Customer Service

So the phone rings, and it’s my old friend and mentor Lars Abraham. You remember Lars. He teaches four courses in English per semester at Seattle State University, as a reward for his decades of service.

“Lars, I can’t talk right now. I’m doing some reading for a big lecture at UTA this week. It lasts for three hours on Thursday morning. We’re hearing from Neal Raisman, an expert on how to provide great academic customer service!”

“Customer service,” said Lars. “What, do they want fries with their blue books now?”

“Lars, please go out and tell some kids to get off your lawn. I need to keep up with what it takes to be an effective 21st-century faculty member.”

“So what pearls of wisdom does this Raisman intend to cast before your swinish self?”

“Ha ha. Lars, stop channeling John Houseman in The Paper Chase long enough to read Dr. Raisman’s blog post on How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students. ”

“You should read it to me. My eyes go strabismic trying to read these bog posts or what you may call them.”

“Fine. Listen to this, Lars. Title:”

How to Cope and Overcome Irritated and Irritating Students

“Ah, it has been a long time since I have seen “cope” as a transitive verb. As Iago says to Othello, ‘He hath, and is again to cope your wife.’ Are you sure this Raisman knows what he’s saying, Tim?”

“Stow the pedantry, Lars. Raisman has dynamic stuff to offer. Listen to this:

Here are fopur ways guaranteed to help make irritating students less irritated and thus easier to help.

“What, pray tell, does “fopur” mean?”

“Maybe it’s a typo for ‘super.'”

“So how do I make the irritating of the world less irritating?”

“Less irritated, Lars,” I said. “Rule Number One is Smiling but do not overdo it.

“I parse such sentences at my peril. But presumably I should smile at my students? Tim, I have not smiled since 1962. If I start smiling now, my students will think I need to go into Assisted Living.”

“You don’t need to go all Vanna White, Lars. A little smile will do the trick. Listen:”

A smile is correct and called for but it needs to be an empathetic one. A simple, small smile that says “I see you’re upset and I WILL try to help.” The smile you would use with one of your children with a problem. Students are someone’s children and will respond to this smile.

“I am going to send this Raisman a shipment of commas. In any case, Tim, I should smile at a grown adult as if he or she were a child.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s baby, Lars.”

“And if you were my father’s baby, you would have gotten a smile once a year, on Tisha B’Av. So here I am, smiling at my students as if they have just dropped their Popsicle. Then what?”

“Here’s the second technique:”

Give and Name- Get a Name This is a technique that asks you to do exactly what it says. You provide an irritated student your name and ask her his or hers. “Hi. I’m ________. And you are?” When you exchange names you create a small community of people who know one another.

“I know how I will do this. Hello. I am University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. I assume your name is Jessica, everyone’s seems to be these days. That will create a small community of people who acknowledge that I deserve their respectful deference.”

“If you take that attitude, Lars, you’ll have to go straight to Step Three:”

Apologize This is a lesson that we learned from people like Captain Kangaroo on TV

“Tim, Captain Kangaroo spent a significant portion of his time chatting up Mr. Green Jeans and hallucinating about dancing bears. He had a lot to apologize for.”

“Apologize all the same, Lars. And then proceed to step four, Compliments:”

If you need to give a fallacious compliment to keep you and the student healthier, do it. Here’s an example. “Hi, I’m _____ Just want to say that I like your tee shirt, blouse, hair, glasses, jeans, backpack…” whatever seems to strike your eye quickly. Say it casually too so it will sound less contrived. Then as the student’s anger is interrupted you can even follow it up with a normal secondary question such as “Where did you get the tee, blouse, glasses….”

“Excuse me. What if the first thing that strikes my eye is Jessica’s …”

“Don’t say it, Lars. English Matters is a family weblog.”

“I was going to say ‘necklace.’ So here I am, an 82-year-old man with cigar breath. I frequently button my shirt unevenly, and eggstains are not unknown thereupon. I see 19-year-old Jessica, and I get close enough to say casually Hi, I’m University Distinguished Professor Lars Abraham, PhD. Just want to say that I like your necklace. Jessica looks around for a campus policeman. While she is distracted, I follow up with Where did you get that stunning necklace, Jessica? Tim, I am too old to deal with restraining orders.”

“Lars, you’re full of beans today, but the plain fact is that college faculty need to become customer servants if we’re to deal with today’s savvy, entitled consumer. Universities need to be run like businesses, Lars, and that includes creating a satisfying, if fallacious, customer-service environment.”

“Tim, for once in my life I will not bother to refute the claim that a university should be run like a business.”


“Because it is horse manure. But let us accept the premise. Seattle State is a business. And I am the point person for customer relations.”

“Now you’re seeing the light, Lars!”

“Now, every year, my salary slips further and further behind inflation. Every year, I get more courses to teach, and the class sizes get larger. Every year, there is more committee work. I spend more and more time performing self-evaluation, and more and more time peer-evaluating colleagues who have already proven their worth over dozens of years in the profession.”

“Nothing like that happens at UTA, Lars. We’re an emerging Tier One institution!”

“I spend more and more time filling out compliance forms, and tracking my behavior on websites that ask me to give progress-report grades every four weeks, or simply to note that I have talked with my thesis students. Already this semester, I have wasted six hours in meaningless meetings, four trying to get into classrooms with the wrong electronic-lock PIN number, six listening to presentations by Deans, and another eight trying to encrypt my laptop computer.”

“Should have thrown it out the window, Lars.”

“What? Anyway, I am trying to say this, Tim. Many, many service businesses are making working conditions worse for their staff. They are cutting corners, imposing regulations, stifling initiative, dictating every aspect of performance from the corporate office. There are no incentives for good performance, and many threats for bad performance. Service gets worse and worse, and customers are irritated. And what is the most common response from Corporate?”

“Cash in their stock options and move to the Caymans?”

“The response from management is: SMILE HARDER. As things are getting worse, pretend they are getting better. Live the brand. Greet each customer as if you were Captain Kangaroo on a tea bender. If you do not, there are a hundred unemployed people in line ready to smile even harder. We call them adjunct faculty.”

“Lars, you are such a peevish cynic. I don’t know why I called you.”

“You did not, Tim; I called you.”

“Yeah, why?”

I could hear Lars smile. “This is Lars, Tim. I’m sorry if I upset you. You have such a nice telephone voice. Where did you get that beautiful telephone voice?”


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