The “C-Word”: Customer or Consumer

April 2, 2010

I am an other-side-of-the-desker. By that I mean that I have practiced history from both sides of the desk, whether metaphorical or actual desk, and try to support those who are not the history professionals in their efforts. I have done research for years in archives, libraries, museums, historic sites, public records offices, etc. I have attended several universities, taking classes in history (as well philosophy, mathematics, physics, electronic engineering, etc.) at both undergraduate and graduate degree level. As a historian I practice my profession working in and with archives, libraries, schools, historic sites, historical societies, governing bodies, doing my own research and presenting the results, and consulting or contracting to help others. I see things from both sides, and with my experience in areas unrelated to history, sometimes from a totally different direction. Such is life.

My “problem” is that I also spent many years in jobs where I was in customer service, much of it in management and some as a business owner. I learned that if I wished to accomplish my mission, be it running a successful business or helping the business I worked for make a profit, I had to have customers who were not only satisfied when our transactions were complete, but satisfied enough to both return to do more business themselves and to tell others about their experience. What one wanted to avoid was folks being dissatisfied or downright insulted, for I assure you that they were going to tell far more people about their bad experiences than the good ones.

The mission there was profit, self satisfaction of a job well done, a feeling of doing good service for others, or whatever. The attitude adopted by people who were successful in my world wasn’t necessarily to make big bucks, but accomplish the mission. (Frequently the big bucks were a major part of that mission, but not always.) They considered that mission centered on satisfying the customer or consumer.

What does this have to do with archives, history, etc.? Well, I still do research. I still watch the people on the “professional” side of the desk from the other side. I still react the way anyone who is requesting a service from someone who is being paid to perform that service reacts, as a customer or consumer. I still watch people who work in public and academic libraries behave as if I am lucky to be allowed to come through the door. I have teachers who have never done anything but go to school, either as student or teacher, tell me I don’t understand the “real” world that they find through reading books and discussing issues with others who are in the same situation, but have never lived themselves. I read books from authors who either footnote very poorly or not at all, but fail to accept that the reader now has a variety of sources they may use to verify or debunk the authors’ points of view. I have archivists inform me that they are the gatekeepers of the documents in their care and that they have the authority to decide whether I have access to them or not, frequently in utter disregard to policy or statute.

Above all, I have observed from the receiving end and by watching colleagues, a complete disregard for a desire to satisfy the customer, for that is what the researcher/visitor/whatever is. The average person I see in my profession behaves as if his or her job, usually supported by public or donated funds, makes him somehow superior to the person on the other side of the desk. These people are snippy, turn their backs on people, tell them “well, those are the rules, that’s what you have to do” in a dismissive manner, and contradict customers on matters about which the customer may have more knowledge than they are sharing. I have even had an individual pull out a copy of a paper that I wrote (they did not know I was the author) and attempt to use it to refute statements I mad, explaining to me that “the author” had meant something other than what I wrote and therefore claimed she had refuted my arguments by use of an authoritative source. [Aside-I couldn’t resist the fun of telling the archivist that I had read the author and thought he was a jerk, to which she replied that he had sent the paper to their collection at the request of an authority in the field and that I obviously did not know of which I spoke. I never revealed that I was the author, since I had filled out a research form that included my name exactly as it was on the paper, and made my judgment about arguing with someone of that level of competency based upon that fact.]

In school I learned that we do not use marketing/economic/business terminology in history related fields. I have had that idea reinforced in professional meetings and seminars. I recently read several articles in various archives and library professional journals restating that marketing models are inappropriate. I have, however, read many more that lament the inability of institutions to fund their work, staff their institutions, develop their collections. For some reason the general public doesn’t realize how important we are! People who have unpleasant experiences and complain to their councilmen or legislature, refuse to donate to institutions that make them feel unwelcome, and tell all their friends about their experiences, are not only failing to give us much needed support and the respect we deserve, they are going elsewhere for their research needs! Not realizing how important we are, they are behaving as if we are supported by them rather than as if they are just darned lucky we let them in the doors! How dare they?

Maybe it is time for us to worry a little less about our collections, exhibits, or our other particular specific projects and think a bit about “customer service” and the “consumer.” I know these words are taboo, but my personal experience suggests that we may wish to rethink that attitude. Basic customer service should be a part of all training for all the professions that deal so much with the public, even a more or less captured audience. This includes history. (And formal logical reasoning should also be there, but that is another argument for another day.) If you have a problem with the capitalist overtones, think of it as special mission training. Virtually all mission statements should include something that requires customer service for the mission to be accomplished. Even preservation-only statements require the goodwill of donors.

