ASSOCIATES (2008, November, v. 15, no. 2)


charlescl.gifC. Leslie Charles

A formal statement about customer/client service from Leslie Charles:

In my mind, the worst kind of service is lip service. Because it ranges
from no service to faux service, let’s call it “Lyp” service. Lyp service
is unforgivable because everyone knows better: the organizational
leaders, the supervisors or managers, and the service specialists
themselves. In fact, I’ll go to extremes and call it APOCALYPSERVICE
because it ends up being a blowout on both sides of the transaction—
from the person providing the service to the one receiving it. Be warned.
Be armed. Defend yourself against this scourge. Oppose Apocalypservice.
Don’t let your service bomb!

The Avoiding Apocalypservice Series

Problem Customers—or Customer Problems?

I parked my car, grabbed the box filled with workbooks, markers, extra handouts, and pens, shuffling into the adult education building where my workshop would be held. Just inside the door, next to a set of stairs was a sign, saying that my program was in room 202. I walked up the double flight of stairs, figuring a little more exertion wouldn’t hurt, but at the top of the stairs, I discovered I was now on the third floor. Breathless and confused, I wondered how this happened, knowing I had entered through the main door. Arms full, lungs working once again, I schlepped back down the stairs to classroom 202.Later that day, I met the building manager. In an attempt to check my perceptions about my early morning mistake, I asked him, “When people come into this building looking for their classrooms, is anyone ever confused about where they should go?” His answer was, “It happens all the time.”Think for a moment about whether you have similar situations in your library that “happens all the time”? Do you often find yourself wanting to grit your teeth, as you endure those “déjà vu” customer complaints that never seem to end? Do you frequently think, “If I hear this one more time today, I think I’ll lose my mind!”? If you nodded your head at the words “often” and “frequently,” this is a clue.

A Complaint is Merely Feedback

Truth be told, part of your job is listening to customer complaints, and no will ever say this is the fun part of being gainfully employed. As you know, having to face unhappy people or needing to solve their problems is part of your job, but of course, knowing that doesn’t always make it easier. However, the following ideas might.

Perhaps you have your own personal list of “Cranky Customers from You-Know- Where,” the ones you wish would miraculously go MIA, but that ain’t gonna happen. Granted, there are a few hard core cases, like the 12 year old library patron who whined, “Look, you’re here to give me what I ask for—after all, my parents help pay your salary!” But let’s let God sort out those types.

Instead, here’s a good question to ask yourself about the people who lodge complaints: “Is this person a problem customer or is this a customer with a problem?” Too often, we don’t make the distinction, but taking the time to determine the person’s motivation—or the legitimacy of their message (even if their way of conveying it is lacking) can help keep you hang onto your sanity, and keep your service from going Apocalyptic.

Why Live With the Problem?

Maybe it’s because I was teaching a customer service class that day, but I couldn’t get the words “It happens all the time” out of my mind. That afternoon as I was all packed up and ready to leave, there was the building manager, standing in the lobby. I stopped and said, “Forgive me for asking, but if people are constantly confused about which floor their classroom is on, have you ever thought about putting up a sign to help them figure out where they need to go?”

There was a long pause, and with a sheepish look on his face, he said, “I have. But I’ve never been able to figure out how to phrase it so I don’t sound like an idiot.” This time, I was the one who paused. Fascinating! It was insecurity, not apathy that had prevented him from solving this problem! So then suggested, “After listing all the classroom assignments for the day, how about adding a line at the bottom of the sign that says ‘You are on the second floor.’” His eyes brightened. He nodded, then smiled, and walked away still nodding.

Join Forces, Enlist Your Customers: Share the Pain

Sometimes we choose to live with problems because we don’t know how to fix them, or we think it’s someone else’s problem. Other times, we’re not sure the issues can be fixed, or we don’t think we have time to work on the issue, so we choose to live with it. But sometimes we blame our customers for complaining about the very glitches, inconveniences, or issues we wish would magically go away. The problem though, with repetitive problems, is that you never know when someone will trip over them.

Here’s the reality: nobody benefits from the mine field approach of avoidance, so I suggest that you go to extremes to make your systems as smooth as you can, for yourself, and for those you serve.

Sometimes a problem can be solved easily, and other times it takes some thought and creativity (or outside intervention, such as the building manager’s personal dilemma of how to phrase the sign). But if there’s a repeated situation that periodically raises its raggedy little head, it helps to ask, “How can we eliminate this frequent complaint?” If there is absolutely no way it can be fixed, then you have no options for modification.

But you can at least “join forces” with your customers by letting them know that this cumbersome process is beyond your ability to do anything about it. You can empathize and state that you’re not real happy about asking them to be inconvenienced, either. Once the customer understands the circumstances, they will most likely be more accepting.

Fix the Problem—Don’t Fix the Blame

When you listen to complaints patiently and objectively (rather than getting defensive or taking remarks personally), your positive and open attitude can serve you in more than one way. It can make you more receptive to ideas for correcting issues that cause inconvenience or frustration. It can help you get past the words and into what is really being said. Occasionally ask yourself, “What is this person really telling me about myself or about our system?” even if they aren’t phrasing their complaint in the most tactful or wonderful way.

Even if you can’t eliminate the problem, is there something you can do to reduce the amount of complaints you get? I mean, why choose to live with a system flaw that can cause your customers (and you) irritation and frustration from the get go? Hey, work is hard enough some days; why willfully allow a preventable issue to blast away your enthusiasm?

