Every evening after a shift when we would sit down for dinner, my husband would ask: "what happened today? Tell us a story!" I had a story every time. Working in a public library is unlike most retail-type positions. A library card is free. The space is generally inviting, and people from every walk of life spend time there. I served people of all ages; some were obviously well-educated, there were those in designer clothes, people in rags, and ex-convicts living in the pre-release center nearby. Each person who walked through those doors was unique, each had his history, his story, his baggage.
One pre-release resident came to the desk to check out a handful of wilderness survival books. He usually hid his hands from me when he checked out books; that day he accidentally handed me the books with his knuckles showing. When he saw my gaze, and the discomfort in my response to seeing his NAZI tattoos across his fingers, he blushed.
“That was me being stupid a long time ago. I'm not that guy anymore.”
I believed him.
I care about people and sometimes that comes out in strange ways. One woman came in twice each week with her toddler in a stroller. She would dump a dozen video tapes into the book-drop, go into the children's section and fill up the stroller basket with more videos, and then come back to the desk to check them out.
With a big, genuine smile on my face, and being careful to be playful and not condescending:
“You know... we also have books here in the library.”
She looked at me, a bit puzzled at my comment. She knew me to be friendly, and my comment took her a little off-guard.
“Yes, I know. He rips them up. I don't want him ruining library books.”
“Oh yes! I appreciate that very much!”
(I walked quickly to the recently checked-in books and grabbed two small baby board books.)
“Want to try checking these out? I bet he'll like it if his older sister reads them to him.”
She included the board books in her stack of videos, finished her check-out and left. The next time I saw her at the counter, she had half a dozen videos and half a dozen board books to check out.
“Thank you for that suggestion, he loves these books! And he hasn't even tried to tear them or eat them. I think soon I can start checking out the picture books!”
Every customer matters, whether they are directly paying for a service should not influence how they are treated. You can make a difference in a person's life with the briefest interaction. If you are busy judging people by what they wear, the books they read (or don't read), or some other arbitrary observation, you lose an opportunity to share your humanity and to learn something about yourself and the world around you.
What is equally important is for members of the public to recognize the employees serving them. I have worked in the public sector for many years; the reputation doesn't fit with most people with whom I've worked. In my years working in the public sector, only a handful of colleagues resemble the reputation of being lazy, unmotivated, too comfortable, and just getting by for the paycheck. The majority of my colleagues over the years have been motivated and cared deeply for the community in which they work. They are also human, which means some days are harder to get through than others.
Remember, if you want good customer service, it helps to be a good customer.
The next time you are engaging with a public sector employee, whether that is at the public library, at the DMV, paying your utility bill, or dealing with a problem on your street, be kind. Remember that if you treat the person respectfully, you will earn an advocate to help you resolve any issues. Remember that the people with whom you interact generally do not make the rules but must follow policies & procedures. Getting angry with public sector employees for doing their jobs and following procedures (no matter how inane or archaic) is just not fair or reasonable.
Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She's also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.