John, The YMCA, Great Customer Service And The Power Of Autism
Our attitude about shopping - for stuff, for services, for needs, for wants, for fun, for drain cleaner - is influenced in part by our customer service experiences, which we unconsciously lay end to end, sew together with stitches of time and hold up to our face, to determine if the subsequent quilt suggests it would be fun to go to the mall, or just be happy with the pants we've got, thank you.
While most of our experiences in the retail and service world are average and unmemorable - with some falling to bad, some rising to good - there are, on those precious few occasions, the great.
This is one of those. More accurately, this is a customer service story about a great man.
The basics; His name is John Wier. He is 21, graduated Urbandale High School, lives with his parents, likes Beethoven and Linkin Park, is employed at the Walnut Creek YMCA, picks up towels, washes handrails and joyfully greets Y patron after Y patron with an unabashed level of selflessness that's like watching Mother Teresa tend to lepers. And I'm one of the lepers because I'm also a member.
The un-basic: John is autistic.
I'll get to that in a moment.
I first became aware of John about six months ago as I stood naked in the men's locker room at the Walnut Creek Y, minding my own naked business.
"What did you work out on today?"
I turned around, startled by the voice behind me.
Standing there was a young man, wearing glasses and an official Y shirt and badge, hands on a towel cart, smile on his face, patiently waiting for my answer to a completely reasonable question that made me feel unreasonably uneasy. To paraphrase Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, who is this guy?
"I haven't worked out yet."
"So - so what are you going to work out on today?'
"I think I'm going to do aerobics. "
"So you're going to do aerobics? What kind of aerobics, treadmill or elliptical or what?"
"I think I'll do the elliptical."
And away he neatly went - rolling off to another aisle of the locker room to ask other half-clad dudes the same questions in the same way while he picked up discarded towels, until he'd run out of towels and middle-aged overweight men to engage - at which point he rolled out of the room, humming to himself as he happily pushed his dirty towel cart down the hallway.
Who was this guy?
Whoa. I immediately knew that John was a better man than I was. I'd be far too self-conscious to turn to a fellow locker room occupant and ask him "What's up?" And I'd tell people to pick up their own wet, filthy, disgusting towels, were they born in a barn?
There were other things that set John apart - an unusual cadence to his speech, a very direct, persistently inquisitive manner and most amazing, an apparent absence of walls and self-awareness. John just really didn't seem to care about what you might think of him because he was far too busy caring about you - he was going to be nice to you and engage you and if you didn't like it, that was your wet towel.
I liked John right away. He was the living, breathing embodiment of the perfect customer service provider - he could have taught one of my classes.
Yet he appeared to be - autistic? How could that be? Was there a connection between his autism and his outgoing ways? Weren't autistics supposed to be more walled off, more shy?
I wanted, needed, to find out more about him.
Fully clothed, I visited with Sue Johnson, executive director of the Walnut Creek Y. Yes, she said, John had a mild form of autism and asperger's disease, autism's next door neighbor.
Wow. Jaw-dropping Thomas Edison just discovered electricity wow.
My image - perhaps yours - of an autistic person was, up to that point, of someone barely able to function in our "normal" world, a perception framed in part by popular media - Rainman and Forest Gump and What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
I need to cancel my Blockbuster membership. I also wanted to find out more about autism, before I reached out to John.
I went to Steve Muller, (who has no connection with John) the executive director of The Homestead in Pleasant Hill, an agency which provides residential and vocational options for those with autism.
First, what is autism?
"It's a neurobiological disorder that interferes with how people gather and organize their information," Steve told me. "And that causes problems in communication and social skills."
When I told Steve about John, he was impressed. "To have an [autistic] person who is succeeding, working at the YMCA, is a real special treat," said Steve. "If they're succeeding at building those social relationships, they're overcoming significant challenges"
Could John's autism actually make him better at customer service?
Steve hesitated. Autism "impacts everyone uniquely," he said. "People with autism normally have a very hard time understanding communication skills and structuring things in a way that makes sense to them."
John had taken that template, wadded it up and tossed it into the dirty towel bin.
"It may make it easier for autistics to be direct in their communication," said Steve. "Brutally honest may be easier."
Yet there was nothing brutal about John's forthrightness. It was surprising, yes - but once you got over the shock of actually being spoken to by another human being whom you didn't know, you couldn't help but begin to think that...well, that it was you who had the malady.
I needed to talk to this guy.
John was very open to sitting down and discussing his life, his experience at the Y and his autism.
