Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Being a good gatekeeper

One day, I came home and found that my carport had been mangled by someone who wasn't used to driving a tall U-Haul. My apartment complex removed the debris and put out some sad-looking cones:

Hail season was just about to start, and I had been hoping to keep my car dent-free for another year. When I asked for a different space to park in until the carport was fixed, I was outright denied and told to park in the half-covered space. I had lived in that building for months, so I knew there were many covered spaces that no one ever parked in. One person decided they were going to stand between me and a covered parking space.


In a school district, fixing a problem usually boils down to one person who has total power to make a difference, whether that means solving the problem themselves or escalating to their boss. It is a customer service disaster when the gatekeeper refuses to help. An employee who blindly follows processes while people who depend on him suffer is like a saboteur, destroying your school's reputation from the inside. There really isn't any great damage control method for when parents (or other employees!) are rightfully upset about a bad situation that was obviously solvable.

You have to prevent upset people by being a good gatekeeper. Respect each person enough to consider their situation as unique. Look beyond the process and align your goals with their goals, so that you're working with them against the constraints of the situation.

It's awkward to give personal examples, because being a good gatekeeper usually means you're creatively bending the rules, even though it's for good reason. Instead, I'll point you to a spectactular set of stories on Reddit. All of them are about people who went out of their way to fix a problem that only they could fix. Often, they put their jobs at risk, even though every story ends with the customer becoming a life-long fan of their employer. Read these, and realize that every phone call or email you answer is an opportunity to win a life-long fan.


As I began to explain that it was hail season and that half a carport wouldn't protect my car very well, another person who worked in the apartment office ran out from a back room, grabbed the binder containing their parking records, and interrupted us while smiling. "We've got lots of open spots! The closest open covered space to you is... #92. You can park there until we fix the carport, and I'll mark it here so we don't try to give it to someone else."

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