce this longing to be living another life.  People feel trapped by decisions they have made.  Maybe the decision is to live in Asbury Park instead of New York City because it’s cheaper or closer to family or closer to a chosen job.    Living your life with this underlying “wanting” is keeping you from being fully present in the life you are actually living.   Embrace the decisions you’ve made.

I know this seems like a simplistic answer to a complex problem; but, if you aren’t taking steps now, today, to create the kind of life you want, you will probably never realize that life.  My ex and I had the goal of creating careers and designing a lifestyle that was only dependent on one full time salary or two part time salaries.  We knew that this would provide us a freedom to leave jobs we didn’t love or explore new adventures either together or separately.  When one of us was working hard while the other was in grad school, I don’t think we ever thought: I’d rather be….because we were working towards a goal, together and that was where I wanted to be at that moment:  working towards that common goal.

My parents are in talks with each other about their expectations regarding my father’s retirement.  My mother retired a couple of years ago.  There are so many things to take into account: the age and size of their home which affects the upkeep needed, my father’s mother and their proximity to her and the work that needs to be done in order to put their house on the market if they decide to move.  My parents don’t want to go through a lifetime of accumulated stuff and figure out what to do with it; but, they understand it is part of the process to reach the end goal and so, in a weird way, cleaning the attic and basement is exactly where they want to be: taking steps towards their future.

Life presents us with a million moments where we make decisions about how, where and with whom we live.  You may feel trapped by debt, an ailing parent, children still in school or a secure job in a recession; but, you are truly exactly where you decided to be.  Look around, focus on the good, positive things and if you have to, ban the phrase “I’d rather” from your vocabulary for awhile.

Friendship and Love

I’ve been thinking about friendship, a lot.  This photo was taken yesterday in Brooklyn.  That is me and my dear friend, Grace.  I was in Brooklyn to have lunch with her and say goodbye, because she and her family are moving back to Wisconsin.  I have mixed emotions about this.  I am happy for her because it will be easier and she will have more time to spend with her husband and child and more time for making art, which is very important to her.  But, I’m sad because she will be far away and I have enjoyed being close to her again.

We met in Minneapolis and I can never remember the year because it really just doesn’t matter what year it was.  We both participated in a summer art institute at the art college.  I remember when I first saw her on that first day and I thought to myself:  she is going to be my friend.  I have those weird intuitive thoughts rarely; but, tend to believe them when they do come.  At the end of the institute, I made some goofy overture that probably sounded incredibly awkward.   Something along the lines of:  I like you and I’m wondering if you’d be interested in pursuing a friendship with me.  Needless to say, she saw something in me other than my lack of suave.

I left Minneapolis in 2006 and moved to Portland, OR to finish recovering from my accident and that must have been hard for her.  She had a toddler at home and was navigating those first years of “new mom.”   I should ask her about it.  I was still not quite myself then and I really don’t even remember our conversations about my leaving.  While I was in Portland, she and her family moved to Brooklyn, which made it immensely easier for me to move to NJ, a short train ride away.  And I know we both have enjoyed being close again.  I was here to be supportive as she grieved the death of her mom and she helped me through my initial loneliness after coming here.  Sometimes, we went long periods without actually seeing each other; but, just knowing I could hop in my car and be at her house in an hour was so comforting.

It’s an odd time in my life: I recently lost my grandfather and have been worrying about my grandmother, alone for the first time in 68 years; my best friend is going to be far from me now and something extraordinary is happening:  I’m falling in love and she is such a wonderful surprise in my life.  I know that Grace feels sad about leaving; but, I think it’s easier knowing she is leaving me in good hands and she has gotten to see the happiness settle back into my life as I have created a home for myself after drifting for a few years.  I’m always surprised by how life works: the ebb and flow.  In one day, I get to feel the sadness of loss and the beginnings of love.  And it makes me want to go out on my balcony and shout:  I love this life and all it’s crazy wonder.

Why am I talking about friendship and love on a library blog?

