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Magazine Feature

Get to Yes: Branding Public Library Customer Service

by Ronald Block & Julie P. McNeil on February 28, 2015

The Jacksonville (FL) Public Library (JPL) is comprised of a main library and twenty branches. In FY2014, the library system had a collection size of 2,413,255 materials that were checked out more than 7 million times by more than 3.9 million visitors.1 Get to Yes (GTY) is JPL’s customer-service program. It is designed to address the need to consistently provide excellent service to customers; to give staff a toolkit to help them successfully manage challenging customer issues; and also to train them on organization expectations.

Branding Customer Service

The creation and adoption of marketing brand standards at JPL served as a catalyst for rethinking many areas of the library system. The ability to create and focus on a consistent look and feel resulted in improved communications. Branded flyers and publications markedly increased JPL’s recognition and exposure in the community. The system then moved on to create a branded look of its physical materials. Location-specific labeling and identification was replaced with a consistent centralized plan for all materials. This served to identify JPL materials easily and prepare the collections for potential floating. Finally, the discussion turned to customer service. Our customers and staff were reporting inconsistencies in delivery of service among our many locations, and we decided that if large chain grocery and big-box stores could create an expectation of interactions and handling of issues, we certainly could establish a “brand” for our customer service. It’s important to remember that “the customer is always right” is archaic, and that instead, “the customer must always come first.” This approach helped to clarify for staff that we were not telling them to deliver whatever the customers requested, but to conduct interactions with a caring and individualized approach.

Initial meetings were held to explore the potential avenues to best achieve a branded customer-service model. The Multnomah County (OR) Public Library presented a webinar outlining its focus on customer service titled, Think Yes! Transforming Customer Service.2 This webinar helped jump-start our own exploration of branding our customer service, and offered ideas for our research process including books, online resources, and surveys of best practices in libraries and in other industries. Customer service transcends organization types and there are many elements that are shared among them. As we perused our material we began to have discussions about what areas we wanted to cover, how our own training should flow, and identifying the overarching longterm goals of the program. A few key areas:

  • JPL should establish and publish a customer-service policy.
  • Staff should be brought in early to help develop the policy, thereby encouraging early buy-in.
  • The GTY program name will establish a common language for the organization.
  • Every staff member throughout the system should attend training, including senior administration.
  • The program will establish customer-service expectations of staff and convey to our customers what type of service they can expect regardless of location visited.
  • Measures need to be implemented that survey success and identify additional coaching needs.
  • Staff exhibiting GTY competencies should get recognition.

Get to Yes Training

The next step was to compile the actual training to be delivered. We began by storyboarding our ideas. Each element was written on a card and later put in order, sometimes combining sections and discarding others. The final grouping of cards reflected the training content and identified areas needing more research; a solid flow that could then be built into an effective training session. In timing the elements, we found that each full training session would require up to four hours to complete. We used the elements to create an eye-catching and on-brand Prezi presentation (www.prezi.com). We developed a script to accompany each section. The intention was to use each slide as a placeholder while encouraging attendees to interact and participate in activities related to the training. The training consisted of:

