29 June 2012

Hi, How Can I Help You?

In the US, when you walk in a library, store, or other establishment often [not always] the first words you'll hear are, 'How can I help you?' or 'Can I help you?' Or some other variation. As a librarian, I'm no exception when it comes to providing service. In the US, the customer is 'always right' and we often drop what we're doing to help the patron/customer/etc. Again, not always, but that's the general rule of thumb of what we've come to expect, I think.

But I've learned that views on customer service are actually a bit cultural. Customer service in Uganda doesn't necessarily look the same as in the US. I discovered this by accident, although in retrospect it makes perfect sense.

My last few weeks in Uganda were full of daily reminders that my time was coming to a close. Almost every day someone would ask me how many days I had left or when I was going. Often students would come to thank me again for helping them over the past year and that they would miss me. To be honest, I hated the countdown and I often tried to play down their kind words, reminding them that I was leaving another librarian to help them.

But their response surprised me: But you always stop what you're doing to help me.

And suddenly I started thinking about customer service in Uganda. And generally [not always] customer service happens the same way as most things: on African time. Things simply happen when they happen. Walking into a store does not necessarily mean someone will greet you or help you immediately. I can remember countless times standing at the meat counter in the supermarket trying to get someone's attention. Or waiting at a shop while the the attendant finished his/her conversation with a friend. And I learned to love this type of time...there's something freeing about just letting things happen in their own time.

And I realized that I had introduced my students to a very Western style of customer service. When someone walked in the door [which was right by my desk] I almost always greeted them and asked if/how I could help them. If they wanted a book, I stopped what I was doing to help them find it. If they needed computer help, I got up to teach them.

And these are not bad things. But I can't help but wonder if I did them a bit of a disservice. Letting them get used to a style of customer service they may or may not experience again. I always wanted to be so careful about introducing the students to new things...not wanting to change their culture, per se, but simply try to make a library as culturally appropriate as possible. And I was so focused on computer skills and organizing books that I didn't think about customer service.

I don't have any answers. And I'm not going to beat myself up about it. But it does have me thinking. I always want to make sure I'm building and growing libraries that are appropriate for their cultures and communities...how does this relate to customer service? Is the 'Western' style of customer service always the best? What actually defines customer 'service'?

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