Excuse me? Where can I pay for this book?” “Why don’t you have the second one in this series in stock?” “Where is your self-help section?”
As former and current booksellers, it’s no surprise to us when patrons approach library staff with questions like these. New users often conflate libraries with the way retail stores operate. In this situation a service provider has a choice—become exasperated while taking the time to explain that this is a library and doesn’t work that way, or just answer the question. The reasons why some library workers take mild to moderate offense at being confused with a salesperson are best saved for another time, especially in this moment, where “unskilled” and underpaid labor have been rightly declared essential while being asked to risk personal safety as part of their assigned duties. Wiser people have brilliantly tackled
the issues of vocational awe and self-importance embedded in our industry.1 This attitude—that somehow library work is more lofty, skilled, or somehow better than sales work—does serious damage to our organizations. The truth is, for most of us, public library work has more in common with retail than anything else. The most impactful thing we do
to serve our community is not the curation of collections, nor the provision of programs, nor our Wi-Fi, but the connection we create with people via
our interactions with them. We have often looked to retail to borrow marketing, merchandising, and materials arrangement ideas, but few of us have considered the other bookstore model—the deliberate design of customer service transactions—for inspiration in understanding how the consumer environment has changed around us. Strengthening the interpersonal components of user experience is something every library can and should do, especially in these most uncertain of times.
A DEFINITION FOR SERVICE
Customer service is mission-critical, and our consideration of it must extend beyond simple platitude like “service with a smile” or “go the extra mile.” Any service industry realizes that while it is important to meet the baseline of “person gets what they want when they want it,” the key to making that actually happen is staff, not simply stuff. Because it is so personal, this makes customer service hard to pin down, hard to teach, and uncomfortable to discuss. It helps to start with some foundational concepts.
The value of a service experience is solely defined by a customer’s satisfaction, not the organization’s opinion of its own work. Satisfaction has
been framed as a balance between the speed, cost, and quality of products or service. The typical axiom is that in terms of “cheap, fast, or good,” one
can be great at delivering two, but not all three, at any given time.2 In context, “good” refers not just to the quality of the item, but also of the service provided, therefore it can be said that customer service
is a measure of satisfaction around the speed, cost, and quality of experience. The customer should feel like their needs are important and the service person has an investment in giving you what you want. Good service leaves you feeling happy and personally validated in your choices. It should feel natural, like the person helping you is sincerely engaging with you and responding directly to your questions and interests. All these elements give people experiences that make them feel seen and heard, which underscores the value of the service they are receiving, and the organization at large. This can truly transform a service point into something that inspires and sustains loyalty.
It is also imperative to note that customer service is complex. It requires careful mastery of the technical skills required to operate tools and systems
like cash registers, inventory management, computers, phones, copiers, and more. Workplace dynamics in sales and service industries are nuanced and
wildly variable, requiring no small amount of emotional intelligence.3 It can wear you down, and people who do it are often “underpowered,”undervalued, and underpaid, while they are expected to
provide customers with a great experience.4
Not every retail environment fosters a good user experience, but we all have establishments that we remain loyal to, often over the course of years and even lifetimes. Think of the last time you had a really great service experience—in a store, from a skilled provider like a mechanic or hairdresser, or even at a medical office. Chances are that your interaction was carefully and precisely designed even—especially—if it didn’t “feel” that way. This is “experience management,” and understanding how it works can make a big difference when cultivating front-of-house library service that is more consistent in order to maximize positive feelings and customer retention.5
Retailers have spent millions of dollars and countless hours researching the best ways to design an environment that makes people feel validated in
their choice to spend time or money at a store or service point. The legwork has already been done—libraries can borrow strategies and methods that
have been vetted and proven successful in the private sector and modify those same concepts for our own particular environment.6
None of this is to say that libraries should be more like stores (they should not) but we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that many of our users seem to evaluate us from a perspective of consumership. Nor are we suggesting that libraries fail to provide excellent customer service. What we’ve learned from our time in the bookstore is that the most important factor in the overall experience customers have, over time, in a store is consistency. Is your library customer service consistent? Does every
person get the same level of service every time (or as close as possible)? Who does not receive the best service at your library, and what does that say about your organization? Or, more tellingly, what does that user go on to say about your organization? Does your customer service help you maintain your position in the community as the culture shifts and changes? Is it an organizational strength your library can leverage to move forward into an uncertain future?
