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PO blues

Public service has turned me into a difficult customer. I have high expectations and I’m totally unapologetic about it. I’m very understanding when the computer’s slow, when the receipt printer flakes out, when it’s super busy and everyone’s running as fast as they can. I get it: it’s my life, too. But, boy, do I get cranky when I have to jump through a company’s hoops just because that’s the way they do it.

Recently, I made a trip to the Post Office to pick up an awkwardly shaped package (a poster from Tiny Showcase). My usual Post Office is not the package-holding place, because it is itty bitty. I’m fine with that, because I’m sure it makes the overall system more efficient, but I know the people at the itty bitty post office and they’re nice and very helpful. I like my Post Office.

I like my PO even more after my adventure to the Post Office that Customer Service Forgot.

Since I was not familiar with this Post Office, I waited in line to find out that packages are picked up at the window in the outer lobby, and that there is a bell to ring for assistance. I went to the window, where another person was already waiting so I did not ring the bell, which was my first mistake. A postal worker helped the person in front of me and indicated that someone would come along to help me.

A few moments pass and another person sees me- I made eye contact and smiled. She called back to someone else “are you helping this lady?” and I heard an affirmative reply. She gestured behind her and displayed universal “someone will be right with you” body language. No problem.

Several minutes later, I decided to be a jerk and ring the bell.

The bell is a serious bell. It’s one of those metal wall bells that I remember from elementary school because I was always desperate to be in my classroom when it rang. I could feel it causing permanent damage to my underage eardrums. It’s loud. It’s startling. It’s sure to get me my package.

The next several people to pass by did not make eye contact. I contemplated ringing the bell again, but it seems simultaneously too loud and too passive. I thought about employing the “mess around with stuff and look confused” method that causes assistance to materialize in stores (and libraries), but there’s no one to see me and the only things I could reach were a wall calendar and some scrap paper. And the button for the bell.

I wonder if maybe I’m invisible. That would be cool.

The window isn’t so much a window as a window in a door. The door was locked on my side, but I realized that I could just reach in and open the door. Two more people passed without looking at me, even though I moved around to catch their eye. Dancing in the post office window seemed like a serious loss of dignity, so I opened the door.

Like most warehouses, there were paths marked with bright yellow tape. I followed one until someone asked me what I was doing. “I need to pick up a package.”

My package was instantly found and I was hustled back to the door. The scanner couldn’t scan the package, though, because the barcode wraps around it. There is no way to manually punch in the bar code on the handheld scanner. I was told to go back to the inner lobby, where it can be scanned. The window was shut and locked behind me.

The scanner in the inner lobby was also unable to read the barcode. Again, there was no way to manually punch in the barcode.

After a couple of minutes of attempted scanning, I was given a card and told to write out the barcode (which was longer than 14 digits) and write my address underneath. On the other side of the card, I was told to sign my name, print my name and write my address again. Finally, I had my package and could go on my merry way.

The entire experience was designed to make the user seem broken or inept. I’m not expecting a Danny Meyers experience, just basic functionality. I know it’s possible. My PO of choice is filled with people who help their users navigate the very unfriendly rules and regulations put in place by the postal powers that be.

Plenty of organizations have a lot of rules that the front lines staff are unable to bend or break. Fine, but without the staff to act as a buffer between users and rules, they just seem punitive, even if they’re very reasonable.

Tell me, readers, do you find that public service has raised your expectations of other service-sector workers? Prior to working in libraries, I think I would have rolled my eyes, grumbled a little and thought nasty things about the people working there (okay, I did think a few mean things about the people working there).

Now, though, all I can see is a broken system- why put the onus on the customer to navigate the multiple service points? Why isn’t there a communication system between the service points (like, say, a phone)? Why, oh why, doesn’t the barcode scanner allow for manual entry? The PO I visited is still operating as if it’s the only game in town. Its lingering monopoly is still enough to keep a broken system barely held together. Maybe the people working there are at their wits’ end with the broken system hanging around their necks, but they seemed more interested in guarding their antiquated modes of operation.

I worry that too many libraries are taking the spit and sealing wax approach to their service models. But I suspect there are more library workers ferreting out ways to make their patrons’ library experience wonderful despite any busted-up systems they’re dragging around behind them. When we find ourselves appalled by the customer serivce of another organization, do we stop and think about how our libraries can avoid the same trap?

Working like a patron can start anywhere, even the Post Office.


4 comments for “PO blues”

  1. Yikes! They could make extra money hosting public service ‘how not to’ training experiences.

    Yes, providing customer service in many settings has made me much more demanding of and more appreciative of good service. In my first jobs (in the hotel world) I was lucky enough to work for a boss who was all about customer service. He noticed when we were providing it and rewarded us and encouraged us. It was a great training ground for eventually working in libraries. If only some FPOW had that same attitude.

    Work like a patron day! Yes. Every day should be that.

    Posted by pollyalida | October 13, 2008, 3:30 pm
  2. As my husband says, “Watch out, careless grocery baggers, Jen’s on her way through…” My formative years behind the circ desk have made me MUCH more demanding about good service, and aware of both the good and bad in service industries. And I think that’s a good thing; if we as customers/consumers don’t hold people accountable for good service, who will? And isn’t the world a nicer place when we all deal with each other with care and respect and a smile?

    Posted by jenica | October 28, 2008, 10:46 am
  3. I’m so glad it’s not just me! It seems like so many of us have backgrounds in hotels, retail, restaurants. I used to think that the common thread for many librarians was the draw to daily variety, but maybe we’re all people people (cue the Streisand).

    Posted by kate | November 2, 2008, 7:53 pm
  4. […] met at OCLC and PALINET is smart, dedicated, and helpful. My guess is that it’s more like Kate Sheehan’s post office story in which her attempt to pick up a package left her feeling “broken or inept.” That’s […]

    Posted by A Useful Amplification of Records That Are Unavoidably Needed Anyway | In the Library with the Lead Pipe | November 19, 2008, 3:55 pm

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