Those working in customer service will inevitably witness this perplexing performance: the adult tantrum.
If you work in a restaurant, it's a regular occurrence (perhaps hunger strips decades from our maturity). It might be a rarer sight in other industries, but we should still be prepared for it, just like the parent who knows her sweet baby will one day hit the terrible twos and is wise to have her tips, tricks and techniques at the ready for when disaster eventually strikes in the middle of the grocery store.
In the grand scheme of things, we have it easy in libraries. Our customers aren't completely "customers"; they are patrons of an institution, while we, the library staff, are the stewards of that institution's collections, so a sense of community imbues interactions more often than not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, patrons are gracious. And, most of us, having entered into the profession in order to, at least in part, help people, love doing just that.
Oh, but that one percent.
Thankfully many librarians are practically patron-whisperers. Their sheer presence is enough to pacify the most irate individual. I've had several bosses and colleagues with this magical power, and watching their diplomacy, goodwill and patience in action was like taking a master class in patron service.
It's a tricky business though, because we must strike an extremely delicate balance between providing service and enforcing rules. We must be welcoming and helpful while protecting the collection and the greater good of the library. We must smile while we shush. Ask if there's anything we can help with while confiscating your open beer bottle.
Our techniques for handling the odd tantrum must be honed for this very particular dynamic. From an institutional perspective it helps to hire people-whisperers, those blessed with poise and imperturbability (for example, the American Midwest is a hotbed of such individuals), right off the bat. But, even if someone's not so naturally gifted, we can still learn how to diffuse challenging service situations.
But first, certain conditions should be in place at the library.
At one of my first library jobs, a patron, frustrated at having to produce his student ID in order to enter the library, threw his card in the face of the student staff member who was manning the entrance. The staff member was stunned silent. My boss watched this interaction, strolled over, and with a voice as soothing as warm honey, explained to the card-flinging student that this was his first and last warning and if he ever abused a library staff member again, he would lose his library privileges for life.
My boss's calm demeanor, coupled with firmness, took the student from recalcitrance to contrition in five seconds. Of course, he was one of those bosses with special powers. But, for the staff, just knowing that he supported us was enough to give us confidence in our ability to handle such interactions. We felt protected by the institution to do our jobs.
Along the same lines, drawing boundaries helps. At another library we developed a Patron Code of Conduct, providing clear guidelines on proper behavior, just in case. It was rarely used, but it helped staff know how they should expect to be treated (for example, no cards should be flung at any faces). It gave us peace of mind so that, in the moment, we could manage a difficult patron with steadiness and ease.
Of course, how we handle those tricky tantrums, outbursts or just plain old naughtiness depends upon the situation, but here's a sampling of techniques:
"The Empath" - At the circulation desk a patron is yelling because he needs a book for a paper due today. Not tomorrow. TODAY. With empathy (the greatest tool in the arsenal of the customer servant) we feel for the guy, knowing his frustration is probably about something bigger than the unavailable book. We don't have to know what, but we recognize that he's just human, and with a little compassion, we might be able transform his bad attitude. "The Empath" is the perfect antidote to taking things personally.
"The Silent Treatment" - Sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop the woman stomping and storming out of the restaurant. We know, as she will probably realize, that her behavior stinks like last week's turnip soup.
What we would like to say:
- It's time out for you!
- Go to your room!
- You're going to sit in a corner and think about your behavior!
- You've just lost your soup privileges for a month!
"Cloak of Invisibility"- an extension of "The Silent Treatment". Both parties pretend that the outburst never happened. That way the customer can return the next day and ask for the soup specials without embarrassment.
"Good Cop/Bad Cop" or "Blame the Policy"- A classic. You're just enforcing the policy. It's your boss who is the bad guy (your boss is in on this). If someone is shouting about the library's entrance policy, you can shrug (empathetically), wave a copy of the written rules and refer them to your friendly-but-tough boss.
"The Information Deluge"- I worked with a staff member who was brilliant at diffusing situations simply by explaining the intricate minutia of the library's policies and procedures. Boredom quickly eclipses anger.
"The Sneak Attack" - Rather than showing his ID, a man gives the attendant a dirty look, hurdles over the turnstile and sprints into the library. Instead of running after him in a game of inappropriate library flag football, we wait. Eventually he comes to check out a book, and we say, "Sir, your hurdle is impressive, but I'm afraid I have to insist that you show your ID next time." He sheepishly agrees to leave his track workouts outside.
We're probably all guilty of bad behavior from time to time. Bad moods descend on even the sunniest personalities, and unfortunately, sometimes other people get the brunt of it. Hopefully most of us have left our public tantrums back in our toddlerhood, but we can still find some compassion for the foot-stomping patron.
In customer service, it can be a challenge to maintain your humor, patience, empathy and faith in humanity. But, if we feel supported by our institutions, if we know that we should expect to be respected, we can stay neutral and not take things too personally. We won't be daunted by the rare tantrum and can enjoy the ninety-nine percent. And keep in mind that the best stories come from the stompers and yellers and hurdlers.