Drawing the line with customer service

There’s sometimes a difficult distinction between helping a reader out, and doing everything for them. I had this problem last week, and I’ve been mulling it over. I decided to blog about it because the experience was something new to me.

An elderly reader, visiting from another university, asked for my help locating a book. Since it was quiet, I took him to the shelves myself and found it. He then asked if I could look something up on the catalogue for him, and mentioned he had help from another member of staff the previous day. I knew who this was, and that she was away that day, so I was prepared to have to help him a little more than most readers as she had.

Basically, after helping him look up some shelf marks and printing a journal article, he then asked me to fetch books from the shelves and photocopy chapters from them. This is not something we do as library staff, as it takes far too much time and the library is too busy. However, since the other member of staff had done this the previous day, the reader now expected it. It was a bit of a snowball effect.

I have no problem that the member of staff had decided to do his photocopying, as she had spent an awful long time trying to teach him how to use the copiers (which are not the most intuitive machines), and had decided it would take less energy, time and effort to do it herself – fair enough.

I photocopied one chapter for the reader, but I felt I should not have done; I was already uncomfortable with the amount I had done for him, so I asked he come back later to fetch his copies. I then went and had my much delayed tea break. After this, he actually needed help again, but for attempting to make copies on his own! Seeing my opportunity, I fetched those books I’ve found earlier, demonstrated how to copy, and set him up to do the rest for himself.

I had been feeling quite stressed about the whole thing during my break. I felt I should have told him flatly ‘no’ to making copies for him, but had instead told him to come back later and collect them at the desk. When I asserted myself and asked him to make the copies himself (but helpfully showed him how), I felt elated.

I should point out the reader was a really lovely guy, which contributed to my admittedly delayed decision not to do all these tasks for him. It’s also really difficult when another member of staff has set a precedent (which was the right decision for her in the circumstances of the previous day). It’s very hard to draw the line, particularly when each task is a small one; “Oh thank you for that, perhaps you could do one more thing…?” They can easily build up, and at what point do you say “actually, no. That’s one thing too many”?

I think making that distinction is something that will come with experience; Maybe being able to tell when a reader is that kind of reader!