The term “salesman” conjures negative emotions and stereotypes: sleazy mustachioed Glengarry Glen Ross slicksters, lying through their crocodile smiles, and grabbing Grandma’s last penny. We have all met these salespeople. We dislike these salespeople. Yet these salespeople take our money. How? I can tell you, because I used to be one of them.
In my eleven years of sales experience—mostly management—I was exposed to an array of training sessions on closing sales. It isn’t mysterious; it is a process of connection. Salespeople convince you to part with your cash/credit limit, for items you probably don’t need, because they connect with you—putting you at ease, gaining your trust, and ensuring you feel empowered.
The “art” of connection is a necessary need for better customer service in public libraries. It retires the stereotype of the stern, unapproachable, introverted librarian. It also increases library usage statistics. Higher usage statistics hopefully translate to your facility and job staying funded.
To clear up a misconception: “introverted” does not equal “lack of soft skills.” However, that is the association. If you are looking toward job fields where you interact with people and are worried about your interpersonal skills, here are things I do on a daily basis, acquired from my time in sales, to connect with co-workers and patrons in the public library where I work.
Smile. Smile. Smile. Smiling puts other people at ease. It doesn’t trigger the evolved spider-sense our brains developed to recognize danger. Smiling de-escalates and creates calm. Keep control of your emotions and how they are displayed in the professional setting. Do not bring your baggage to work. Smile and say hello to every co-worker you pass during the day and to every patron who walks into your department.
Understand Code-Switching. In linguistics, code-switching signifies shifts in language, usually from a form of dialect to a standard variation. Hence, you don’t talk to your friends in the same way you address your grandparents. Life isn’t Gilmore Girls. In the professional world, address others professionally. No cursing, no commonly objectionable conversations, and never demean someone else.
Connecting. Asking someone for help is intimidating. It is easy to assume that patrons understand we are here to help. They do not and will not unless you connect with them. Speaking as the manager of a department where customer interactions can take up to an hour or longer, the initial connection is highly important. Greet people. Assess them. What does their mood seem like? What are they wearing? Make general, obvious, non-offensive statements. If it’s winter and they are bundled up, a simple, “Cold out there, isn’t it?” will go a long way to put the patron at ease. When they leave, tell them thanks for stopping in. Throw a, “If you need anything else, you know where to find us” out there. As long as you never set yourself up for an argument, these types of interactions will ensure that the patron enjoys their time and gets the most out of the help you provide.
Another example of connection is my opening paragraph. I explained a common scenario to align your interest with mine so you will continue reading and become more open to advice. Devious, I know.
Personal space. Invasion of personal space is terrible. I dislike it. You dislike it. It’s a trap easily tripped if you aren’t careful. Working side by side with someone is a reality. Just like at the dinner table, never reach across. Ask for materials to be passed or switch places. If you happen to work with a group, ensure that you give attention to all members to ensure inclusion. A simple glance while you speak to quiet group members traverses miles.
Coffee. It isn’t just for closers. Help yourself, but always use breath mints.
An MLS is a degree in adaptation. It will not teach you all the skills you need for any given library job. Most library schools will leave you woefully unprepared for interpersonal interaction. It is your job as a future information professional to find ways and people to help you to bolster your soft-skills. Process the aforementioned connection techniques and you will develop better work environments and relationships with patrons and coworkers.
Matt Bird is the Special Collections Manager at Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute, IN. Between sales and librarianship, Matt taught classical literature at Indiana State University. He still teaches in the ISU Honors program on the subjects of book and library history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter and Instagram: @bird_point9186.