Relational vs. Transactional
All service industries have had to reckon with the rise of the internet and how it shifted practice in every imaginable way, and how it has irrevocably, if inequitably, altered consumer expectations around speed, cost, and quality. The definition of good customer service, though highly personal, has shifted. To survive the “retail apocalypse”7 unleashed by online retailers, top companies have begun to push deeper into the provision of relational models of customer service.8 Briefly, this means working through the idea that, in a customer’s perception, interactions with a service provider exist as an uninterrupted and very delicate continuum over a long duration of time. The best way to support a long-term customer relationship is by utilizing a proactive and consistent mode of service, as one bad interaction at any service point can break the balance and sever the connection, perhaps forever.
Relational service means being cognizant of the emotional bond consumers develop with brands or stores and working to make sure each interaction
with them supports their continued patronage. It recognizes that customer feelings are now as important (or perhaps even more important) than any item or material that an organization can deliver.
The opposing style of service, transactional, is something you might experience at agencies that have operational monopolies on a service, where you literally cannot get the thing you want or need anywhere else. A clear example, at least in the public imagination, is the DMV. Where else can you go to get your driver’s license? The library once held an operational monopoly, too: Where else could one go for information services in the community? Before the proliferation of the internet, perhaps libraries could get away with a transactional version of customer service. While those days are gone, the question to be considered remains: Who on your team thinks relationally versus transactionally? Does the answer change based on their role, station, task, or who they are helping? If the answer to that second question is “yes,” how might you begin to address the difficulties those inconsistencies present and move everyone on the team towards a more
relational version of service?
One of the benefits of introducing relational service and experience management is that they serve to soften some of the assumptions held about libraries. Many libraries typically provide great service, but there is undoubtedly a disconnect in the broader public image of librarianship and those who work in the field, as evident anytime a “librarian” appears in popular media. The library, as an entity, has a perception problem. This doesn’t seem to be the case for booksellers, who occupy a space in the popular imagination closer to who many modern library workers actually are. Of course, booksellers and librarians are saddled with similar stereotypes but on balance one profession is cool and contemporary, the other is strict, academic, and stuffy. In our experience, booksellers are considered more outgoing and interactive with customers, willing to go above and beyond. It doesn’t hurt that everyone in the bookstore is a bookseller, as opposed to some library organizations that maintain rigid roles, making the loose, more organic environment perceived in bookstores
harder to replicate.
SERVICE IS SERVICE IS SERVICE
This is serious stuff: Customers intrinsically know what good service feels like because, in general, people know how they like to be treated by others. Their assessment is intensely personal, but each customer judges every service provider by their own unique standard. Libraries are not held apart from this dynamic—our patrons measure us in the same way they measure any other business or store. Libraries are now part of the great mass of service providers that must work a little differently to stand out from the crowd. Because we no longer hold an operational monopoly on information, books, or anything else, we must be more earnest about how we interact with our users if we hope to retain them.
It doesn’t take much to leave a retailer behind. Everyone has experienced the kind of service that leads one to think (quietly or less-so), “I’m never
coming back here again.” The top reasons reportedfor ditching a service provider are: feeling unappreciated; unhelpful or rude staff; and being “passed around” from desk to desk seeking support and assistance.9 Libraries are making great strides to amend how they address these issues, but internal challenges abound: fines; strict rules and provincialism around who is allowed access; internal miscommunication and low levels of transparency; lack of formal training on systems, policies, and options;
low support for staff facing potential dangers; as well as draconian pleasure in enforcing rules and the correlation of that stance with both implicit and outright bias and discrimination are just some of the serious barriers to consistently good customer service in our industry. Library workers and patrons alike are human—people on both sides of the desk inevitably have bad days, but each negative transaction causes a bit of damage to the library, no matter who’s wrong or right in the specific situation. Every library should consider how to best minimize the frequency of negative interactions, both operationally by amending rules and interpersonally by
addressing what customer service should look and feel like in different situations.
