Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Advocacy and Difficult Patrons

Mary Kelly recently wrote about what she calls "Time Suckers." The brilliance of that post is the idea that public libraries include the WHOLE public. We don't get to choose which patrons we will help. We don't get to treat the difficult ones differently than the easy ones. Everyone deserves the same level of help and professionalism. Patrons don't earn our help; they pay for it. We have jobs because they choose to take advantage of our services. A very smart and customer-centric librarian I know calls patrons our "bread and butter."

There are definitely librarians with better "soft skills" than others in public libraries around the country. Their social graces, friendliness, and optimism help them to smooth over tough conversations and work with difficult people. Those who lack these soft skills are more likely to revert to "I can't help you" or "We don't do that here" or "That's not allowed."

Soft skills seem to me to be partially intrinsic, or part of a person's personality. They are very difficult to teach. No matter how many customer service seminars someone sits through, if they aren't a socially graceful, friendly, or optimistic person by nature, they are likely to deal with adversity on an instinctual level. No one likes controversy. It makes us nervous and defensive.

I have experienced this lack of soft skills from the patron side, and it is very uncomfortable for both parties. I once went to a public library and asked for directions to a bed and breakfast, where I was headed for a bridal shower. It was within a few blocks of the library. (I'm not great with directions...I knew I was close, but just couldn't find it. What luck to find a public library in the vicinity!) I asked the librarian if he knew where the B&B was. He didn't look up, but just said, "No." That was all. I hovered there, stupified that the transaction was over. I was just horrified that this is the way that librarian treats his patrons. Of course I couldn't let it go. I said, "I have the address...could you ask someone else who might be familiar with the area?" He sighed, looked up, and pointed to some phone books. "Look in there." Really?

Ultimately, I got a different map from the one I came in with, and my answer (no thanks to Librarian X!). I could have been really nasty and informed him that I was a librarian and that he really should, I don't know...DO HIS JOB. I didn't. Because I have soft skills. I APOLOGIZED for taking his time, THANKED him, and moved on. All I could think of was that if he treated me, the easy patron, that way, how would he treat a difficult person?

Here's the message: Public librarians don't get to choose. We are being paid to be helpful. People who bother to ask for help in the first place, no matter how rudely, should get that help. Preferably with a smile, but at least a pleasant transaction. We have to suck it up, put on our happy face, and help them. I'm not suggesting we accept abusive behavior - there are obvious limits to what we should be forced to put up with. We don't have to allow patrons to swear at us, touch us in any way, or threaten us. Here's the thing, though: the nicer you are, the more apologetic for the situation, and the more willing to fix it, the nicer THEY are, the more apologetic THEY will become, and the more willing they will be to compromise. I swear, it works.

Those people will remember us at voting time. Those people will be nicer to us next time they come in. Those people might even mention us to their friends. Don't you love it when people say "The librarians here are always so helpful"? I do! I'm lucky to hear that a lot, and I love it. It puts all librarians in a good light, advocates for our profession and the value of the public library institution. When we are unhelpful and rude, the same things apply: they will remember us at voting time, they will be rude to us next time they are in, and they will mention us to their friends.

Look, folks, the customer is always right. Even when they are clearly wrong...they get to be right. Advocate for libraries and librarians and put your soft skills to work when dealing with the public.

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