Sunday, September 11, 2016

Taking pity

Many of the great experiences any of us have had with customer service have come when someone took pity on us. It can be easy to appreciate a great customer service person who cleverly helps us with all kinds of things and makes our experience positive, but when everything is going wrong, when we're having a miserable time with the blithely monstrous companies we all deal with, and there seems to be no way out, and suddenly the person we're dealing with takes pity, that can change everything. We're suffocating. There is no air. And the person says "There is this window. I'm not really supposed to open it, but..." And they throw open the window so that a gust of pure, fresh air hits us and we can breathe again. Our fine is waived, our account is cleared, the problem is resolved. And so, everything is changed.

As a person working in customer service I know the feeling of the switch that is taking place. I know that feeling of taking pity. I am holding to something, usually a rule or a policy, but sometimes to the sense of my own authority. We are all muscle so that even our souls have muscles, and those muscles tend to clench, and remember, and hold things back. Sometimes a light comes and we think, I can just let this go.

Of course, it's not that simple.

There are competing interests. I can take pity on a family who has thirty dollars in late fees, but if they are in the wrong, or, perhaps better, if they are responsible, I am also taking away something from the library and even something from some of the lost in the shuffle people who perhaps had to frustratingly wait for those items to come back for far longer than they should have. Pity has to be tempered with justice. Pity has a weight.

But the weight and value of pity can be a useful tool. If some abrasive person desperately needs to renew a book they have out, and they're telling me that no one has requested it and it's ridiculous and stupid that they can't have it again, but it has reached our generous maximum renewals limit, and so I cannot renew it, that is not the end of it. We can always take a look. We know enough of how things work to be able to see to the truth in just a few seconds. So let's see: 

1. I do not like that my or the library's authority is being challenged.

This has no value to this because it affects nothing in the library. I can let it go.

2. The patron desperately needs the book to finish a report they're working on.

That does seem pretty important, and the fact that they are arguing for it, even if inelegantly, is not an unreasonable measure of their strong need.

3. I would have to break the explicit instructions of my supervisors and the library's  management team.

I would not be breaking any rules out of self interest, or willfully. It is almost impossible for me to be caught and the repercussions would be very minor in such an unlikely event of discovery anyway. And I am a person first, an agent of the library second, and only an employee third.

3. We increased our maximum renewal limit to two, allowing for three full check out periods. We did this under the idea that that is enough, and under the understanding that books need to spend time on our shelves and be available for browsing. We did this under the idea that it would then be a strict limit. 

Fair enough. But no one wants this book. We have so many books on our shelves that we are occasionally forced to weed books that we really shouldn't be weeding, and the effect this book's absence will have on the browsable quality of our shelves will be minuscule. The patron's insistence that our policy here is ridiculous is not entirely correct, nor informed, nor deeply thoughtful. But in the particular situation it is basically true.

So I take pity. And I say "I can never renew a book for you three times, but nevertheless, as a one time thing, I have renewed this book for you again."

Because while policies and rules are useful and even comforting, they cannot ever cover even the barest tenth of the ground we walk on in this world. There is no rulebook long enough to ever take account of the vast diversity of the library, of humanity, and the world. Even the immutable laws of god and nature ever fail to cover everything. Even the deepest laws of the Universe are sometimes broken. 

We call those miracles.

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