I once offered a series of programs for medical office managers and their staff. One of the most common problems that would inevitably come up was the amount of time patients had to spend in the waiting room and examining room. By the time patients saw the doctor they were cranky. Of course, they didn’t complain to the doctor, but they let their feelings be known to any of the staff that came within earshot.

I would then tell my groups about seeing a sign on the wall in a waiting room as I cooled my heels in one doctor’s office. It said something like this: “Thank you for your patience as you wait to see the doctor. We like to give our patients the time they need. Please know that you will receive all the time and attention you need when it’s your turn.”

Go to Extremes in Problem Prevention

What are the most frequent complaints you receive from your customers or patrons and what can you do about them? “Nothing” is an unacceptable answer. Get creative. Be persistent in your problem solving. Brainstorm with your work team about how you can prevent complaints, reduce inconvenience for customers, and make your system smoother for everyone (that includes you) so that the service you are offering is more than Lyp service.

A Few Blinding Flashes of the Obvious

• Your job may not be in circulation, but if you have any kind of public exposure to patrons, periodically remind yourself that your customers don’t care if you’re having a bad day, and frankly, your issues may pale in comparison to some of the problems they’re dealing with.

• Put the friendly, outgoing “people oriented” staff in circulation or interactive parts of your library.

• If you must have voice mail in your library (knowing that most people hate it), make sure your prompts follow the Rule of Expediency: put the most frequent customer transactions in the beginning of the queue and the least frequently needed items at the end so the average caller doesn’t have to wait so long.

• When almost every customer you deal with asks you the same question because they think you’re the only one who knows, hold onto your perspective. It may be your 40th time hearing it, but it’s their first time asking it.

• Let your sense of humor come to work with you every day and laugh appropriately (with people, not at them), as often as possible, for stress relief. A woman in one of my classes once had such a rough day she answered a phone call with the words, “Hello, how may you help me?” Her customer, all prepared to rant on his end of the line, roared with laughter and so did she. It was exactly what both of them needed.

• Accept reality. It’s called S-E-R-V-I-C-E and customer service requires interacting with people, some of whom are struggling with serious issues in their personal lives.

• Cultivate the art of resilience. Years ago, long before it was such a trendy topic in our society, the subject of stress came up in one of my seminars. An administrative assistant said, “Here’s how I handle stress: I keep a rubber ducky on my desk. When I have a stressful moment I look at my ducky and silently remind myself that just as water rolls off a duck’s back, stress will roll off mine.”

• Continually remind yourself that while other people can ruin your moment, only you can ruin your day.

Serving is About People; Serving is About Serving

When it comes to dealing with people, here’s a saying that’s worth remembering, “You are unique, just like everyone else.” Every customer wants to feel special or important. Every person wants to be acknowledged whether it’s on the phone or in person, whether they are just walking into a building or waiting for their turn to be served. They want timeliness and convenience. They want to be treated in a friendly fashion. Customers don’t want to be ignored. They don’t want to be patronized. They just want to be served.

Make Your Service Extremely Excellent

You know that attitude or outlook has a tremendous influence on how you perceive a person or situation. The more objective or rational you are, the more effectively you can problem solve, the better off you’ll be in dealing with everyday problems or snarky situations. And all the easier it will be to eliminate some of those pressure cooker moments, or at least take some of the steam out of them.

My hope in writing this article is that you’ll buff up your skills in being able to separate the problem from the person. Yes, you’ll always have a few problem customers, but as a friend of mine once said, “Don’t let other people make you nuts. Don’t give them that much power over your choices.” Your job is to serve, not go off the deep end. Consider which will serve you better in a given situation—blowing up or blowing it off.

Fix the Problem, Don’t Fix the Blame

From now on, note how frequently you hear the same complaints and find out if your coworkers are experiencing the same frustrations. Join up with your colleagues and brainstorm how the irritating circumstance can be eliminated. You can at least take the edge off the offending incident by addressing it before your customer does. The problem solving steps may take a little time, but as you know, problem prevention and irritation reduction will result in your having a better time at work.

In a recent program for the Dayton Public Library, we discussed how our society is currently in a state of social, financial, and cultural flux, and there are many personal repercussions. People get worried, angry, resentful, and self-protective with so many things around them feeling out of control. Instead of letting negative emotions, fear, or insecurity drive your actions, pull out your inner reserves and personal best practices. Rally your hope, optimism, and compassion for yourself and others. Make a personal commitment to keep yourself in a rational state of mind instead of running amok with worry or negativity. Focus on being “of service” at work, at home, and even in between.

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by this practice. Having an exceptional attitude and a high level of enthusiasm requires focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong. Acceptance and perspective help you exceed your own expectations and naturally become a service expert. Enhance your service by blending patience, creativity, and perseverance. These traits go a long way in smoothing out the wrinkles in an otherwise pretty workable system.

Fix the problems instead of the blame, and you’ll have less stress. You’ll be more productive. Your workday will feel shorter and your mental fuse will be longer. Work will be more fun, less frustrating, and more fulfilling. Those are the results when service becomes a way of life, a way of being. Why settle for Lyp service when you can give the real thing, and get more back than you ever expected? Gee, who could ask for more than that?

Leslie Charles is a certified library technician turned award-winning professional speaker and nationally acclaimed author who actually practices the concepts presented in her seminars and books on customer service, stress, and attitude. Leslie has enjoyed two recent successes. On the professional front, her book, Bless Your Stress, won an Honorable Mention at the New York Book Festival. On the personal side, Leslie now holds the disc golf world distance record in her age category. She is listed on the World Flying Disc Federation site ( under World Records.Permission is granted to reproduce this article as long as this byline is included.