Tag Archives: customer service

About Customer Service

2 Mar

Once I was covering the phones on a Sunday at an instructional technology help desk. I got a call.

“I have a problem,” said the person on the other end, and he began to describe his experience. It was a basic problem, and I knew before he even said three words how to fix it.

The person was talking a lot more than was necessary, but who doesn’t do that? What are we to do, talk to each other in beeps like R2D2? I waited patiently. When he gave me a place to talk, I told him in the most direct way I could how to fix the problem. “You just need to click the button at the bottom of the screen,” said I. (Or something equally simple).

There was a pause, and he said, “but I had this problem.” And he told his story again. As he was talking I reflected. Is he describing to me again the very problem we just solved, and even using the very same words? He was indeed. Had he not heard the solution? Apparently he had not. Maybe I hadn’t been clear? Or maybe I had been too pithy! Maybe I needed a little more narrative, I thought. A little more humanity. So when I was given a space in which to talk, which took a while, I took another approach.

“I think I understand your problem. I’ve had it myself! The design of the interface is lousy. These software designers today, oy! Feels like you ought to have a drop-down menu at the top. But when you roll around up there with the mouse, nothing to be seen. You could be rolling around there forever and get nothing. And when you don’t see what you want, you feel lost. And you wonder, ‘What am I to do?’ And nobody wants to ask that question. Happily, there is something you can do–a button on the bottom of the page! If you click on it, your problem will be fixed! I know, I didn’t believe it at first, either! Don’t ask me why or how, but that’s where it is. And you can use that little button as many times as you want and it just fixes, fixes, fixes. And you’ll never have the problem again! And after a while you get used to the button, and your hand mechanically clicks it, and you forget you ever had the problem in the first place. And the ripple fades and the surface of the pond is smooth.” (Or something like that).

And then there was another pause. And he said “but I had this problem,” and he described the problem for a third time.

Then as I sat listening to the problem again, I reflected more. Or more accurately, something happened in my brain similar to the famous heart-growth moment of the Grinch. “He doesn’t want the problem fixed,” I thought. “Is that possible? Then what does he want? Why did he call? What can I even do? What can I say? What is the purpose of this conversation? Who is this person? Who am I? Why are we on the planet together?” Etc. And a thought did eventually come to me. So when I had the chance to talk again, I tried another approach still.

“That is frustrating,” I said.

“Yeah,” he answered, with a sigh. “Yeah.” Then there was a pause. “Thanks,” he said, and hung up.

The Conduit Metaphor

13 Oct

Kurt Fischer noted (in passing, at a Mind, Brain, Education Institute) that the Conduit Metaphor of Learning is defunct. This is the idea that education is essentially a kind of pipe whereby knowledge travels from the mouth or mind of a more- to a less-learned person. That the learner is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Learning, it ends up, is actually much more complex. And knowledge is apparently not a paper package of data tied with string moving across the meat counter. Which is just as well, because the Conduit Metaphor taken to the extreme leads to students thinking of the “product” of their learning as a purchasable thing, like a refrigerator, and the instructor as a functionary, and they (the students) as having no role in the construction of the refrigerator, whereas in reality they must fabricate their own compressor.

The Conduit Metaphor also governs how IT and library staff interact with our communities. It’s ready to be replaced there, too.

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

The Conduit Metaphor might be OK in a static world. But the world is not that. If there was ever an age when people were willing to be pigeon-holed, it isn’t now. If there was ever a time you should be feverishly looking for ways to build community with your academic community, to be seen as people engaged in learning, it is now. Now is when your library and IT staff should use every opportunity they can to learn about how to be relevant and meaningful in the digital age. The conduit doesn’t help us do this, and so we must emerge from the conduit.

What does service in the post-conduit age look like? Efficient online help tickets? Artificial intelligence-based answering machines instead of staff? Probably not.

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.

There won’t be a community over there and a service organization over here and a box office window in between with the sliding door seemingly always either closed or about to close. There will just be a community.

A few thoughts by way of postscript. I suspect some base fear is behind all this desire to protect ourselves from the community. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous and pernicious slippery-slope fear of being overrun by a horde of ravenous users, checking out all the books! or asking for more help than we can give!, making us work too much! (For my part, I say let your users overrun you. It means you’re meaningful.) The great gift of the bureaucratic mentality is to milk the Conduit Metaphor of Service Provision almost infinitely to stave off users from disrupting the administrator with their needs. One can even reason oneself right into wishing for what I call the “Administrator’s Dream,” which is–a sad Holy Grail–to find a way to provide a service to no users. The other day I heard it said that library staff love more the book on the shelf than the book in the users’ hand (I really don’t think this is true, but if it were, it would be an example of the Conduit Metaphor taken to a pathological extreme–the Closed Conduit).