Libraries and Customer Service

14 06 2007

I’ve had two posts rolling around in draft form for a while now, and I’ve decided to roll them up and spit them out, even though I’m afraid this is going to be one of those dreadfully rambling posts.

Let’s take a moment to evaluate the need for customer service in a library. In order to succeed, a library must provide good…no, excellent customer service. This isn’t a piddly little concern or an issue of “some people are just better at CS than others.” I’d argue that good customer service skills are a requirement of any librarian.

Libraries offer wonderful services and tools and so many other things, but if our customer service is slumping, then we lose. And we potentially lose big time because every lost patron is one more anti-advocate out there, perpetuating the myth that “libraries aren’t for me” who could potentially reach thousands of people (exponentially speaking).

So what does good customer service mean, anyway? For one thing, it means paying attention to how we treat our patrons (each and every one). See, for example, Library Crunch’s Practitioners of Panic and the Culture of Fear. We don’t want to treat our patrons like criminals, and we don’t want our library staff, volunteers, or librarians to treat them as such. We want them to know how much we treasure them. Every single patron who walks through the door is a success! They’ve shown up! They’re giving us a chance to do great things for them…and we should treat them accordingly. Thanks, Michael, for putting this so succinctly:

we cannot look at every customer as an enemy, as a potential criminal, because, as soon as we do this, we are no better than the shop owner who followers every customer around, distrusting their every move. We still trust those people who come into our buildings. We are prepared and trained to deal with problems, yes, but we see our users as good, as worthy of our trust and effort. If we give in to the paranoia, to this culture of fear, then we lose.

We should be especially watchful of distrusting our patrons since the services we offer are free for public use. You hear that? F-R-E-E. Sure, some people may decide to not play nice, and sometimes we have to step in and be the Sharing Police* to benefit the many instead of the few, but generally speaking people are good, and we should be “Work[ing] for the 99% not the 1%” (from the Fifth Law’s Libraries without Fear). Patrons know that our services are offered for free,so why would they want to steal our books when they can just check them out for longer? Why don’t we change our policies to make it easier for patrons to enjoy our services? I know Library Revolution has talked about this a lot, but it deserves another plug.

Know what’s really interesting about this “free” stuff we’ve got at the library? That there isn’t more hype about it! In Seth Godin’s post, Three Humps and a Stick on Pricing,” he says

Free stuff spreads. You don’t make any money from the thing you’re giving away, but you do get attention, which is worth as much, or more in many cases. Charge even a penny, though, and the drop off is huge.

So if people aren’t beating down our doors to take advantage of all our cool free stuff (why do I pay for a subscription to Consumer Reports online? Why Why??!), there’s something seriously wrong with our marketing efforts. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s something else. Maybe it’s our customer service skills that are slumping. If we encouraged our employees and librarians to treat patrons like friends, (see Marketing Prof’s Daily Fix, What’s Your Marketing Mindset ) we might have a better response. If they want to renew something over the phone or the internet when they have a late fine, let them. Hey, here’s a wild idea, let patrons pay their fines over the internet! Do them a favor, make an exception. If there’s a problem with a patron, it’s better PR to empower your employees to waive the fine “just this once.” Develop some bonds and some relationships. It’s not just an impersonal interaction.

Empowering those at your workplace to do things that will improve the patron experience is step 1. Step 2 is hiring people (or re-wiring those you already have) who don’t see working at the library as “just a job” but rather an opportunity to make a difference in their community. As Seth Godin says in It’s Always Like This, make sure employees know that “[their] job is to make things better.”And I’m not just talking about librarians or even para-professionals here. I’m talking front line staff and volunteers. How do we do this? By never posting a job ad that looks like this:

Position Description: Works at circulation and reference desks performing a variety of tasks such as checking-out and checking in items, registering customers with library cards and answering basic reference questions.

Example of Work Performed
– Shelves library materials.
– Performs a variety of responsible and specialized clerical work.
– Helps customers with basic computer skills, trouble shoots computer.
– Works online databases and online catalog.
– Makes recommendations to improvements in circulation and reference policies and procedures.
– Handles money on a regular basis.

Minimum Qualification: High School diploma or equivalent, plus (1) one year of full-time experience in a customer service related job.

