Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Customer Service for Libraries

How does a library compete for the attention of readers (or students, faculty, etc.)? After reading some articles on the business side of customer relations management, I want to offer ideas for libraries that may change how we deal with our publics. While we don’t compete for the customer’s money, we do compete for resources of the school, public or other entity that pays our bills. We are competing in a marketplace for ideas, minds, and resources.

1. What does customer-centric approach mean for libraries? How does the change in retail expectations affect what people expect from libraries?

Consumers have grown more skeptical over the past few years when spending their money. This should be good for libraries because libraries offer resources that the customer does not directly pay for. In a marketplace that customers feel mislead, the library is a place to get reliable and diverse information on every subject.

The Internet has raised expectations for the gathering of information. People are impatient and want instant answers even when the best answers take lots of careful investigation. Librarians can only point readers in the right direction and hopefully student learn from their classes the value of careful and systematic research. As customers learn from businesses how to solve or experience something, library users need to find value from library services. Libraries help readers solve problems, seek information and seek recreational sources. As other sources of these services bombard them, they may ask “Why use the library? Why finance the library?”

In a customer-centric library the librarians and staff are always asking themselves “How does this affect the user experience?” From the back office purchasing and cataloging to the direct reader interaction at the reference desk, circulation desk and everywhere in between everything must relate to the “customer experience.” Attention must be paid to the rooms, the signs and the electronic impressions made on the library users and stakeholders. For example if the physical features of the library don’t fit the needs, the features need changing.

2. What are the mistakes that organizations make when trying to appeal to library users?

Some of these mistakes happen so often that we don’t realize they are having a negative effect on the public. In the business world a company may claim they are number one in their field or they have the largest selection, or have X years experience in the business. Do you remember the ads that Avis Car Rental used to make, “We try harder?” This was supposed to indicate that they knew they were number two in car rental and they constantly want customers to know they were trying to be better. [fn 1]  When a business brags about being number one they are addressing the company perspective (the firm, the salespeople, and the marketing department). The claim is about their attributes, not what the customers are interested in.

What are library “customers” interested in? First you have to investigate who is your public. Some of the answers you will know from your years of experience; some answers will take investigate. For example the library needs computer work stations. The nature of these stations and the number required are a matter to investigate. A library needs a suitable collection. To build the collection the librarians need to know what is available and match that to the needs of the public. The library needs multiple kinds of physical space. The exact needs must be investigated.

Customers, like library users, are interested in the value they get from the organization. In a retail store the customer wants selection, service, attractive prices, and attractive physical settings. This is not much different from what readers need – a collection that fills their information needs and wants, reference services to help to find materials, instruction to learn more about the library and information services, and attractive, functional rooms to do their reading, studying or what ever else they want to do in the library.

3. What kinds of unique value could a library promise? How will a philosophy of adding value translate to the way we do business?

In business adding value is both an emotional, personal benefit to the customer and an economic exchange. Customers exchange money for the service or product and get some kind of benefit. The company promises a positive outcome when you do business with them. Too often in both education and in libraries the positive outcome is removed in time and place from the delivery of the service. When dealing with the total customer experience, we have to tell the readers (our customers) the value they get from using our services. We have to show the community the benefits so that users and non-users perceive the benefits. In previous times this meant advertising of events and public service announcements. Today this means getting a big electronic footprint including a web site and a Facebook page. Use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to build the library image and let people know about the library and its service. This is not a hard sell message.

For example I sometimes place information about new books or a message connecting this day in history to the library collection on our Facebook pages.

Think about the total library experience. Do something to encourage people to come again and again. Don’t make a promise about being number one; make sure that you have a defined mission and you do everything in your power to enhance the total customer experience. I know this is hard when you have no control over the copier or room size, but pick something you do have control over and make everyone aware of what you can do.

4. How can the library have a service platform that is consistent with a promise to add value? How can you deliver what you promise?

This is an attitude that takes institutional fortitude. No matter how much a librarian wants to do what s/he can do to deliver great services and have an excellent collection, if the funding source is not great enough, the job will not be done. If you want to offer classes, you need the teaching staff. If you want a great collection you need to purchase, catalog and store the materials. You have to figure out the value you are adding to the public or student experience and build on both the perception and the behind the scene support to make an ordinary place in a great library.

If you can’t get the institutional support you need, change your promise. Make your mission clear so that you can deliver. It is better to promise small and deliver what you promise than not deliver what you promise. Transform every contact into an opportunity to acquire not only a satisfied customer, but an advocate. At some point satisfied readers will tell others about the library and perhaps those who approve the finances will be impressed.

5. How can libraries embrace a customer-centric approach and notice results?

First the library must carefully craft a mission statement and philosophy that establishes what is the core library business. Second find and allocate resources to accomplish this mission. Third empower people to accomplish the mission. Let staff experiment to find out what works best. Give staff the tool, training and resources to accomplish the mission and help the library users.

Next the library must have a plan for examining user expectations, keep current with technology, and train for the next level of information service. Training must be an integral part of the schedule. Some staff time needs to be devoted to R&D or long term scholarship and study.
Communications between users, library staff, and stakeholders needs to be developed. Communications must take many forms – in persons, at meetings, phone, and via electronic media.

Front line staff people need to be in charge of innovation. Innovation needs to part the way we do business. Innovation includes such areas as displays, marketing, instruction, materials to help use the collections, signs, and programs. The culture has to support risk taking and inventing new ways for successful and meaningful growth. Reach out and make library use partners in innovation. Just as new books and articles are objects of innovations, we have to find the best tools for acquiring, curating, cataloging, organizing and circulating information. We not only here for our patrons, they are our business.

Businesses have changed their physical features such as wider aisles, brighter lights and more appealing store organization. This will not work in libraries because book stacks are not merchandise shelves. .Libraries do need multiple kinds of space and seating.

6. This customer-centric approach sound hard especially when there is administration push-back. How can libraries start the process?

Some activities don’t cost money. Start small and make incremental changes. Think about your library users in every area of library operations and think ways to improve their library experience. Think of how you can offer library services in the best possible way and make sure to make your promises into reality.


Changing a corporate culture is not easy.  The customer is not always right and sometimes what the customer wants interferes with the wants and needs of other customers.  The administration must be dedicated to helping the people who use the library and making the culture customer-centric.The rest is commentary.


1.  For more information see Avis’ web site:  “We try harder” was adopted in 1962.  It was designed as an indicator that their corporate philosophy was changing.  It was not an advertising gimmick.  This way of doing business increased market share from 11% in 1962 to 35% in 1966.   See also “Advertising: Trying Harder“ in Time Magazine, June 24, 1964.,33009,939058,00.html

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