I sit on a board with several people from an institution that has had its funds cut and which has seen its user count drop quite a bit in recent years. They blame the recession, which may be a big part of it. But what I know, and they apparently do not, is there are people at several other institutions that I frequent and organizations to which I belong that tell me they will go far out of their way to avoid dealing with “those people.” Oddly, none of the people on the board have commented on the fact that I personally have not set foot in their place for about 2 years. Guess why?

I also have found that there are over a dozen history professionals in the immediate area where I work and live who either graduated or came close to graduating from the same public history graduate program as did I. They all had very unpleasant experiences and after talking awhile, they asked me to serve as their spokesperson to a new department chair to explain our difficulties. The chair listened and promised to open the door to communication. This has been many months ago. Some of us met the other day to talk and we all agreed that none of us could get responses to attempted contact with the department, only requests for money for the school. We do, however, frequently get asked about our experiences at the school, by prospective students and potential employers of graduates. None of us could remember anyone we talked to going on to enroll in the program (which is struggling) and we all knew of at least one employer apiece who was wary of graduates from the school. “Customer” and “Consumer” are still the “C-words” there. These are people to be ignored. Well, at least the professors have their integrity. Such as it is.

The Heretic

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6 Responses to “The “C-Word”: Customer or Consumer”

  1. I agree.

    So much hinges on words used. Customer, patron, researcher . . . I have been in the habit of using “researcher” — to me it implies a respect for the person’s needs, whatever level of expertise they show or what level of research they are doing.

    I am also quite often aware of how much more the researcher/customer knows than I do about the subject they are researching. In fact it makes me uncomfortable for newer researchers to treat me as an expert on all subjects covered by our holdings (and then some) simply by virtue of my title and rank.

    I have to say that from my viewpoint as a young archivist, the principle of customer service, if by that name or another, is being recognized and promoted, at least among the newer professionals. If we can all keep ourselves humble in recognizing our lack of experience, maybe we newer archivists can make some good progress towards setting up practices of better customer service. Together with improvements in description this could make reference a more user-friendly, user-driven, user-useful part of our mission.

    What it might do to our professional prestige I don’t know and don’t think we should care. What it might do to our users’ esteem of us . . . now that’s what we should be asking.

    • The Heretic said

      I am gratified that younger archivists are becoming more service conscious. I have found that most of those who agree with me on this are a bit younger. Many of them, however, seem to have a bit more awe of professors and “old hands” than I did or do. I have known too many self educated men and women who are wise in many areas and have backtracked too many footnotes of publications by PhDs that do not really say what they purport to say to accept their points of view uncritically. Unfortunately, I meet many people in archives/museums/library/traditional history (what my archives professor calls “plain old history) who accept what they are told as gospel. Some of these folk stare at me in total disbelief when I say things such as I wrote.

      Your last comment, “What it might do to our professional prestige I don’t know and don’t think we should care. What it might do to our users’ esteem of us . . . now that’s what we should be asking.” is a hinge pin. Do we have mission and take our esteem from knowing we have fulfilled that; knowing because our users’ esteem of use verifies that? Our do we build our own self esteem based on values that we alone determine.

      We learned a definition of a record in school that included keeping the darned things because of their “enduring value.” Want to see some jaws literally drop? Suggest that we, alone, may not be the best judges of what has value and what does not and others might have valid opinions on the matter.

      Want to watch someone talk themselves into a corner, get them to explain in a logical manner what gives records value that we alone cane determine. It is all part of this.

      • “Want to see some jaws literally drop? Suggest that we, alone, may not be the best judges of what has value and what does not and others might have valid opinions on the matter. ”

        But it’s the truth!

  2. ahythloday said

    Amen! I have seen colleagues act in similar ways as well. I think that while the standard business model doesn’t fit libraries exactly, we should perhaps consider adapting it to our needs, especially if, as you point out, we are trying to make our case to state legislatures.

  3. The Heretic said

    Thanks for the Amen. We don’t have to prove our value in dollars and cents, but if we can’t persuade folks we are not only of value but are of enough value that they should allocate scarce resources to us, whether state funds or a volunteer’s precious time, we will cease to be.

  4. […] another “C-word,” sends shivers down our spines as we think of people who acquire and sell records and […]

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