ASSOCIATES (vol. 8 no. 3, March 2002) -

*Customer Service: Corporate vs. Civil Service
An Outside, Almost In View*


Maggie Braun
MLIS Program
Valdosta State University

I sit here at my computer this evening to reflect on the past six months of my life. I have been through some exciting times! In March of this past year, I was hired as a Clerk I for a very large library system in North East Florida. I was excited about this new job as a Clerk because I had recently submitted my application for Graduate School at Valdosta State University in Georgia for their brand new Library Information Science program. The clerk position, I assumed, would make a wonderful experience in my quest to become a librarian. I knew that my ten years of experience in guest services would prove beneficial to me in my new job.

Ten years seems like a vast amount of time in the field of customer service, in fact, I was "raised" on customer service so to speak. You see, ten years is the entire length of time that I have been in the work force. At the age of 18, right out of high school, I procured my first "real" job as a cashier for a large discount office supply warehouse in Orlando, FL. I was in love with my first job. I have always loved pens, pencils, jumbo trombone clips, file folders and desk accessories. So to work for the office supply warehouse was perfect. I had all the gadgets in the office world all around me. How bright I felt when I had the ability to tell the customer that the fax machine that he wanted was top of the line with all the new bells and whistles! I prided myself on my customer service skills; after all, I treated every customer like I would want to be treated. Soon enough, I knew almost all of our repeat customers by their names and could even anticipate some of their needs. I spent three wonderful years there.

Prior to leaving the office warehouse, I was offered a part-time seasonal job at one of the premier theme parks in the world: Universal Studios Florida! I thought that I had hit the jackpot. Here I was in between semesters with two part-time jobs! Both of which were centered on the idea of customer service. But sad enough, the new semester started and there was no way I was going to be able to handle two jobs and full time school. On what I thought would be the day that I would turn in my two-week notice to Universal Studios, I was offered a full-time position with a guarantee that they would work around my school schedule. I felt that it was time to leave the office supply warehouse. I knew that Universal Studios had many, many more opportunities for me. Sure enough, I spent six wonderful years there.

I learned many things about business at Universal Studios. One very important lesson was this: my job was guest relations no matter what my tasks and responsibilities of the day. This was a great lesson to learn because I had started in one of the most grueling physical jobs ever: wheelchair and stroller rental. There is something to be said about having to smile at the last customer in the park as they hand you their stroller two hours after the park has closed. All you want to do is go home take a hot shower, get the grime and sweat off of you but you still manage to say, with a smile in your heart and on your face: "Thanks for coming, hope you enjoyed your visit."

The second lesson that I learned was that the customer is always extremely important. I hesitate to say always right because I have been in many situations where they are not. BUT I did treat the erring customer as if they were right; as I gently explained the error and misunderstanding I've had my share of wild and wooly customers but in retrospect, I did good. I also learned other things at Universal Studios Florida especially the nuances of customer service. The reason why customer service is such a priority in the theme park business is because the customer is the entire reason why we are there. Theme parks are there to entertain the customer and part of the entertainment is the service that is provided. I did my fare share of customer service. The last position that I held at Universal Studios was that of Guest Services Coordinator.

As a Coordinator, life was marvelous. I had the responsibility to take care of customers, who after having bad experiences in the park, came to complain. I loved it! I was the point in which a bad experience could be turned into a great vacation that would be remembered for years to come! What a rush of excitement it was to talk to a mom or dad, who were mad about this or that, as the children sulked on the couch, wanting nothing more than to go and see King Kong. Nothing suited me better than the thank you that I would receive from a frustrated adult when I magically solved their problem and sent them on their way. Life was grand.

All the while, I was still continuing my education at the local university. Times and circumstances change, I met a Navy boy and married him. I moved from Orlando to Kingsland, GA. During this transition, I finally decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my working career. I still wanted a job where customers were important. I have always loved books and learning but did not want to teach. So when I heard about the new Library Information Science program at Valdosta State, I knew that I wanted to be a librarian. I also knew that it would be a good idea to at least work in a library before jumping headfirst into the unknown.

When I was hired, the emphasis placed on my experience as a customer service oriented person was great! The Human Resources agent was also interested in my pursuit of an MLIS degree. However, the large metropolitan library system was not my first choice for place of employment. Being in a bit of removed area of South East Georgia, I tried my local libraries first. Both of which did not have the resources available to provide a paying position. I then traveled 30 or so miles due north to try for placement in another county. I encountered the same situation, not hiring at that point in time. Again, I travel about 30 miles due west to another neighboring county, no leads. All in all, I tried five libraries within 35 miles of my home. Then I decided that the trek to the metropolis south of my home would probably be the one. Sure enough, I was hired.

