Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What is in a Name?

A name is so personal, so intimate.  Nothing holds more power than that of a name - just ask Rumpelstiltskin.  When someone uses my name, it is because I have given it and expect it to be used.  Some customer service classes that I have seen encourage the use of a customer's name to "establish a relationship" and, in some companies, using a customer's name is mandatory.  It has been my observation, however, that using a customer's name can open a can of worms that you never would have expected.  Not sure what I'm talking about? Here's an example of a recent conversation I overheard:

Customer: (hands library card to staff member.)
Staff: (scanning library card) Hello, how can I help you Mr. Johnson?
Customer: I need to renew two items.
Staff: Okay, I can help you with that. (renews items) Will that be all for you today, Mr. Johnson?
Customer: Yes, thank you.
Staff: You're welcome. Have a nice day.

The staff member obviously did not know Mr. Johnson until taking his library card and the use of his name just seemed unnecessary.  Perhaps I'm being overly critical, but here is my quick list of reasons not to use a customer's name during a transaction:

With any name comes a certain amount of unknown.  Even the most simple looking name can have the most complicated of pronunciations.  Rather than subject yourself to embarrassment if/when you pronounce a name wrong, why not avoid using names at all.  You may ask yourself  'can I just skip over the names too difficult to say?' You could, but that's not being very consistent and I wouldn't be surprised if someone eventually called you out on it.  After all, service should be consistent for every customer and if using a name is the benchmark for excellent customer service then we may all be doomed.

If you are not deterred by unpronounceable names, allow me to present to you the plea of the young.  Just as seen in my example, you will more than likely be using the surname only.  For example, if the person in front of you is named Jane Smith, you would certainly not refer to her by Jane.  Instead, you would use formal speech and address her as Ms. Smith.  Unlike companies who only deal with adults, libraries cater to people of all ages.  That being said, you certainly wouldn't address a 5 year old as Ms. or Mr. (unless referring to them as Ms. Smartypants, etc.) And how about a 16 year old?  That is questionable as well.  Even many 20 somethings cringe at the thought of being referred to as Ms. or Mr. - a sign their youth is fleeting.

Assuming that we are using formalities with some customers and not with others, at what point do you start addressing the person by their surname? 16? 18? 30? 60?  Perhaps the age is not important, but consistency is.

Because a name is so personal, it has the potential to incite many reactions when used.  Customer service rationale would dictate that a person should be treated not as a number but as an individual.  But maybe we are blinded by this notion so that we do not recognize when a person WANTS to be a number and to be invisible. When a library card is scanned, staff are given access to private information.  Referring to a customer by his/her name because you know it and for the pretense of customer service can quickly shatter the illusion of privacy.  As a customer, I am often taken aback when an associate uses my name because, after all, they don't know me.  And I suspect that many other people feel the same.

Perhaps as digital identities progress and people become expectant of being identified regularly (much as celebrities already are,) the use of a name may not carry so much weight.  While this may be our future, I am in no hurry to see it become the present.

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