Right then! Back from a post Masters-completion holiday, and back in the blog-saddle. One week in three, I work an evening on the Enquiries Desk, as the supervisor. As the office I work in is based in the Health Sciences Library, it is there that I face the customers - lucky for me (and for them) that it is the least busy of our sites. It is a ridiculous system, as I know nothing about customer-services at all really (apart from what I remember from my first library job; my digitisation role now has no contact with students at all) and I'm not familiar with any of the procedures, or rules, or anything. The person I 'supervise', on the other hand, normally knows EVERYTHING there is to know about all of it, and has to help me with the credit card machine etc, and generally steer me every step of the way - when the idea is supposed to be that the person on the Enquiries Desk is the great knower of all library knowledge, and the Customer Service Assistant can refer to them for the complicated queries. For every 2 hours I work front-of-house in our library, he works 105 - it is little wonder I feel foolish attempting to be the 'senior' member of staff when he knows so much more than me. (It's usually the same guy, but occasionally he or I swap with people - whoever it is I work with, they always know more than I ever will.) The idea that people like me should be 'in charge' of people far more proficient than us, just based on Grade, is hopelessly flawed...
ANYWAY. One of the central themes of my paper (.pdf) at the New Professionals Conference a few months ago, which I'll be emphasising more when I adapt it for the CILIP Graduate Day next month , is that we're only as good as our last customer interaction. In the same way that sportsman have the cliché that they're only as good as their last game, our reputation among our users is only as positive or negative as the last contact they had with us. Everyone knows, in all aspects of service, that it is very easy to make a bad impression - one off-hand or rude member of staff can quickly undo all the hard-work of nine other charming and helpful workers, and leave a customer huffing and puffing about how badly treated they were in the library (or any other customer-facing institution). So we have to be kind, courteous, helpful and basically bend over backwards to facilitate the needs of our users, every single time we work on the front-line. Regardless of how rude and annoying they are, and regardless of extenuating circumstances (bad day already, massive staff shortages, whatever) we need to remember we only exist (‘we’ being both libraries themselves and the Information Professionals who work in them) to help people. In time, that will have the biggest impact on reversing the negative perceptions people have of us, and better enabling to work with and for our customers.
I had all this in my mind when I saw a customer come over and get some document-supply request forms last time I worked an Evening Duty, about five minutes before we were due to close up the counter area for the night. Normally by five-to-seven I'd already be taking the cash from the till to the safe, shutting down the computers etc (I get really annoyed when shops close 'for' their closing time rather than 'at' it, but seem to have no qualms about doing it myself... I justify it by telling myself it is only fair to the person I'm supervising; we are, after all, only contracted to work until 7:00pm, so it would be unfair on him/her to start the lengthy closing process then. Are you convinced by that argument..?), but as the self-service machines etc are not capable of taking document-supply requests, I kept things open a while longer. By 7 o'clock, however, I'd given up on the good deed and started to put up the self-service only signs and so on, when the customer got up from his PC and hurried over. He made a worried face when he saw us retreating behind the 'closed' sign, and said, "Oh dear, am I too late?"
Reader, I hesitated for a second. Maybe not a whole second, but enough time to try and work out which train I'd have to catch home if I answered "no" to his question... and then, echoing in my head, my own words came back to haunt me - we're only as good as our last customer interaction. So I said, "no not at all, what can I help you with?"
What followed was, should they ever make a sit-com aimed solely at Information Professionals, like a scene from a sit-com aimed solely at Information Professionals. It was a comedy of complication, a seemingly never-ending perfect storm of idiosyncratic and time-consuming customer interaction. If there was something we only did one time in a million and didn’t really know how to do, he needed it done. If there was something fairly straight forward but lengthy, he wanted it done several times. He wanted no less than EIGHT document-supply items of various sorts, some from our Stores, and some to be out-sourced. Each of these required checking on the catalogue (which itself required reloading and logging in to) and paying for (we charge £2 per request, although it costs us more like £10 to satisfy each time) and signing, stamping etc. It took ages. THEN, he asked if he could get a journal out too. And it didn't have a fricking barcode! Oh the hilarity (mild, library-based hilarity) of having to painstakingly create a record for the item, on-the-fly, as train after train departed from the station without me...
All in all, the episode probably only took 15 minutes. I left by around 7:20pm, which is hardly earth-shattering. But as I sat on my (multiple stopping, much slower-than-usual) train and thought about the first half of the football which I was now missing, I felt positively saintly about what we'd done (I tried to send the other guy home but he stuck it out till the end too - good job, what with me not knowing how to do anything and all) and the customer was undoubtedly extremely grateful. Perhaps he'll tell his friends that Information Professionals these days aren't so bad... then it will all have been worth it.