"Hi ! No, I can’t help you"

June 2, 2006 at 8:09 am 4 comments

Have you noticed that sometimes when you approach people at a service desk, you get the impression they don’t really want to be there or to help you? The words they say may be fine, but the “no” is in their body language. At the reference desk, we may not even notice that we do it — we fold our arms, roll our eyes, or lean to one side as if we’re waiting for a bus when someone asks a question, perhaps one we’ve heard hundreds of times. I believe that although it may be subconscious, and may even affect our users subconsciously, it still has an effect.

I’ve personally been witness to fast food counter clerks, department store return agents, and reference librarians who — when a patron approaches the desk — unconsciously says “no” as their first response to the person’s question. Sometimes they’ll also shake their heads side to side or squint. All of these actions, even if it’s subsequently the best reference transaction in the world, give off the wrong first impression. It even happens in virtual reference; this must be just a bad habit some of us have fallen into.

Now that I’ve noticed this, I’ve been trying to adapt. . .sometimes forcing myself to smile, nod, and even say “yes” or “sure” even as soon as the first few words of a question are uttered. I know I’m overcompensating here, but maybe it will level off with practice! When someone says “maybe you can help me. . .” I want to insure that I say something positive in response, quickly, and with appropriate body language that communicates the same. We can become masters of subliminal advertising!


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  • 1. Steve  |  June 2, 2006 at 11:16 am

    We drafted customer service standards at MPOW. They define things we should be doing, but there also some attitude statements like: “Acts like they want to be at the desk.” I think that is really important because it is so easy for our thoughts to be displayed on our faces.

    We have also been talking about things like follow up and saying thanks to library patrons. In the end, I think it boils down to this; if you really care whether a patron gets what they need, and if you really want to help them, it’ll show. You will seem happy to see them and glad when they find what they need.

  • 2. zgirl  |  June 2, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    Another nonverbal way of saying NO at a public service desk is to be completely absorbed in some other task. I went to the library yesterday to check out a book. I approached the circ desk with the book in one hand and my library card in the other, and stood, waiting to be acknowledged by the person at the desk who was busy checking in a stack of books. She didn’t look up for a few seconds, and when she did, she continued checking in the books while asking if I needed help. That’s definitely a big NO to a patron. I felt like I was interrupting her. I understand that there are often other tasks to be done while on a public service desk, but I think it’s important to stay alert, and when someone approaches, quickly put that work aside and focus your attention on the patron.

  • 3. Anonymous  |  August 25, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Maybe if the patrons didn’t act like they were the only one’s in the place our body language wouldn’t being saying NO, I can’t help you. It’s a two way street.

  • 4. Marie  |  September 17, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I don’t think waiting a few seconds is that big of a deal. I’m kind of tired of patron this, patron that. Do you know how many are rude and demanding to us???? Plenty, like someone else said, it’s a two way street.

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