Bud Herron: In praise of a customer service all-star

Susan Tener was the Ted Williams of customer service.

Actually, she was more highly skilled than Williams. Ted finished the 1941 season with a .406 batting average for the Boston Red Sox — a feat no professional baseball player has matched since.

Although no precise records were kept on Susan’s trips to the plate, I can tell you with certainty she batted at least .900 in her years as customer service manager for The Republic.

Complaints that made their way to Susan usually were not about newspaper delivery issues — important problems, but often ones with obvious, easier solutions: apologize and get a newspaper out to the customer pronto. Personnel in the circulation department normally handled these complaints.

Susan dealt with the more emotionally charged subjects. Sometimes callers reached her phone when another worker struck out — after the caller had hurled a series of angry, high-speed spitballs, causing the employee to rush the mound in a blaze of verbal fisticuffs.

The caller might have been furious about the publication of grandpa’s drunken driving arrest; or an obituary that left out the name of one of a man’s first three wives; or the “rude invoice” demanding overdue payments for advertisements; or the reporter who hung up after being called an idiotic pig; or the “communistic views” on the editorial page; or the lack of coverage of a lemonade stand in Forest Park; or too much or too little coverage of North or East high school athletics.

Susan’s cubicle was just outside my office and I watched her day after day calmly listening to complaints, eventually replying without defensiveness. Her calm voice said, “I hear your pain and want us find a solution that is fair.” When The Republic was wrong, she apologized. When the caller was unreasonable, she just listened, never raising her voice in anger or replying in kind to a verbal attack.

“How do you do it?” I asked her one day — hoping Susan Tener clones were being raised somewhere and might be available for hiring.

“I just learned not to take complaints personally,” she told me. She said none of these people call because they are angry at Susan Tener. They are angry at “The Republic.”

She said she had nothing to defend personally because she was not “The Republic.” She added, “If they want to cuss ‘The Republic’ that’s OK. At times, I also want to cuss ‘The Republic.’”

She said she had learned that when a caller is extremely angry, the anger is often not about the issue that prompted the call. An over-the-top rant about a misspelled named could really be a call about an abusive spouse, or a financial crisis, or a medical diagnosis, or some other “final straw” that lit a fuse. Listening, therefore, can be more important than looking for solutions.

She went on to explain she had been a telephone operator for Indiana Bell Telephone Company in her early days and had received great training at “getting over herself” — being a nameless, faceless solver of problems for callers.

Susan retired from The Republic in 2009, a couple of years after me. She died in March 2019.

I will never forget the wise lessons she tried to teach about “knowing who you are and who you are not” — about replacing defensiveness with listening.

While some callers could not be soothed or made to reason, Susan’s skill for always “keeping her cool” turned an angry, one-way tirade into a profitable, two-way conversation more times than not.

This was fortunate for the caller and for our company, because the next stop for a dissatisfied, irate person demanding to “talk to the boss” was me. My lifetime batting average in dealing calmly with people who hurled beanball obscenities at my head was about .001.

Thank you, Susan. The world could learn a lot from you — particularly during the Holiday Season — Black Friday squabbles, never-ending checkout lines, exhausted shoppers and customer service workers who too often shoulder the blame for the miscues of businesses.

Susan would probably advise everyone to relax and quit taking part in the fight — “Get over yourself. The complaint is not about you.”

She was indeed the Ted Williams of customer service.