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Time spent interacting with other people can pay off in today’s automated world

By ,

Early in my career, I had a brilliant boss who did not suffer fools lightly. He put the lie to that old saying, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” Ask one of those and you were likely to regret it.

He thought being a curmudgeon was just swell, and being an admirer of his, so did I. I took to frowning a lot in hopes people would just stay away.

But as I grew older, I realized that being surly just wasn’t my style. I actually enjoyed engaging with people.

More importantly, I came to realize that I learned a lot more from simple human encounters than I ever did from a book or Web site.

So I began to make myself available to others, taking meetings I routinely passed up before. The face-to-faces invariably proved worthwhile. I started searching out those noisy salespeople I once spurned, and the quality of my shopping experience improved instantly.

I skipped the ATM and learned the names of the people at my local bank branch, and — surprise — picked up a tip or two about managing my personal finances.

Given the choice, I almost always will take an interaction with a real person over a machine.

I regard it as a personal challenge to wait out those automated phone switchboards to reach a live human. The only time I feel jilted is when the live human at the other end of the line shows no more personality than a robot.

The lesson here is that good personal service is more than hiring a warm body. A little engagement can go a long way, and be profitable to all concerned.

I like it when the rental car agent makes small talk and asks me where I’m headed, and then actually listens to what I’ve said. That’s an agency I’ll use again.

I’ve gathered all sorts of tidbits from those brief encounters. Rule No. 1: Always ask for the name of a good restaurant in town.

And Rule No 2: Never be afraid to ask a dumb question.

beyersd@washpost.com

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