How can we start engaging staff members in the shift towards a more consistent, relational service, while recognizing that the customer service skill setis operationally and interpersonally complex?
BOOKSTORES AND LIBRARIES
As we considered this question, we reflected back on our work in the bookstore and recognized that things are different, right from onboarding and orientation: Each of us received much more training as we started in the bookstore than we did at any library job. Whether it was a formal corporate training program or a looser independent bookstore introduction, we each moved through multiple days of staff shadowing and coaching on operating systems like inventory, stocking, phone, intercom, register, cafe, loss prevention, and how to answer customer
questions. From the moment you start, the service standard of the bookstore is centered in the process. Every staff member receives the same orientation on front-facing skills, even if they move on to specialized roles at the store. This gives the bookstore an enviable operational flexibility.
For each of us—at different libraries in the Northeast— library orientation was considerably shorter, more piecemeal, and less organized in content and delivery. A few of us received no formal training at all but were put right on the desk to absorb what we could from active circulation or reference staff. While there is a small charm to the idea of “being thrown in the deep end,” it doesn’t leave a lot of emotional bandwidth to focus on the needs of the patrons being served. In the bookstore we were trained on the philosophy of service of the company. None of us recall learning about our library’s mission, vision, values, or goals when we started in our new positions. Early days on the job can shape and shade the entire work experience to come.
Onboarding, orientation, and ongoing training is vital, but remains a logistical challenge for many libraries, and for many organizations there are intractable reasons why a retail-style version of this is unattainable. What can time- and resources-trapped libraries do? We would like to suggest something we learned from working in bookstores: Clearly define your library’s service expectations— based on mission and values—for veteran and new employees alike, and then design a customer service template for patron interactions around them that emphasizes consistency and personal connection.
A Deliberate Design
This is the heart of what retailers call “experience management.” In brief, it’s the codification of transactional expectations into carefully designed frameworks that promote relational service, like a playbook that every person on the library team can be coached on. Companies noted for exceptional user experience (e.g., Apple, Disney, Wegmans, Trader Joe’s) use templates that mix relational and transactional elements, and, most importantly, give staff discretion on how best to use them. These templates, or frameworks, function well because they are flexible and become, in practice, invisible to the customer eye and ear. Templates are not scripts: They offer guidance and support, especially for new staff, on how to manage complex interactions, whereas scripts demand specific language to use every time, no matter who the customer is or what they seek.
It is easy to be skeptical. Opposition to the idea of an “artificially” or predesigned customer service is natural because of the times we’ve all noticed salespeople deploying their required phrases and questions, and they’ve made us all feel uncomfortable or irritated from time to time. This is not that; the best versions of experience management allow staff to show off their expertise and deep product knowledge and fluency in the full scope of service offerings. This is a case where authenticity and structure
can coexist. Staff buy-in to any systemic shift is critical, and templates can provide a structure that enables confidence and builds trust across the organization, as well as a deeper understanding of the mission of the library and the importance of the daily work of customer service.
The key to any good customer service template is that it starts and ends with a signal of care and connection and puts the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of the staff and depth of offerings in the middle. That’s a fluffy way of saying start with a greeting, then recommend additional items, library events and services, or extra information and
resources, then end the interaction with a “thank you.” Most good templates include these elements in some way, shape, order, or form.
The central conceit of experience management is the proactive and personalized promotion of additional services. In the bookstore we called this “upselling.” When done intelligently and judiciously, it can be an easy stepping-stone to relational service, as the library worker is not waiting for someone to ask for a recommendation but offering one freely when the circumstances are right. For some of us this seems simple and obvious, yet for others it seems like precisely the thing they shouldn’t do, because they
don’t want to be perceived as pushy or insincere. In truth, it’s both, but the friction between these two ideas in practice leads to inconsistent service. While some staff are more comfortable with providing on-the-fly readers’ (or viewers’) advisory than others, everyone has a role to play in informing the public about the full scope of what the library offers.
An Act of Listening
Designing a flexible interaction template that can be used at the discretion of each staff member during any transaction goes a long way toward bridging these two attitudes into a service standard for the library as a whole.
