My copy of The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam is filled with notations I’ve scrawled in the margins during repeated readings, and one of my favorite lines is the opening sentence of Chapter Eight: “The essence of good foreign policy is constant re-examination.”
In fact, this concept holds true at all levels of society. On a global scale it can help improve international relations. In a neighborhood bookstore like Annie Bloom’s it’s extremely helpful in building and maintaining good relations with every visitor.
The key word is “constant.” I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my customer service skills but sometimes I get complacent and think everything is going fine, and that kind of thinking usually leads to an embarrassing mistake. One of them happened to me a few weeks ago.
I was talking with a co-worker when a woman who was leaving the store slowly approached the counter and admonished me. If you look up “admonish” in a dictionary the definition is “to express disapproval in a gentle, earnest manner,” and that’s exactly what she did.
“I just want you to know,” she said, “that when I came in here I expected a cheerful greeting, and I didn’t get one.”
For an instant I thought she might be joking, but her expression made it clear she wasn’t. After a short pause I replied, “Well that’s no good.”
“This is a lovely store,” she continued. “One of my friends told me about it, and it’s very nice, but nobody said anything to me when I came in. I was expecting a cheerful greeting. It’s disappointing.”
I could feel heat rising on the back of my neck. She wasn’t angry or hostile, but definitely disappointed. My co-worker and I both apologized but an apology can’t change the past. You may think this person was being overly sensitive but everything she said was true. I hadn’t noticed her entering because I wasn’t paying close attention to the front area of the store at that moment. You only get one chance to make a good first impression and in this case I botched it.
I know what bad customer service feels like. My favorite example happened years ago at a small store that shall remain nameless. The place was dead silent when I entered, there were no other shoppers present, and when I stepped inside the guy sitting behind the counter didn’t bother to look up from the book he was reading.
This incident is my baseline for the absolute worst kind of greeting. On the other hand, I don’t think it would be good policy to race around the counter and clamp each incoming customer in a joyful bear hug. There are many options in between those two extremes and that middle ground is where I’m constantly exploring.
I also believe that working in a bookstore is a lot like improvisational theater. Each customer enters with a unique set of ideas, expectations, and attitudes, and when I get involved it’s like I’ve stepped into their scene and we play it out together. Sometimes the results are productive and sometimes they’re inconclusive. After the dialogue is finished I collect my thoughts and get ready for the next scene with a new customer.
But none of these things can happen if a visitor comes in and is immediately disappointed. So I’m now making positive-certain that every person who enters on my shift gets a personal greeting and feels welcome. If anyone asks for a bear hug, I’ll be happy to comply. I think it’s a good policy, and I’m doing my best to re-examine it every time the front door swings open.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the ‘Modern Parent’ blog at the Christian Science Monitor.