There are often mysteries surrounding the policies of places we frequent.  Why do some coffee bars take names to call out drinks and others let you fend for yourself?  Why can’t you edit comments and status updates on Facebook?  Why doesn’t the public library allow members of the community to weed the grounds?

These examples seem reasonable, and yet in each, there is likely a very well thought out reason why the establishment chose one over the other.  Perhaps the coffee bar that takes names has a lot of business and employees and taking names helps the employees keep things moving.  Facebook might fear that allowing comments and status updates to be edited might lead to miscommunication.  And actually, they have softened on this a little–if you immediately try to delete a comment or status update, it will give you the option to edit it instead.  The weeding question I know the answer to and it is twofold.  First, the gardeners are master gardeners and they are in the union.  If they don’t have time to finish their job, then another gardener should be hired.  Second, volunteers often pull up more than weeds.  However, there is always room for change.  In order to make patrons happy our library has compromised and created volunteer work parties to help with weeding that are supervised by the gardeners.  There are still problems with this solution, but it complies with our union rules.

When I read On managing: Southwest – The Unstodgy Airline (PDF), I was impressed with the innovative and inclusive ways that Southwest Airlines pursued good customer service.  My initial thought was “they must not have a union.”  As I continued reading, I realized that they do, but it must be a great working relationship.  What made me question this initially was that any employee could fill almost any role in a pinch.  The article stresses the importance of letting go–this includes letting go of the preconceived idea of what your job is, whether you are a “ramp agent” or a stewardess, and doing whatever is necessary to make sure things run smoothly for the customer.

A lot of times at the library, our job descriptions get in the way of this type of customer service.  Librarians can be elitists, and so can clerks.  I’ve seen librarians who will not process a library card application even though the queue is long at the clerk’s desk and I’ve heard clerks refer shelf checks to librarians even though they are busy with reference questions.  While one can make many arguments why one should not do the job of the other, it doesn’t create a good customer service experience and leaves the patron with a bad memory of the library.  A customer service orientated, innovative employee can assess a situation and make the best choice and they should have the freedom to do so.

If it is happening all the time, that is another story.  Then the institution needs to make a change and provide more of one or the other type of employee to meet demand.

The problem as I see it is that emphasis hasn’t been made to differentiate between the two situations with staff.  We get stuck in the rut of “following the rules” to such a letter that it becomes an excuse.  It is easy to get focused on our position and our job and not see the situation in front of us, and I know I have been guilty of this myself.  The realization that I have given less than excellent customer service because I am distracted or in a mood is disappointing.  It usually comes a few seconds after my interaction with the patron.  I’ve learned from these disappointments not to be so quick to pass a customer on to another staff member.  My goal is to be aware of this and to react to the situation the right way the first time.