As we all know, it’s tax season again and in the public library world that means a test of our ability to remain patient and compassionate.  It has been difficult and my coworker and I try to remind each other of our good fortune in life and how a little extra compassion and patience is really within our capacities and we should offer nothing less.  We remind each other how lucky we are to have love in our lives and for me, friendship is such a huge building block of that.  Whether Grace is in Wisconsin or Brooklyn, I am lucky to have her in my life.  She laughs at my jokes, gives me honest critiques when I ask and when I need it, she reminds me of my goodness and the beautiful life I am capable of creating and maintaining.

It is hard to move to a new place, alone.  You have to start from scratch building a network of friends and acquaintances, people that make you laugh, drink coffee with you, invite you to a movie and who will give you the opportunity to help them if they need it.  I am in the middle of that now.  I’ve been here for a year and a half and I’m slowly inviting people into my life.  Friendship is vital to my wellness.

How do we do our jobs well if we are lonely?  How do we muster up the extra patience needed at tax time, if we don’t have a support network in place?  How do we exercise compassion for difficult patrons and coworkers if we don’t have an opportunity to spend time with people who hug us and love us just the way we are?

On this day, let’s be grateful for the extraordinary and lovely people in our lives and acknowledge how much richer we are for their presence.

Empowering Employees For Better Customer Service

I was at Whole Foods yesterday.  Ordinarily when I mention Whole Foods on this blog, I have something good to say because they do so many “right” things as far as customer service goes.  Today I have a story to share that is more typical in the retail world.

I was on my lunch hour and picking up some veggies for dinner and a cup of soup for my lunch.  While there I picked up their book of coupons and noticed a couple of products that I normally buy had some really good coupons; so, I added those to my list.  Excellent.  Save myself an after work trip and save a few bucks on things I would normally buy anyway.  Win win.

The check out process at WF is a beautiful thing.  It is rarely unpleasant even near holiday times.  The lines usually move quickly, the cashiers are friendly and well trained.  I handed the cashier the two coupons from their flyer and she rang everything up.  The problem arose when she scanned my coupons.  One of them was for a “buy one get one” promotion and the register just beeped at her.  She asked the cashier next to her about the coupon and the woman told her that they hadn’t changed anything: meaning…You have to call some sort of supervisor to bring a key, put it in the cash register and turn it in order to process the coupon.  The cashier informed me that this also happened when she had to give a discount to a person who would receive a “case discount.”  We waited and waited and waited until finally a woman came up, performed the key trick and when the cashier questioned her about the process, she was told: we asked for a change…they aren’t going to change it.

This tells me a few things.  First off, it tells me that I’m probably not the first customer bothered by this slow down.  It tells me that it is also bothersome to the cashiers because they are put in an awkward situation.  It tells me that upper management might not be listening to the folks on the front lines.  And most of all it makes me think that WFs doesn’t trust the employees.  I’ve been racking my brain to come to a different conclusion; but, why else would they have this restriction at the cash register level?  They think that their employees will abuse the “power” and give discounts or free items when they are not warranted.  I sometimes forget that WF is a giant corporation which benefits them and which is why they do things that lull us into forgetting.

But this decision is pure corporate muckety muck and a decision I’m going to assume made by people far from direct customer service.  It is most likely a decision made by a person or people who see the cashiers as an untrustworthy group and that troubles me.  It is a weakness in an otherwise customer focused service plan and in a place with generally happy employees though less happy than a couple of years ago which also makes me curious.

I have worked for corporate retail chains that didn’t trust me because I was a retail clerk and I can tell you that it does not inspire or motivate one to do a good job.  One such place I worked was an interesting experience because when I started working there they were a small chain owned by people (the original owners/founders); but, in the 4 years I was with the company, they went public and the original owners left.  In those 4 years I went from working for a company that valued and trusted employees  and had an extremely loyal and hardworking group of people working for them to one that placed little value and trust in the employees and the morale plummeted and the loyalty and hard work had almost become extinct.  It was a huge learning experience for me and a deeply sad thing to witness.

