The Little Old Lady in the Notary Chair

*** First Friday Flashback, from Oct. 2013 ***

Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.    —Sam Walton

As my translation business has grown, the amount of work for private clients who need their personal documents translated and notarized has increased by leaps and bounds. It is common to get a call late Friday, asking for a weekend turnaround for documents as simple as a birth certificate or as complex as medical transcripts. In the early years, I always had to add a cushion of a day because I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a notary open on a Saturday, let alone a Sunday, in my area.

Monday lunchtime would come, and I would run to the notary near work downtown, then to the post office or to meet my client, always longing for a little extra time. It was the nature of the work, and I knew when I would hear the exasperated plea for help from these clients that my giving them a good rate and quick service would make a huge difference in their lives.

Then, my downtown notary closed shop, and I found myself searching for new way to meet my clients’ needs. I knew I needed my new notary to be flexible, quick, and reliable. What I didn’t expect was meeting the little old lady in the notary chair.

Driving through a timeworn area of town some fifteen miles from home, I stumbled upon a dwelling right off a main thoroughfare with flashing sign in the window: “NOTARY PUBLIC: 24 Hour Service.” It was built early last century, and the little office area was surely once a sitting room or enclosed patio. File cabinets got lost behind stacks of disheveled papers and mismatched furniture, portable fans, and scattered children’s toys. A photo of a beautiful young girl was propped up on the edge of the busy desk, with the words “In loving memory” carefully handwritten in a corner. Far from the businesses I was accustomed to, this appeared to be an honest attempt to provide services to the community with extremely humble means. I knew there was something special about this place, and the resulting business relationship combined with the personal service have made all the difference for me.

The little old lady in the notary chair is an intriguing hodgepodge of contradictions, proud to represent her profession with a cheery disposition and a contagious giggle. With white hair tucked behind her head in a fallen bun, scratched eyeglasses and ill-fitting dentures, her dexterous hands carefully manipulate the tools of her trade to affix beautiful cursive letters to complete the blank spaces in her notary declaration.

I’m pretty conservative about selecting people to do business with. Years of working in the court system—not to mention growing up a cop’s daughter—have taught me to keep me away from shady operations. So trusting a home-based operation for notary service certainly had its conditions. There was no way I would accept anything less than doing things by the book, and I soon discovered that was how the little old lady in the notary chair operated as well. As small businesses, both of us have an interest in keeping our clients happy and doing things the right way, thus preserving our livelihood for years to come. The level of personal service far surpasses what I’ve encountered in the typical nine-to-five air-conditioned office in a strip mall.

When I first sat down in front of the little old lady in the notary chair, I had to explain what I did for a living. Although our relationship has now spanned several years, every now and then she nevertheless refers clients who are in need of services having little to do with translation. When I know that my notary sent somebody, I necessarily think about what brought them to seek her services, what challenges they may be facing, and how many steps they had to go through just to get to me.

The story of my notary serves to remind us about our relationships with our vendors. How comfortable would we be if suddenly our vendors became our clients? Is our relationship where it should be?

They say that even the most decent people could be caught up in a power trip associated with being the client. It seems it would be easy to expect that our notary, to use my example, would bend over backwards to provide us with the services we need. After all, we are the paying customer, and the argument could be made that they should appreciate our business.

What would bad client behavior look like with my notary? I could take her for her word that she is open for business 24/7 and ring her bell at 5 a.m., failing to consider that maybe she is having breakfast, or still in bed. A better way would be to give her a call first, perhaps the day before, wouldn’t it? When my notary is hobbling around, attempting to care for her great-grandchildren, a bad client might be annoyed at having to step over mounds of toys to sit down to receive service. Do these not-so-professional surroundings make the service any less valuable to me? Not in the least. After all, I pay the same ten-dollars-per-signature no matter what notary I use.

Finding the right client-vendor match takes time, and I’ve found that setting expectations that fail to consider the human element is a losing proposition. Although there are certain deal-breakers such as unsafe surroundings, deceptive practices, and simply inadequate service, supporting our fellow small business owners has its rewards, both personally and professionally. Being more appreciative of the people who provide us the services should be met not only with gratitude, but it should also inspire us to do good for somebody else.

Perhaps that means we take on a pro bono job once in a while. Maybe it means we cut our evening pleasures a little short to get that transcript translated so a client can apply for nursing school before the deadline. After all, what got most of us into this business was a desire to use our skills to meet the needs of our fellow man; let’s not forget that sometimes it’s not about the agencies, the big businesses, the international corporate clients. Sometimes, it’s about the little old lady in the notary chair who will appreciate your ten bucks and a sincere word of gratitude every single time.

17 Comments
  • Nancy Jervis
    Posted at 15:08h, 04 October Reply

    Thank you for a truly heartwarming story and wonderful reminder that the human element is the most important factor in our profession.

  • Jennifer Batista
    Posted at 17:05h, 04 October Reply

    “After all, what got most of us into this business was a desire to use our skills to meet the needs of our fellow man”

    Yes, indeed. It can be so easy to lose track of this during the day to day of rushing to meet deadlines. Your words really struck a chord with me. Thank you so much for giving me this very eloquent reminder.

  • Jennifer De La Cruz
    Posted at 20:26h, 04 October Reply

    Thank you for your comments, Jennifer and Nancy!

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 10:24h, 05 October Reply

    I love my notaries! I am fortunate to be able to use officers in my own bank for free. By now they know just what I need when they see me coming. There was one time, though, when a gentleman didn’t know at all what to do, and insisted that a Spanish-speaking teller come and see if what I had translated was correct! Fortunately, I haven’t seem him lately.

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