This past Friday my wife and I paid a visit to the Social Security Administration office in Allentown on a mission to navigate the final phase of a bureaucratic problem with her social security card. We had discovered a day earlier that none of their account records reflected her married name (even though she had a printed card with the correct number and name in her possession). Neither of us were very optimistic as we entered the building clutching a name change application and original marriage certificate from nearly 39 years ago.
It’s ironic that civil service (the term used to describe public employees) is usually anything but what you receive at the hands of government workers. My initial impression as we surveyed the foyer was “this could be a long wait.” An array of official warning signs were posted on the doors and walls. Apparently it’s a federal offense to do almost anything in a public building that we, the taxpayers, have funded. Hardly a welcoming sight for visitors.
There were the expected rows of plastic chairs and a seated security guard asking everyone if they were carrying a weapon. I hoped no one in line was lying because he did nothing to verify anyone was unarmed. We took our place in the queue, hoping the four visible windows were all occupied by staff and that our turn in line would come quickly. Sure enough, we were soon perched at the yellow line on the floor waiting to be called to the check-in window.
Our first encounter was the level of service we were expecting—a perfunctory greeting, an obligatory inquiry about the reason for our visit, and a printed ticket with our “wait number”. There was no friendly invitation to have a seat but we found the plastic chairs and settled in wondering what might be next.
The surprising service happened a few minutes later when our ticket number was called and we found ourselves standing in front of a window framing the person who held the fate of our request in his hands. As my wife explained her situation, the young man frowned in disbelief but immediately set about asking a few confirmation questions and verifying her account. Then he graciously began handling the necessary paperwork and other steps to correct the situation.
In a few minutes a temporary card was in our hands and he assured us a permanent replacement would be mailed within two weeks. Although I don’t remember a formal apology, he did everything he could to reassure my wife that her funds would not be affected by this change and that the records now reflected what her old card said—she is actually married to me. We left relieved and amazed that this unexpected incursion into our weekend travel plans had only taken about ten minutes of our time.
As is often the case with surprising customer service, the employee’s name is soon forgotten. Yet, here I am nearly 36 hours later recounting the story and still feeling good about our encounter. I hope this young man doesn’t lose his ability to please the customer in a workplace culture that didn’t seem to support his approach. It would be nice to return a few years from now knowing that “civil” service is actually what everyone in the office now delivers.