Never Assume

In the really oft-chance you haven’t heard the ancient joke, it goes like this:

“Don’t assume. Assume is spelled A-S-S-U-M-E. So when you assume, you make an @$$ out of you and me.”

Crude, yes. Accurate? Also yes.

Assumptions can be very dangerous. They are usually made based entirely on our own perspective, experience and expectations. Very rarely are outside factors included, such as, oh, I don’t know…. THE OTHER PERSON.

My last post was about my most recent plasma donation, where I breezed through the first 2 steps of the process but had to wait to get to the third step because the donor floor was under-staffed. While I and 7 other people were waiting, sitting in front of 2 bays with 8 empty beds, some of the waiting donors began grumbling. The 2 phlebotomists working didn’t seem to be rushing around, so assumptions began to surface. “They got room, they just don’t wanna work,” I heard one person mutter. “Why they only got 2 people in there,” grumbled another. That’s when my pal Melisa appeared, greeted me and filled in the missing detail – that 2 people scheduled to work at that time were “call-outs,” or people who had called in to say they weren’t coming in as scheduled. She apologized and joined her 2 co-workers in attending the dozen donors in the beds.

That seemed to quell the discontent in the waiting area, at least for the time being. I had heard about the limit from one of the other workers before the other donors joined me in the waiting area. Listening to them make assumptions about the workers they could see (Melisa was in the supply room at the time), I was quite disturbed about what was being said. Melisa’s appearance was timely; I was going to say something to the other donors if she hadn’t appeared, because I knew the assumptions were wrong.

But what led to the assumptions in the first place?

I’m not sure if it’s human nature or a product of our pitiful excuse for public discourse in the 21st century, but it seems as though when we are left with information gaps, we fill those gaps with assumptions that are almost universally negative in nature. If we’re left waiting in line or on hold, we often assume it is because those on the other end are lazy, unqualified or not motivated. If something we need to use is broken, we assume it was intentionally of poor design to begin with so we would have to purchase it again. To make matters worse, once we are being attended to, we often take the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach and immediately accuse the other party of some nefarious intent.

This is also true in reverse. If we have a conflict with a customer or client, we can make assumptions.

They didn’t read the instructions.

The product is to be handled with care, and they were rough or negligent with it.

They’re too needy and don’t want to do any of the required steps on their own; they want someone else to do it.

They always want to use the method that takes the longest.

They just love to complain.

One of my early jobs was as a customer service rep for one of the country’s mega-banks. You could call a toll-free number and either use an automated system to get basic info on your accounts, or press 0 to reach a representative. Naturally, those of us on the receiving end of those calls were under constant pressure to handle more and more calls, but were also being monitored to ensure we were answering all the customers’ questions without rushing them off the phone just to meet those number expectations. As such, the calls where people just wanted to know their savings account balance were extremely frustrating. Instead of pressing 0, they could have pressed 1, and a few other numbers, and had that information without ever getting in line for a rep. Why do they do that, we would wonder. Do they know we have call quotas and want to make our lives more miserable? Here we were, the service providers, making assumptions about the customers, just like the customers were making about us.

When I would field one of those calls and have the customer’s info in front of me, one of the fields I could see was “date of birth.” Those simple calls, such as checking account balance, would very often be from a customer whose DOB indicated they were at least 60 years old. On days when our call queue was stupidly, ridiculously high, I would try to be helpful and advise the customer that this information could have been had through the automated system and they could skip the long wait on hold they had just had. Most of the time – especially from the seniors – the reply would be, “I don’t trust that computer; I want a person to tell me what my balance is.” I would simply say, “OK, I just wanted to make sure you knew your options.” It would be useless to explain that I was reading from the same computer that would have told them their balance without the half-hour hold time. One time, a customer my age, who was a joint holder of the account with her mother, called in with some complex questions that genuinely required a rep. During the course of the conversation, she mentioned, ‘I keep telling Mom she doesn’t need to call every day to check her balance. But she’s here alone and probably does it just to hear another person’s voice.”

OK, that’s a nice assumption-buster right there – not to mention a moment of shame if you assumed the older customer was just trying to be a high-maintenance pain in the backside. We in the call center assume such customers enjoy being a pain in the rear, and some of them are just lonely. That was a great lesson in assumptions I have been able to carry throughout my working life.

Do you struggle with assumptions? Feel free to share in the comments.

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