  1. Opening video: We found videos that illustrated examples of excellent customer service (such as www.cbsnews.com/news/no-complaints-about-this-traffic-cop). This video fuels a discussion about customer service and how it is important to all. It offers a thoughtful, humorous springboard that puts all the attendees in the same frame of mind.
  2. Introductions: The goal is to keep each class small enough for interaction. The ideal size is between twenty and twenty-four participants. Each attendee introduces themselves, shares their work location, and gives an example of a place where they consistently get great service or a recent positive interaction. These are recorded on a flip chart and serve to spark the group to think and talk about customer-service expectations in their own lives. The desire is to have staff begin to feel empathetic toward the people they work with daily.
  3. Overview: Provides an overview of the training, expectations of the session, and introduces the idea that we will be collectively creating a code of conduct for staff members to use when dealing with customers. The code of conduct will be based upon the idea of branding excellent customer service across all branches.
  4. Introduction to customer service: A review of the existing policies of the library and of the city. Also a discussion of who our actual customers are (taxpayers, internal customers, etc.).
  5. Who’s in your line? This part includes a discussion of lines in libraries and how to manage them. Staff are reminded that everyone in line is different and individualized service will be required for each person. Staff may feel interactions are routine, but customers deserve a refreshed approach each time they visit a public service desk. Staff should treat each customer as though they are their favorite grandparent. Communicate with and acknowledge those in line. This is an easy way to reduce frustration. Have a plan for backup if lines become long or transactions in-depth. When possible, have staff work with lines to steer toward self-check services or answer simple questions.
  6. Listening activity: For this portion, attendees gather in pairs. One person is instructed to begin a story, the title of which is the only information given. The first person starts telling a story, and, at about one minute, the group is instructed to switch. The second person is then to pick up the story and continue it. This goes back and forth a few times and then ceased. The group then discusses the importance of paying attention to what is being said instead of formulating a canned response that may not fit the situation.
  7. B.L.A.S.T.: A technique used in customer service by major corporations.3 This approach aptly applies to libraries. While most useful in difficult interactions with customers, it is very helpful in maintaining consistent delivery of excellent service. The acronym is easy for staff to remember and bookmarks were made to illustrate the technique.
    B- Believe. It is imperative that customers feel they are believed. It is natural for staff to jump to conclusions, but using this crucial step will avoid a transaction from going down a negative path.
    L- Listen. This is probably the most important element. If we take the time to listen to customers tell their story (within reason) the issues often resolve themselves. If they are cut off, they feel as though they are not being heard and this can create issues unnecessarily.
    A- Apologize. This is not a directive to accept blame for any wrongdoing, but more to let them know we are sorry for any situation that has not gone smoothly, and a chance to reassure customers that we will do everything we can to help them.
    S- Satisfy. Once again, this is not a directive to give the customers whatever they ask for, but a chance to show them everything possible is being done to resolve issues. Most times, customers appreciate the effort as much as the outcome.
    T- Thank. Be sure to thank the customers for bringing issues to the library’s attention. If we are not told about problems that we can change, they cannot be fixed and we may leave a customer feeling negative about the library and the services.
  8. Customer-service examples: The class is asked to provide examples of bad customer service from their lives. This provides the opportunity for a great discussion about how negative interactions stay with customers. It shows that those negative experiences are shared with anyone who will listen. The focus on great customer service is to help avoid this.
  9. Open doors/closed doors: This group discussion incorporates the visual of keeping customer-service doors closed by negativity or opening them with positive approaches. Situations are presented, including those given in previous step, to discuss best practices for resolving common issues and even answering routine questions. This section also allows for staff to be given some latitude when helping to resolve issues. Historically they have felt they were not able to make decisions, but are now encouraged to follow their instincts to make exceptions in the customer’s best interest. Follow-up with supervisors is also encouraged.
  10. Policies: Prior to each class, attendees are asked to provide any JPL policies that they find difficult to uphold. A video is shown that sparks policy discussion.

    Difficult system policies are then discussed; as are alternative ways of presenting the policies, highlighting what’s in it for customers. Staff learn to rephrase their approach to lessen the potential for frustration. This section generates a lot of discussion, and future training will focus on policies

  11. Fake it ’til you make it: Recognizing that many staff members are not extroverts, this section helps to illustrate that everyone is not naturally outgoing all of the time. It also shows that practicing good customer-service behaviors can help make them a habit. Specific examples are used, with permission, to provide examples of the success of this technique. One example of a new habit is our new directive, borrowed from a local grocery chain, that any customer that comes within ten feet must be acknowledged by staff using either a “hello” or “may I help you” type of statement.
  12. Competition: This is an important area of discussion. Staff may not understand that library customers have choices. This training focuses on library alternatives like Google, Starbucks, and Yahoo. We emphasize what the library system offers and excels at, things like personalized service, meeting space, free Wi-Fi, and more. It is imperative for staff to know the importance of great customer service in attracting new users and maintaining a good reputation. In times of budget consideration, it is very desirable to have raving fans on the library’s side!
  13. Frontline marketing: Since most customer interactions happen at circulation desks, our focus needed to expand to this area as a prime place to tell visitors about all the services and types of materials we offer. Specific examples were given about how to recognize customer taste and try to illustrate offerings that they may not be aware of. Separate training in this area is forthcoming since it is a large topic.
  14. Creating the brand: The group is broken up into small groups of four and asked to select five customer-service behaviors that should be included in the brand. Then they are collected and posted for the group at large to vote on. The top vote-getters are compiled and, when all full-time staff members were trained, included to create the JPL GTY brand.
  15. Action plans: Each attendee is given an action plan sheet to describe a behavior that they feel they could improve upon, such as smiling or practicing the ten-foot rule. They are asked to write it down and work on it. There is no need to share, but we follow up in three weeks. This seems to work extremely well. We received several responses that staff practiced their listening or approachability improvements and definitely noticed an improvement in their positive customer interactions.
  16. Follow-up: GTY is a culture shift for our library system, so we have come up with many ways to help keep the conversation going and instill a common language and behaviors. First, to address on-the-spot recognition among employees, we purchased five plush mascots that staff can use to recognize GTY behavior by awarding the animal to colleagues on a short-term basis. This prompts staff to be on the lookout for another staff member in the system to award the animal to next. We are also in the process of creating a staff award that is given quarterly using a nomination process and recognition with a certificate and gift card.