The best iterations of experience management are loose enough to leave plenty of room for spontaneity, improvisation, and personality, providing an opportunity for individual strengths and unique passions to shine through. Though service environments are different across industries, any template you encounter, when used well, is laden with opportunities to make real connections with the customer by actively listening to their needs. The idea of selling or promoting the library remains distasteful to some of our peers, but when done purposefully it transforms into a way of directly indicating to the patron that you have truly heard their query and
interpreted it through your expertise. Good service is an act of listening.
As you design a template for your library, consider what matters most to your organization. What is your mission and vision for the community? What are your core values? What services and surprises do you have in store for your users? What are the “big asks” you’ll need to make in the future? The goal of any template is to focus every staff member on consistency across service points and audiences. They are especially useful for organizations that do not have the ability to train or retrain regularly.
In starting out with templates, it helps to give suggestions on what to feature, be it new services, big programs, or upcoming initiatives. Libraries
have expanded and diversified their offerings so much that we have outpaced public awareness of what we offer. Even in this moment, as many of us work from home, we are reminded of this by patrons who are amazed to see libraries offering programs, ebook access, remote learning, and
streaming content, though many of us have been doing these things for years. Being specific about what you’d like staff to highlight supports them as they explore and experiment with a potentially uncomfortable new model of practice. As they become more secure in their skills, they can concentrate on what style and content works best for them.
Opportunity and Caution
Templates can be designed at a personal, departmental, or organizational level, and can set a trainable expectation for relational, proactive daily practice as well as providing a rubric to follow in tricky situations,
for both new staff and experienced team members who have compassion fatigue. They provide an opportunity for managers to coach and mentor staff in the acquisition of new skills as well as demonstrate support in difficult interactions. Though it’s impossible to plan for every iteration of patron request, comment, or complaint, the act of template design can be
used by library teams to consider the most frequent challenges and create a shared framework to address them in a positive way that promotes satisfaction for the patron and practitioner alike.
However, it is important to not go overboard. Some retailers lose track of what makes templates useful, and deploy overly constructed, scripted language to force consistency—the robotic and off-putting version of experience management we all suffer through from time to time. Creating templates isn’t about telling staff what to say but giving them a platform and encouragement to share their expertise. In designing customer service interactions, libraries should also be careful not to rely on customer profile the way some retailers do. As a place of discovery, we must not make assumptions about why any patron connects with us or our resources. It is also important to stress common sense and discretion—a person asking to use a copy machine or looking for the bathroom is not one to practice relational service skills on. The most important action a staff member can take during any interaction is to carefully observe and thoughtfully listen to the person in front of them. Very few people appreciate a salesperson leaping out of their peripheral vision gasping “Can I help you?” One of the best tools in relational service is breathing time—paying attention to the verbal and physical cues your patron is sending and taking time to carefully respond (or not) is vital.
Moving to a more relational style of service makes some demands on library administrators. Another key difference we noted between bookstores and the libraries include how managers communicate “big
picture” goals and priorities to staff at every level. At our bookstores we had daily shift meetings with rundowns on what was important, what was new, which promotions were coming up, and how our sales were
going. The bookstore manager would often share key indicators, including how much money was made each day, compare sales to projections, past results, and the ratio of sales to foot-traffic in the store. Compared to our time in the bookstore, library front-of-house staff are not always privy to data that show the results of their day-to-day work. The idea that customer service affects the library “bottom line” is theoretical, but the statistics that demonstrate organizational performance over time can—and often are—taken as evidence.
In our experience, this isn’t a common practice in the library, though library analogues (circulation shifts over time, service usage, door count) could give the staff a better idea of what is actually happening and how their work directly affects the organization. While daily meetings are unthinkable for many libraries, communicating important organizational
information in ways that are understandable and transparent, including details about library successes and shortfalls, kudos and complaints, and
advocacy and funding processes can help sharpen the stakes for everyone. For experience management to make the most impact, managers must
demonstrate how meaningful the seemingly simple moments of patron connection can be.
Retailers set standards for transactions because each customer lost through bad service means less revenue and a jeopardized future. The consequences for perceived poor customer service are different, but
no less severe, in libraries. A patron that feels they have been treated poorly may never come back, or they may go to another library if that is an option. It is easier than ever to damage the reputation of an institution, and though it is easy to dismiss complaints aired on social media or local networks, when these gripes gain traction the harm is quite real.
