Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Good, Bad and Ugly of working with the public ~ Leah St. James

If you’ve ever dealt with the public on a daily basis, you know that “good, bad and ugly” can take on meanings that make you proud to be human in one moment, and in the next doubt the ability of humankind to survive. 

In my day job, I answer the “tip” line for a news organization. On any given day, I’ll field calls from people thinking they have an actual news tip, to callers wondering why their newspaper isn’t being delivered. They’re often either upset or anxious or frustrated. It’s a perfect simmer pot for some of the most extreme examples of “good, bad and ugly” behavior I’ve ever come across.

Here’s a look at some of what I’ve experienced.

Photo courtesy of 1950s Unlimited
via Flickr Creative Commons
The Good Caller

This might be a tad self-serving, but to me, the “good” callers are those who are brief and to the point. Example:  “Where do I send a press release for a new theater opening?” Perfect question, easy answer. Sometimes, though, people want to be chatty, and that’s good too. You just never know who you’ll meet or what information they might have. Sometimes, here in the south, these people will sign off with a “You have a blessed day now” that’s sure to bring a rush of warm fuzzies to my innards. These episodes don’t happen often, but when they do, I cherish them!

The Bad Caller
Some people think every event constitutes news that’s of interest to the rest of the community. These callers usually have agendas, and they take the “squeaky wheel” definition to new heights. If I direct that type of caller to a specific person, and if that person doesn’t call back within 15 minutes, he or she might call again. And again. And again. Sometimes these types of callers become belligerent, which brings us to…

The Ugly Caller
When I moved from Jersey to Virginia, I learned that “ugly” can mean something other than an unpleasing physical appearance. Here, it means a lack of grace in attitude or behavior, as in, “I don’t mean to be ugly, but…” And there is no shortage of ugly callers in my job. Here are a few that come instantly to mind.

My first day on the job, a woman called to find out the name of “the main congressman.” I said, “You mean the Speaker of the House?” No, she wanted to know the name of HER congressman. I told her it depends on where she lives, and that districts cross town boundaries, so I wouldn’t know. She said, “You’re a newspaper. You’re supposed to know.” When I suggested she call her local library (which would have reference librarians who do that kind of thing…right?), she snapped, “You’re pathetic. Who’s your supervisor?” 

I soon learned that hers was not an uncommon call. People often call the newspaper for bits of general information. I learned that it’s usually better to just Google it and give them what they want. It’s faster and easier (and makes for better customer relations) than engaging a caller in a potentially unpleasant conversation.

"Yelling Man" photo courtesy of Paul Cross
via Flickr Creative Commons
Some callers, however, don’t want help. Some prefer to go straight to nasty. They want to yell and vent their frustrations. I've learned that when I pick up the phone to this type of person, it's best to just wait it out, then try to direct him or her to someone who can make it better, if possible.

Even that doesn’t work at times, though. We have one regular caller who hates everything we do, and he leaves daily “love letters” on our voice-mail. He hates our writers, our stories, what we cover, our opinion pages. He hates our distribution, our pricing, our advertising. The man just hates. I started to feel sorry for him until I launched my own column and found myself in his cross-hairs. He hates my  coverage topic, and regularly shares his opinion with me. I tried reasoning with him at first, until he sent me a letter saying I’m “a (word that rhymes with witch) who don’t know nothin’.”

It’s hard enough to read those words, but when those types of sentiments are left on voice-mail, it can be worse because the tone of voice can say so much more than the mere words. Just this past week I took a few days off so left an away message on my voice-mail. I received this message when I returned:

“Your boss must really appreciate yoooou ‘cuz I don’t. Useless voice-mail. Useless. I’m calling on Friday, and you telling me you’re not going to be in until Tuesday is even more useless.”

He said it in a belligerent, sneering tone of voice that really did send chills down my back. It was the kind of voice I’d use for one of my really bad guys. When I played the message for my husband, he wanted to call the cops!

The good news is that I’ll use his ugly words and tone in one of my villains some day, just as I’ve tucked these other callers in the back of my mind for the next time I need to breathe life into a fictional man or woman. 

Working with real people is, after all, the perfect laboratory for examining true-to-life characters—the good, the bad and the ugly.


Leah writes stories of mystery and suspense, good and evil and the redeeming power of love. Learn more at


Liz Flaherty said...

I worked in the P. O. for 30 years--much opportunity for the good, bad, and ugly! I still wonder, three years after retiring, what makes people WANT to treat others that way. Perhaps they can't drive and are denied the chance at road rage!

Jannine Gallant said...

I work at a boat ramp. If people haven't been properly inspected and banded (we're trying to keep invasive species out of Lake Tahoe) they can't launch. Imagine a boat load of people and beer being turned around on a Sat. afternoon. Yep, ugly. Calm, polite and firm is my mantra! Sounds like you handle them well, Leah!

Alicia Dean said...

Well said! Very interesting peek into what you deal with. I am an assistant in a family law firm. You talk about emotions running high, when you are dealing with people going through divorce, custody, paternity, etc, it can get insane. In many cases, these people feel that there is a threat to their time with their children and/or a threat to their finances (and more often than not, this is exactly what's happening). Two hot buttons for sure. I also think of all kinds of fodder for stories and characters based on some of these situations.

By the way, it's good to know I can call you at the newspaper when I have a random question and you'll google it for me. Handy! ;)

Alison Henderson said...

I really admire you, Leah. I don't know how you manage to keep your cool when faced with callers like that man. I'm usually the epitome of cool, calm, and collected, but he would make me lose it in seconds!

Leah St. James said...

Liz, I'm sure you've seen it all, too! (The phrase "going postal" comes to mind!) I think we just see service workers as the extension of the company. We don't see the person behind the company (especially on the phone). So it's okay to treat a company like that. But yikes, just the thought of that guy behind the wheel makes me want to run for the hills!

Leah St. James said...

Oh, Jannine, adding beer/alcohol to the mix certainly does make things more interesting! I used to volunteer at the concession stand at an outdoor amphitheater (around 15,000 attendance). (It was a fund-raiser for the high school's marching band...they told me it would be fun!) For certain shows (determined by the venue), we had to check the ID of every single person buying beer, even if it was obvious the person was well over the age. Even that 10-second imposition would send people into a rage. (I'm so glad my son is out of high school!)

Leah St. James said...

I used to work in a small law firm, too, Alicia. You're right, another perfect environment for the highest of emotions. One of our attorneys handled pro bono cases for the public defender. One time a woman called to complain that a woman was making threats against her son (the defendant). Turns out the guy had allegedly killed a two-year-old, and the threatening woman was the baby's mother. (Talk about sadly ironic!) I guess it proves the mother's urge to protect doesn't go away, even if your kid is the monster.

Leah St. James said...

I didn't handle it well in the beginning, Allison. That first woman (who called me pathetic) almost made me cry! I think it's like anything else - you get desensitized after a while! Although I'd rather get through a day without "ugly caller"!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Late getting here, sorry. My phone job was physician referral for a medical organization. One lady called saying she was pregnant. Ready to refer her to an OB doctor, it soon became apparent she was in labor and didn't know what to do. Told her to get to the ER then crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Leah St. James said...

Wow, that's something I probably won't hear. :-) That would have made me a nervous wreck.

Diane Burton said...

Leah, you've really had the GBU of your job. I could say the same about teaching. So much good. Yet the bad and the ugly are there, too.

Leah St. James said...

Diane (sorry for the late response), my son's girlfriend is a 6th-grade teacher, and I'm shocked at the amount of backstabbing among the teaching staff. Considering that most of them are protected by tenure (and she's not), it's really hard to understand.