In my research into work places, one theme came to mind. I was not impressed overall with the customer service presented. Most clerks that I met, for they were the ones manning the desks most often when I approached, were not overtly enthusiastic about their work. As a corporate trained customer service person, I paid particular attention to the interaction between the workers and the customers. Overall, the librarians at the help desks were average. I had to remember after all, that I worked in what most people would consider a glamour and glitz job for six years. I had to be careful of my assessment of the situation. The atmospheres that I was observing were extremely subdued. After all, it was a library and I do remember on several occasions being shushed by a librarian who always knew the appropriate time to glance over at my friends and me.

I started to work in the city and all went very well. I could tell that there were differences in customer service styles amongst my colleagues. I could see areas that needed improvement. My main goal again was to gain experience. I did my part and did not relent from my idea of customer service. I grew to know a handful of our customers by their names. I even gained a group of customers who would stand in line until my workstation was cleared before they would come to check out items. Out of the 60,000 plus volumes a month at our regional library in the city by the bay and the one or two minutes that these customers were in front of me, they were the only other people in the entire universe. And my efforts helped improve my colleagues' skills as well. By example, I was able to help my colleagues boost their relationships with the customer. After all, customer service is indeed based on relationships. In the library, the clerk has but a few short moments to establish a positive relationship with a customer. Those positive relationships will help the clerk in performing their duties not only for the customer, but also for themselves and their fellow coworkers.

I first thought that my assessment of the few libraries were due to the dynamics in which I was trained. However, I did try my hand at a little experimentation. Before I met lots of people in the library system, I had the opportunity to visit some of the other branches and regionals in the city. I also noticed that on average, the customer service was lacking across the board. I then went back to the five closest libraries to my hometown. I made an effort to note what I was witnessing. Out of those five, the one that impressed me the most was the county library on the island just south of my hometown. These people had the positive customer service relationship. With in seconds of walking in through the front door, someone said Hi and asked if I needed help finding anything. I don't believe they had a greater at the door but it sure felt like they did.

I then took my experiment on the road. Due to the requirements of my first semester at VSU I was able to travel to other locations in Florida and Georgia. I was able to visit four academic libraries, one each in Jacksonville, FL, Orlando, FL, Macon, GA, and Valdosta, GA as well as three branches of the Orlando Public Library, one branch of the Macon Library System, and one branch of the Gwinnett County Library System. Including my five vicinity libraries, I asked standard questions at each of these libraries. I asked those people who were designated as librarians as well as those that appeared not to be librarians. These are the questions that I asked:

1. Where is the restroom? ( A general direction question)

2. Where might I find Shel Silverstein? (A reference question, usually in 811s; children's)

3. What do I need in order to get a library card at this location? (Usually considered, an operational question)

4. I then tried to check out a book without a card

In all the libraries, both the support staff that I approached and the librarians were well informed. All could either answer the question such as the general questions or, in the case of asking the reference question to support staff; they directed me to the librarians. In only one library did I find a person of great offense. Within the same system that I was employed, I approached a support staff member to check out a book. I was not easily identifiable as an employee of the same system. I did not have my card readily available, although I did have a card in the system. When I approached, the clerk was on the phone. I thought at first that the person was helping a customer. But while listening to the conversation and waiting for it to end, I realized that the person was talking to a friend or relative.

After being motioned to the counter, I handed over the book for check out but did not produce my card. Without missing a beat in the conversation, she looked up at me and said "I need your card." I fumbled around and then produced my driver's license for identification. Continuing her conversation, she took my identification and entered in the information to look up my account. While talking, she checked out my book, handed me my book and identification, said "November 23rd," then continued flawlessly back to the conversation on the phone. I was appalled. Never had I seen such disregard for the customer. Even by subdued standards, this was total disregard for customer service. I then did a bit of investigation without revealing my purposes and found out that this person was a Support Staff Supervisor and had been with the library system for over 20 years! To say that I was shocked was an understatement. I can't remember in all my recollection of ever coming across a situation like this one. I guess that I have been lucky. Being a "newbie" there was no way for me to report my findings to anyone. In my further investigation of this particular person, it was found that she was treated with almost revered status and was within five years of retirement. No one was going to listen to me.

I had to remember that I was there in the first place to gain experience in the realm of library. I did accomplish my goals. I gained a bit of insight into the operations of the library. I became aware of the differences in policy and procedures in many library systems. I was able to correlate my previous experience in the corporate world with that of the civil servant. And after much consideration and thought, I decided that fulltime graduate work and full time work were not for me.

So for now, I remain on the outside with a brief glance from the inside. I will continue my coursework at Valdosta State University toward my goal of graduation with an MLIS in Children's Library Services. I am grateful that I was able to spend six months at the library and walk away with added experience.

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