While we measure success in several different ways than salespeople, the ultimate measure of failure is the same: declining use and obsolescence.
WHAT THIS MEANS RIGHT NOW
As we stated earlier, the most impactful thing that a library can do is provide meaningful interactions with its users, and in the wake of a loss of normalcy across all aspects of life, consistent and compassionate customer service becomes more important than ever. As library buildings close and both staff and patrons adjust to a new mode of service, the sustainability of libraries comes down to their ability to prove their importance and relevance. Without the circulation statistics of physical books, without program attendance numbers, how can libraries prove their worth? Our answer is this: by providing the information and resources to keep the community informed, encouraged, and hopeful. Providing services and interaction in this time need not be daunting; it is merely a new application of the customer service techniques mentioned earlier:
* Are you providing a consistent voice across your platforms? While it may seem easier to divide up the tasks of posting to social media and
writing newsletters and reports, ensuring that the tone and voice is consistent daily and across multiple methods of communication can go a
long way in providing a semblance of normalcy in the lives of your patrons.
* Are you aware of the resources both in yourcommunity and at your library? Being able to share information like local news updates, testing
centers, closures, and donation drop-off and pick-up sites can help create a sense of unification and an understanding of the immense work being done in your community to ensure health and safety. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, especially during times of crisis. Do not underestimate the value of serving as an information aggregator—this type of customer service is perhaps more useful than adding redundancies into the mix. Although this temporary shift to virtual library services changes some of the methods of customer service practice, the principles remain the same. Listen to your customers, provide consistent service, and use a framework or template to share information.
While we don’t think libraries need to become more like stores, patron retention is as important to us as sustaining or growing sales is to retailers. There is a lot at stake for the library industry right now: As we face an unprecedented psychological and economic crisis, it is critical for every library to demonstrate its value to the community. We change the perception of libraries one transaction at a time, and relational service not only aids in retaining users, but can spur the continual growth of local, vocal advocates to partner with us as we cement our status and relevance in a world where we have to compete for attention with others who provide the same things as we do, though rarely as well. The most effective way to do that is to give our users a story to tell about how the library has been the
source of connection, stability, and positive change in their lives. This work of securing our future, for our institutions and for the people who depend on our services, happens every day, during each transaction, at each desk, by our front-of-house workers.
MAKE THE CONNECTION
What bookstores understand about service is that you cannot expect people to just know how to bridge personal experience as customers into a new role behind a desk. The idea that people know how to deliver good customer service because they have, as consumers, received good customer service is insidious and damaging to both our people and our organizations in the long run. We shouldn’t expect folks to figure this out on their own, with little more than the directive to “smile and be nice.”
What libraries bring to the table will be essential in the days to come. We must be cognizant that people on both sides of the service desk have been
through an extended trauma, and that our industry and our services will be permanently altered by it. Libraries and the people who work in them are full of deep knowledge about both our services and our communities. Combining this local expertise with a deeply humane service attitude that truly centers the delicate, severe needs of our communities will be paramount as we move forward.
We believe that human connection is the single most important thing a library can provide to its community, particularly our most vulnerable neighbors, and the work of improving the consistency of the customer service experience never truly ends. Every library has its own challenges and idiosyncrasies, and customer service is just one piece of the user experience puzzle, but we hope these ideas will give you some things to think about as we move into an uncertain future for our industry and our nation. The fallout from these events will alter so many things about how we live and interact with each other, but the mission of the public library remains. We cannot do our best for our patrons if we do not consider how our provision of service affects them, and the story they tell about “the library,” not just as independent organizations, but as an entity in our
shared culture. Public perception of a library anywhere is impacted by inconsistent service everywhere, so we will need to be vigilant as an industry about how we treat our users now, more than ever. By borrowing some of these ideas from our bookstore cousins, we can begin to consider what matters most as we serve our public, what will truly make an
impact for our patrons as we emerge from catastrophe, and how we will rise to meet a new world in the ways that only library workers can.
The authors would like to thank Pascale Laforest for her contributions to this work.
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