"I started out as a volunteer in the fall of August 2008 (through Iowa Workforce Development) then was hired on in November," he told me as we sat in the Y's conference room, along with Sue Johnson. "Sue noticed my work and decided to hire me on."
Sue smiled and jumped in. "Jonathan cane in and took pride in his work. He was a good team player, always wanted to work more, wasnt afraid to ask questions. You couldn't have a bad day when John was working. He made everyone feel welcome."
I asked John if he knew that he made other people feel good.
"I want to make other people feel good," he said. "It's all part of what I do here and part of customer service here."
There are some things that John struggles with. "My typing skills are slow." Join the club, kid. Working with guest passes can also throw John a bit.
Yet when it comes to engaging Y patrons, John is off the membership hizzle.
Had he always been so good?
"When I first started," he said, "I don't think I talked to customers as much. But after awhile I got better at it."
John's left better in his dust. Why is it important to greet people and ask them questions?
"It's just to show a good work ethic and to show good customer service and to be professional. I always take people directly to what they're looking for."
I asked Sue if Jonathan was trained in these skills.
Her answer blew me away.
"I think he brought it in with him," she said. "John knows from working at the front desk that it's important to us, but I think it's something John has always had. I don't think it's something that would be teachable to a lot of people. A lot of credit also goes to his parents and how they raised him."
Is John ever afraid to go up and talk to patrons?
"At times I can be. If I see people horsing around in the hallways, rough-housing, then I'm a little afraid to say something."
As are all of us, John. When a nine-year old is running backwards and dribbling a basketball on a treadmill, we should all just try to ignore him.
I asked John what most of us might consider a loaded question - does he like cleaning?
"I do, because I want to make sure that the Y stays clean, so people don't get sick." You're hired. "When I pick something up in the men's room I always ask, 'Is this yours?' before I pick it up."
Sure. We do not want me and my fellow locker mates running around the facility, as is. Believe me.
I told John I could hear him humming while he works - what's the song?
"I like the classical pieces by Beethoven and stuff like that. I'll also sing a song by a band called Lincoln Park." John hummed part of it for me, then went right into the easily recognizeable "dah-du-dah-du-dah-du-dah-du dum" of Beethoven's Fur Elise.
I could not stop smiling.
Then I got to the money question. What does John know about autism?
"I know one thing. There are like different forms. I have asperger's, it's a type of autism but more the high functioning type." John described it as being able to verbalize, to talk clearly so that others could understand him.
What can't you do, that someone without autism, can do?
"I can't do math very well.
Get in line, kid.
Did John think he'd be as good at customer service, if he didn't have autism?
"Yes, I would be a little bit better at least and I would try to implement more things. I'd probably be on the phone more."
John will likely be on the phone quite a lot on April 18th, fielding congratulatory calls - he'll be turning 22 that day, three days after tax day, when being bad at math no longer matters.
The Walnut Creek Y - at 11,500 members, it's the largest in the Des Moines Association - will be having a birthday party that night for John.
Sue Johnson would prefer they honor twins.
"I wish I could clone John," she said. "We pride ourselves on customer service - it sustains our membership. And John's unique skills are a very important part of that."
John is unique, in many ways. As someone with autism, he is one of the 1-2 out of a 1,000 people who has it, and one of 6 out of a 1,000 with an autism spectrum disease like asperger's.
He is also unique among autistics - he is high functioning, engaging and outgoing.
Yet there is a third category that puts John in the most rarified air of all. He smiles at and engages everyone - even while being burdened with a disease that wants him to do the opposite.
That means he's like an olympic pole vaulter being asked to jump over two walls simultaneously - the self-protection walls of fear and mistrust of strangers we all have as human beings - unless you're from Turkey, where they kiss and hug everybody. And the anti-social walls common among austics, which drive many to lives of isolation.
When I put John's world against our own, I begin to understand that it's us who are living a burdened life, not him. We are stuck behind walls we've built to protect ourselves from being hurt, while John floats over his on angel's wings, accompanied by the soft, soothing strains of Fur Elise.
Those of us who remain tethered to the ground, can only look up, watch, listen and smile - but no longer wonder, who is this guy?
Now, we know.
Note: The Homestead is also celebrating a birthday, with their upcoming 15th anniversary party in May. To find out more about The Homestead and the services they provide, contact Steve Muller at 515-967-4369.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and radio show host. "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show" airs Saturday mornings from 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email Jonnie at email@example.com.