“There’s a fly in my research” and other tales from the vendors’ kitchen!

by Alys Tryon, Lane Powell PC

I want to preface this by first acknowledging all the really awesome corporate partner representatives I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Your hard work has enabled me to provide my attorneys excellent support, and you’ve saved my butt more times than I’d like to admit. Your work is more dynamic and complex than I’ll ever know, and I hope your employers are just as committed to supporting you as you are to supporting us.

I’m guessing they might not be though, because there should be more of you.

Here are some actual examples of less-than-stellar interactions I’ve had with other representatives of our information providers:

  • “Our system is down.”
  • “We were changing systems here, and there was a dark period, so we lost some of your information.”
  • “Our system won’t be able to process that until early or mid-next week.”
  • “I’m sorry, our system isn’t allowing me to see all of your information, so I don’t quite know what you’re talking about.”
  • “I’m sorry I forgot about you, we’ve just been really busy.”
  • “Well I can’t really tell you any more other than [reads straight from the screen I’m looking at too] unless you want to escalate.”
  • “So what exactly do you think I should do?”
  • <endless hold music>

I’m quite serious when I say the only world in which I’ve heard these lines delivered without a trace of compunction is in the world of our legal information providers. Players in this industry seem to hold themselves to astonishingly low service standards compared to just about every other industry I’ve worked in and around. If I sound cocksure for a first-year law librarian, it’s because I spent my formative years accruing countless experiences in a motley array of service positions. I have opinions about this.

Examples? Well, when I waited tables at a hotel bar in my early 20s, we carried on even when our “system” was down for days. That’s right: when Squirrel crashed, we figured sales tax on a 10-key, hand-printed clear orders for the guys in the kitchen, and continued serving a bar full of holiday drunks every day for a week.

A few years later, when I managed membership for an arts non-profit, I made a point to reply to emails the same day, even when we were preparing for the Big Benefit. Around this time I also worked in the call center at the Chicago Tribune. There we were advised to tell our more ornery customers that dialing 0 would take them to a person immediately: no hold music for folks phoning in with questions “the system” couldn’t answer (to be fair, this was in the more innocent days of 2006, and I can’t say if this practice has since changed). And, of course, my customer service CV all begins in high school, when I spent many long mornings schlepping coffee and bagels for yuppies with dietary restrictions that I learned to accommodate, and eventually anticipate. It was the sort of thing they came back for.

Doing this stuff could be tedious. Customers rarely noticed, let alone appreciated, my efforts. It was part of the job though, and at the better gigs at least, the respect and support I received from my employers made it anywhere between bearable and downright worthwhile. I still regard that hotel bar job as one of the best gigs I’ve ever had, and I’m proud to have been on a team that could pull through under such circumstances.

No firm librarian in his right mind would ever shrug his shoulders and explain to an attorney that “the system is down”. I have yet to meet a colleague who would ever let herself “forget” about a research request because of “things” that have been “crazy.” If we don’t know what they’re talking about, we get the resources to figure it out. We aim to serve our attorneys with as much diligence and resourcefulness as they serve their clients: when the chips are down, we don’t “escalate”, we problem-solve.

Many of our service providers seem to have forgotten that their representatives are a crucial part of a whole service system. Our attorneys serve our clients’ legal needs; we serve our attorneys’ information needs; and we need our vendor-partners to dish up solid support for their products so that we can proudly deliver some four-star made-to-order research. (Check out this Reading Rainbow gem for an excellent choreographic representation of what I’m talking about, and skip to about 00:45 if you prefer grist to cartwheels. I’m certain it made an impression on a lot of five-year-olds from restaurant families in the early 80s.)

Unfortunately, however, I sometimes feel more like I’m serving at an overrated diner where the cooks are always telling me things like “Sorry, the deep-fryer is down. I don’t know when we’ll be able to process your fries” or “Your table wants nachos without olives? We’re gonna need to escalate this” or “I have no idea whether the soup’s gluten free. I’ll get back to you mid-week” or “So how do you think we should emulsify this dressing?” (If I had a clue, I’d be a chef not a server.) Not exactly the sort of teammates I imagine cartwheels with.

I concede there are plenty of good reasons our corporate partners are having a hard time staying on top of this: endless mergers, bottomless budget cuts, rapidly-evolving technology, et al. I get it. My point, however, is that a server can only reasonably ask a limited amount of empathy from her table. If the food is overcooked, takes too long, or if they’re out of everything, your tips tank, and eventually the whole restaurant does too.