Special Requirements:
– WORK HOURS: Monday through Thursday and Saturdays or as needed.
– Library and customer service experience.
– Ability to alphabetize and place book in number order.
– Possession of a valid driver’s license with a driving record that meets current City auto liability insurance requirements.
– Must pass a drug-screening test and criminal history background check.

Although the words “customer service” do happen to appear, they refer to it as a job type, not as a requirement of the position. In fact, no where in this job description is there any mention of treating patrons like anything other than cattle. As a potential employee reading this ad, I feel rather like cattle myself. This is a not for profit organization. I see nothing about service, or helping the community, or anything that indicates that this job is any different from, say, a checkout girl at a grocery store. Actually, I think the grocery store would probably be more focused on customer service than the employers in this ad appear to be. (Edit: Want to see a great example of a nonprofit job ad? Check out this one)

We need to revamp our public image, sure…but we also need to re-think the way we market ourselves to potential employees. In Marketing to Employees: Hearing a McCalling, MP’s Daily Fix shows how big companies are trying to attract long-term employees through marketing channels (rather than Human Resources). This is exactly what we need in libraries. Although Ted Mininni doesn’t mention it, I suspect that corporations are also doing some significant PR work to the public through this campaign. How so? Ah, here we come full circle – through advocacy of course! If your employees are dedicated to the success of your organization, then they’ll do a better job of serving your patrons every day. They’ll be advocates for you out on the street, talking to their own friends and family. And the people they treat well (because they can see how important they are to the big picture of corporate success!) will in turn become advocates of the organization.

What happens if we don’t do this? If we don’t make sure that every person in our organization knows how to treat a customer right, even if it means we might lose the $5 in fines (instead of losing the patron altogether)? Just look to CompUSA (see Marketing Prof’s Is Great Marketing the New Public Relations? or Church of the Customer The New Customer Complaint Meme). Or instead, just look at the people who aren’t coming to libraries. Look at the floundering financial support we get because of it. How are you going to sell yourself to your next employee?

*Thank you, Susan B. Ardis, for using this term during a library tour, Spring 2007.




4 responses

15 06 2007
T Scott

Regarding your step 1 & step 2 (and on any given day I might reverse them) — I’ve learned that there’s a limit to how much “rewiring” you can do. You’ve got to hire people who have that desire to create a great experience for somebody built into them. Customer service training & workshops will help those people get better, but no amount of training is going to take someone for whom it is “just a job” and refocus them into providing a great service experience.

An anecdote: for reasons I won’t go into here, for the last ten years or so, whenever I happen to find myself in a city with somebody else from The Bearded Pigs and there’s a Hard Rock Cafe around, we try to go. So I’ve been to quite a few in the US and Europe. Almost universally (Belfast was the major exception — and it closed not long after we were there) the service attitude has been exceptional. The servers are fun, smart, irreverent and very dedicated to making sure you have a great experience. I finally asked a guy in Austin what kind of training they get. He said that he really didn’t think it was the training — they just hired the kind of people who’d fit in. He shrugged as if it was obvious.

A dozen years ago, when I started at my library, we would put candidates for a faculty position through a two-day interview, with a presentation and lots of group interactions. But if we were hiring a paraprofessional to work the circulation desk, the supervisor would spend an hour each with two or three candidates and make a decision. After a time, we realized that we needed to put as much energy and effort into every person we hired. We don’t put candidates for a paraprofessional position through the whole two day process that we do for faculty, but we now do a much more thorough and more careful job. The upshot of all of this is that we’ve built an excellent staff over the last half dozen years, all of whom share a vision of the kind of experience that we want to create for the people who walk through our doors as well as the people who only visit us virtually. Do we do it as well as we’d like? Of course not. But we do have a shared vision, and the determination to get better at it every day.

15 06 2007

You’ve got to hire people who have that desire to create a great experience for somebody built into them
That’s very true… I guess I was thinking more of opening people’s eyes to the good that they can do (which is what happened to me two years ago).

And I love your anecdotes…and that your library is so dedicated to building a great team that works well together.

15 06 2007
16 06 2007

Hmm… that Service Untitled site is really interesting! I’ll have to hang out there a bit when I get caught up…

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