I would guess, that if quizzed, WF would tell me that there is some reason for this procedure that is not linked to a distrust of their workers…or maybe they would admit to it.  I don’t know.

All I know is that I feel a little less loyal to Whole Foods today than I was yesterday.

Join in the Fun!

On this one year anniversary of The Civil Civil Servant, I’d like to swing open the doors and invite you to join me.  I am hoping one or three! of you would be interested in contributing to this blog on a regular basis.  I’m not stepping down or interested in really, even slowing down; but, I have some personal projects in the works and it would be nice to have some help around here!

Plus, I think there is tremendous value in diverse perspectives and there’s been plenty of me around this place and now there needs to be more of you!

If interested, drop me a line with your thoughts at:


Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that has a mythical and debatable origin.  Not all Americans view Thanksgiving as a joyous, warm and loving holiday to be spent with family.  The Pilgrims, Puritans, and Separatists were not all here for religious freedom, though if memory serves, that is what I learned in school.  We actually have a bloody history with different European peoples killing each other on American soil before they finally turned their eye towards native peoples and began war after war that included genocide and land stealing.

Here we are hundreds of years later with cartoon turkeys, black Friday, family squabbling all centered around a gluttonous meal.  I know numerous people that dread extended family gatherings because of political arguments, family gossiping, disapproval of lifestyle, appearance, religion, choice in partner or because they orchestrate a giant meal with little help or thanks.

How can we make the most of this day?  I have some suggestions for things I’m going to try this year.

1.  Set your intentions right after waking.  Think about how you want the day to go and how you want to receive any unpleasantness.  Write down three things you’re grateful for having in my life.

2.  Make sure you exercise.  I’m exercising myself and my dog.  I’ll be calmer and so will  he.

3.  Be direct and honest.  If the conversation turns toward a topic sure to bring on an argument, try to steer it by being blatant:  I don’t think discussing Obama’s Health Care Plan is a very good idea.  Let’s just stick to topics that won’t start a big fight.  I’ve tried this tactic and it actually works.  There are usually a few last second comments thrown in; but, it settles it down because it is not an unreasonable request.

4.  Help the host.  Sometimes help is setting the table or cleaning up afterward and sometimes help is keeping Uncle Joe from eating all the stuffing before it’s even served or keeping Cousin Fred out of the kitchen where he is an annoying know-it-all.

4.  Steal Thanksgiving back from the history books that perpetuate a myth and from the advertisers who see it as the start of a consumer binge.  Create new rituals that give thanks and forgiveness to those you love.

5.  End your day with a stroll or some indoor quiet time and reflect on the day.  Write down 3 more things you’re grateful for.

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, enjoy it.  I am spending it with family and expect to have a lovely time and if I’m lucky, I’ll get to see the herd of wild turkeys that passes through my parent’s property in the late afternoons.  I love those turkeys.  There are sometimes up to 17 of them and they are scruffy and wild and noisy, nothing like our Thanksgiving turkeys.  I love watching them.

Karen Armstrong’s Inspired Dream: Charter for Compassion

When Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in 2008 she used her wish to call upon the TED community to help her create a Charter for Compassion.  Her dream has been realized with the birth of the TED project on November 12, 2009.

It is an interesting endeavor and one I will be watching closely.  Before the launch they released 6 videos from people of different faiths to comment on compassion.

At the very least, this awesome and inspiring project should propel us into much needed discussions in our communities.  Like kindness, I think sometimes compassion gets an eye roll or is seen as some bizarre form of weakness.

Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn’t mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what’s motivating the other, learning about their grievances.  ~Karen Armstrong

It’s time we moved beyond the idea of toleration and moved toward appreciation of the other.  ~Karen Armstrong

Spend some time thinking about compassion this week.  Tell people about this project.  Talk to your friends and family about it.  Put yourself in another’s position, think about what is motivating them, listen to their grievances.  This notion was brought home to me over ten years ago when I stumbled upon a Buddhist story about an empty boat.  In the next post, I will tell you the empty boat story and how it changed my life.