Every good librarian and every good waiter knows his clients really doesn’t care about his “system”, nor should they. Every good library and every good restaurant makes sure its staff is knowledgable about its “product”, whether that be research services or the menu. Good restaurants and libraries also do their best to hire staff that is resourceful and committed enough to deliver decent results despite unforeseeable obstacles. They also find ways to make their staffs’ efforts worthwhile.

I don’t see our information providers doing this. Much of their customer support staff seems beleaguered at best and cynically apathetic at worst. Veterans of the restaurant world easily recognize when the waitstaff are being respectfully employed… and when they aren’t. We can smell the difference between the kind of bad service that results from bad management, and the kind just happens because your waiter’s a jerk. (Pro tip: it’s usually the former.)

So what gives? It’s not like the bottom-line value of good customer service is news. Sure, it’s great to provide sexy search features or have an awesome Thai salad. But the greatness of your menu diminishes significantly if the fryer’s always on the fritz, or if no one knows what’s in the dressing, or if the salad keeps arriving with peanuts– even after you’ve repeatedly explained your allergy.

So what can we as the customers do? Blog about it, I guess. It’s not like there’s a Yelp for vendors, and it’s not like we can just start going to the other “diner” down the street. The town I work in isn’t quite big enough to garner much corporate attention, so sometimes I wonder if my perspective is slightly skewed from being a less high-rolling (yet equally needy) customer.

I, for one, have decided to start staying on the line after phone calls to do those customer support surveys. They’re annoying, and sometimes those two extra minutes feel too precious to give up (not to mention the fact that after the more exhausting interactions, the last thing I want to do is rate each of these conversations’ attributes on a scale of 1 to 5). It’s the only time they ask though, so I might as well start answering.

As a newcomer to the profession, I’m curious about the more seasoned folks’ experiences. Have our information providers always been this inept at service, or have things taken a recent nosedive? How do you deal with unhelpful support when you are trying to deliver good results in a hurry? Has Reading Rainbow, along with all that time in bagel shops, bars, and call centers cursed me with irrational expectations of the brave new world of our corporate partners?

Alys Tryon has been a librarian at Lane Powell, PC in Portland, OR for almost a year. She received her M.L.I.S. from San José State University in 2011. Follow @alysgwyn on Twitter or Instagram to see what else she’s into.

8 thoughts on ““There’s a fly in my research” and other tales from the vendors’ kitchen!

  1. I totally agree. I spoil my attorneys and it would be nice if I got “a little respect” from some of the major vendors. I’m excited about the FastCase/Hein merger and new start-ups Ravel and Casetext. Hopefully, more market pressure will force vendors into behaving appropriately.

  2. I was just saying the other week that I wish we had more ways to hold our vendors/account teams accountable for their customer service or lack thereof. A once a year survey isn’t enough.

  3. The customer service problems you describe are, alas, ubiquitous. I find them in almost all my internactions with service providers, regardless if they are providing information or fixing my air conditioning in 90 degree heat. Your expectations are not too high – our current society has lost its work ethic.

  4. Brava, Alys!

    I wonder if these businesses could learn a lot, or a little, from businesses like Southwest, Virgin Air, etc. (and us, of course :-). When I have a choice, I choose not the fanciest or the best but the service-provider that will be customer-focused when things go wrong, as things always will. Of course that requires excellent management and employee training, two things sorely lacking in many businesses.

    This also brings to mind the New Yorker article: BIG MED: Restaurant chains have managed to combine quality control, cost control, and innovation. Can health care?, by Atul Gawande:

    But, alas, we don’t often have any choice with some of our vendors, although that is changing. I’ve also seen some Lawyer-Davids pitting themselves against Corporate Goliaths and winning, notwithstanding Big-Database Contracts. (And I hear the new Malcolm Gladwell book will be called, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” so stay tuned for more stories.)

    As for survival strategies: a dark, twisted sense of humor, documentation, and sometimes venting on law-lib and blogs. Staying on the side of the angels sometimes does lead to good results even from the most incompetent of the big companies. And it doesn’t hurt to cultivate a response to our own customers that lays the blame for service delays exactly where it belongs. (Oh, and beer. Beer is good, too, especially at Happy Hour 🙂

    Thanks for the great blog post!

    Washington County (Oregon) Law Librarian

  5. Lexis just laid off the one person who actually responded to me after I pressed the feedback button on LexisAdvance and took the time to write an email. Way to go, Lexis! Love those fancy digs in NYC!

    I always layout my expectations from a new vendor from day 1. One of those expectations is that I am not responsible for navigating the multiple layers of their bureaucracy.

  6. Pingback: “There’s a fly in my research” and other tales from the vendors’ kitchen! | SLA Legal Division

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