Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A former colleague, who I have great respect for, let me know that he has heard multiple, independent, negative reports about the Master Gardener Program in his community. In one case, he heard of a Master Gardener yelling at a community member. In other cases, Master Gardeners were seen as rude or demeaning.
This is a difficult call to respond to. My colleague heard this information second-hand. Thus, it is hard to judge the veracity of these second hand reports. My colleague also didn’t have names to share. Thus, it is difficult to go to the source of the issue, and to address this matter, directly.
Unfortunately, in my 12-years of experience as Oregon’s Statewide Master Gardener Program Coordinator, I have occassionally (very rarely) seen a volunteer behave in a way that is not in line with the Volunteer Code of Conduct.
The first line of the Volunteer Code of Conduct reads:
“When volunteering as an Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener, I will:
- Represent OSU Extension, the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program and my individual county or local program with professionalism, dignity and pride, and be responsible for conducting myself with courtesy and appropriate behavior.”
Those words: professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy all suggest the type of behavior that we expect and require of Master Gardener volunteers. But, these words can have very different meanings to different people. Some of our volunteers may not have participated in the professional workforce, or they may be retired from work for quite some time. Some of our volunteers may have been high level supervisors when they were working, and are unaccustomed to serving in role that requires well-developed customer service skills. And in some cases, long-time and excellent volunteers may be going through a significant life change that impacts their ability to provide stellar service to the gardening public. This Journal of Extension article provides options for working with volunteers who might be experience medical issues that impact their ability to volunteer (see scenario #3).
Four Customer Service Skills for Master Gardeners
Let’s set the stage by what we mean by the words professionalism, dignity, pride, and courtesy.
First, it should be clear that yelling or other aggressive or belittling behavior will NEVER be tolerated in the Master Gardener Program: towards the gardening public, other volunteers, or Extension faculty and staff. Volunteers who behave in this way should be removed from the situation. Suspension or expulsion may be warranted, depending upon the severity of the situation. In other cases, the volunteer may simply need the time and space to collect themselves and to calm down. If you would like advice on how best to handle a difficult volunteer situation, please consult trusted colleagues who are Master Gardener coordinators. As the statewide Extension Master Gardener coordinator, I unfortunately have extensive experience in dealing with these types of situations, and can provide a list of options that would be appropriate for your situation.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who support the general public’s efforts to learn or improve their sustainable gardening skills. Basic customer service skills are crucial to helping others.
If you think it could be useful for your group, you may want to give your Master Gardener volunteers one hour of continuing education credits for reading this post (included embedded links) and watching the customer service videos.
Customer service skills for Master Gardeners include:
- Patience: People who reach out to the Master Gardener Program for advice or support are often confused and frustrated. They may have tried their hand at gardening for the very first time, and failed. Or, a plant that they truly value may be in decline. Being listened to and handled with patience goes a long way in helping others feel at ease, and to have confidence that you can help alleviate their current frustrations. Your attitude will help to set and guide the tone for others, and can help steer interactions towards a more positive path.
2. Attentiveness: The ability to truly listen is crucial to providing great service for a number of reasons. Not only is it important to pay attention to individual gardeners’ experiences, but it’s also important to be mindful and attentive to the feedback that you receive. Listening is a skill that can be developed with practice.
3. Curiosity: In many ways, being a Master Gardener is like being a plant detective. The gardener who is asking for help will give clues as to what could be wrong, if the volunteer asks the right questions and listens carefully to their responses. Cultivate a sense of curiosity in Master Gardener work, rather than the sense that Master Gardeners should immediately know the answer(s). Another great thing about fostering a sense of curiosity is that it breaks down barriers between Master Gardener volunteers and the gardening public. Master Gardeners who assume an air of authority or expertise limit conversations to a one way transmission of knowledge. Assuming an air of authority can also come off as being rude and dismissive. Curious Master Gardeners, on the other hand, invite the gardening public into a dynamic conversation, and put people at ease.
More on Curiosity and Attentiveness: In 2019, I took the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science intensive workshop. It was a life-changing experience for me, that I wrote about in another blog post. During the workshop, I learned how to begin to listen deeply to others, and especially to those that I did not agree with. The skills of curiosity and attentiveness can be learned, are not easy to maintain, and get better with practice. These skills are directly transferable to all walks of life, including work in the Master Gardener Program. [I wish I could send everyone to the Alan Alda workshop! I truly felt that I was learning from a Master . . . because I was.]
4. Collaboration: Collaboration is essential to the success of the Extension Master Gardener Program. We receive too many queries, and reach so many people, that no single Master Gardener can do it all. Master Gardeners who eschew collaboration, and instead take a dictatorial approach to their volunteer shifts, can come off as bossy. Often, other volunteers may request not to work with that individual. Tips on how to work with a ‘bossy’ volunteer can be found in Scenario #2 of this Journal of Extension article.
A Note on the Master Gardener Dress Code
One of the things I love most about working in a College of Agricultural Sciences is that the dress code is decidely relaxed. But, there can be cases when volunteers are a bit too relaxed with their attire, when working as a Master Gardener volunteer. Volunteers should dress in an appropriate and professional manner suitable for the activity or location.
- “Office casual” is appropriate for speaking engagements, indoor plant clinics, and schools.
- Gardening work clothes are appropriate for working in demonstration gardens and some outdoor events.
- Always wear your Master Gardener badge (or intern badge) when working as a Master Gardener volunteer.