Evaluations filled out immediately after the initial training have been overwhelmingly positive. Staff feel that they now have effective tools to ease their own frustration and allow them to navigate challenging customer interactions. At the conclusion of the initial training for all staff, which included a great deal of part-time personnel, we formed a customer-service committee to construct the actual brand. The group also created a video, using current staff, to illustrate GTY highlights, so it can be used by location and department managers for in-house training and discussion.

GTY Becomes a Part of Library Culture

The final brand became the standard by which we conduct customer-service training and communicate with our customers specifically the kind of service they can expect from staff at all our locations. During the initial training, many staff expressed concern about their managers backing them up or following the guidelines. We collected concerns and incorporated them into a major rollout attended by library leadership, which consisted of the location managers. The meeting outlined the steps followed and the final product of the GTY branding (see below). We also modeled a training session to illustrate and convey the expectations of their role in the success of GTY.

The Finalized Get to Yes Branding Document

Get To Yes!
Customer-Service Brand for JPL Staff

JPL customers will encounter staff that exhibit friendly, welcoming behaviors that let them know they are our highest priority. Some examples of this behavior include:

  • Positive body language (smiling, eye contact, good posture)
  • Awareness (of surroundings, customers, other staff)
  • Welcoming, sincere smile and greeting
  • Ten-foot-rule (all customers that come within ten feet of a staff person are acknowledged)
  • Adheres to dress code (includes wearing badge) and customer-service policies

JPL customers will experience interactions with staff that are patient, attentive, resourceful, unbiased, and provides timely service and a memorable send-off.

JPL customers will be served by staff who are knowledgeable of and actively promote library resources, services, policies, and procedures. Staff will also be adept at exploring positive outcomes to customer requests.

Ongoing training is conducted in two-hour GTY refresher sessions that are given to address real situations. Our pressing need has been to offer more precise training on dealing with the “2 percent” of customers who offer extreme challenges to staff. We have also begun to offer these refreshers onsite to address specific location needs. The full four-hour class is also
scheduled quarterly to make sure all new staff members are brought up to speed. The library used the brand to revise existing manuals and communications to make sure they are exemplifying the GTY principles. This committee also created observation forms and began conducting site visits to monitor staff. Initial reports have been mostly positive, and offered
areas to focus coaching of staff.

The GTY branding has, now more than a year later, become a part of the JPL culture. Challenges still exist as we move forward. There is a contingent of staff members that find it difficult to grasp the concepts due to longheld beliefs and work habits. The observation of staff is also a challenge. It may not be the best coaching method since it may be viewed as punishment by staff. Despite the existing challenges, the program has transformed the way we deliver customer service and we look forward to watching it become integral in our hiring practices, testing, and staff evaluations.

References

  1. Jacksonville (FL) Public Library, “JPL at a Glance,” accessed Feb. 12, 2015.
  2. Vailey Oehlke and Rita Jimenez, ThinkYes! Transforming Customer Service, Multnomah County (OR) Public Library webinar, Jan. 16, 2013.
  3. Albert Barneto, “Dealing with Customer Complaints—B.L.A.S.T.,” CSM eMagazine for Customer Service Professionals, accessed Feb. 12, 2015.

Resources & Further Reading

Barlow, Janelle, and Paul Stewart. Branded Customer Service: The New Competitive Edge. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004.

Barnetto, Albert. “Dealing with Customer Complaints—B.L.A.S.T.” CSM eMagazine for Customer Service.

Carlaw, Peggy, and Vasudha Deming. The Big Book of Customer Service Training Games: Quick, Fun Activities for All Customer Facing Employees. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006.

Harmon, Charles, and Michael Messina. Customer Service in Libraries: Best Practices. Plymouth: Scarecrow, 2013.

Laughlin, Sara, and Ray W. Wilson. The Quality Library: A Guide to Staff-Driven Improvement, Better Efficiency, and Happier Customers. Chicago: American Library Association, 2008.

Mowatt, Jeff. “Yes, I Mind Waiting: 10 Ways to Reduce Lineup Stress for Staff and Customers.”

Rubin, Rhea Joyce. Defusing the Angry Patron: A How-to-do-it Manual for Librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2011.

Weingand, Darlene E. Customer Service Excellence: A Concise Guide for Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association, 1997.



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