Customer Service as Core Value for Libraries

Betha Gutsche /

Customer service consistently ranks high as a training priority for libraries. As Steven Bell puts it, “We might even describe good customer service, for library organizations, as a core value service. Without it we fail to fulfill our mission.” The Salt Lake County Library created a mnemonic display of its customer service standards, building off the core word: Service-oriented, Empowered, Responsible, Values-driven, Informed, Courteous, and Engaged. These are all sound principles for sustaining positive relationships, both externally and internally.

However, the heightened interactivity and user focus in the 21st century spurs us to expand the notion of customer service to one of customer fulfillment, even enchantment. In the intensely competitive retail world, businesses vie for the attention of customers as a matter of survival. The company that can deliver a unique experience to the consumer has a keen advantage.

  • You feel [enchantment] when you drive a BMW, touch an Apple iPad, walk into a Sephora store, or buy shoes from Zappos.” (Robert Scoble, commenting on Kawasaki’s book Enchantment)
  • Customer service is not about reading from a script it is about resolving issues and ensuring client happiness.” (Drew Stevens, The Customer Collective)
  • Retail 2.0 will form around phrases like ‘experiential entertainment,’ ‘active engagement,’ and ‘interaction with experts’. … People love to talk to the experts and find answers for those nagging questions that create a cloud of uncertainty around most consumer products.” (Thomas Frey, Futurist Speaker)

While it might seem that libraries are above the fray, the reality is that our users bring their retail-world expectations with them when they enter the library. Given the amount of money businesses devote to advertising, how can a library even dip a toe into the melee of marketing competition? Libraries have two strong advantages over the retail market:

  1. They have a high level of trust and goodwill from their customers (patrons);
  2. There are librarians who are leading the field into the future of customer service.

David Lee King is one librarian who has given a lot of cogent thought to the subject.
People don’t want just goods or services from a business anymore— they want a unique, remarkable experience built around those goods or services. It’s the same for your library. Your patrons are looking for more than a book—they can find that at Walmart, or even in their pocket. They want a unique, useful user experience built around ‘your stuff.’” (Redesigning Public Services slideshare)

How does my library work on giving our organization “personality?” How are we, as a system, acting more like people rather than an organization? (abbreviated from full post People are Human, Brands (and Organizations) not so much)

  • Blog-based content … creators’ personalities shine through in their writing.
  • We include pictures and full names for every blog post. Same with our public-facing staff directory.
  • We send staff out in the community … through our bookmobiles, offsite programs and events, and our speakers’ bureau.
  • We have an Ask Now button pretty much everywhere on our website and catalog that connects to IM chat reference.
  • We use multimedia – pictures of events, videos, etc….to introduce staff to customers.
  • We share what us librarians are reading, using Goodreads and LibraryThing widgets.
  • And of course, we’re using social media – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc."

The Utah State Library is leading a collective wiki-based effort to define 21st Century Librarianship.
Engaged customer experiences, and interactive programming, means to provide a multi-faceted approach to a library-related experience. Rather than just presenting information in a brochure or on a website, or through book purchases, it is providing content within a framework of experience. People get together or experience a topic in some way. Many times this is in a broad way where many people in the community can be involved.” (from Customer Experiences section)

Dr. Steve Matthews, a library specialist with the Utah State Library Division, initiated the USL wiki and has expounded extensively on the topic on his own 21st Century Library Blog.
The absolute total purpose and focus of the 21st Century Library Model is the customer. Customer centered library services that meet the information needs of the 21st Century customer will result in any library remaining relevant to its community. … The 21st Century customer is NOT the 20th Century patron.” (Customer Is The Purpose)

The PROACTIVE frame of reference requires looking to the future and seizing the initiative. It is a frame of reference from which leaders see the future as a choice to be made rather than as a situation to be endured. It is a view of the future as something to be chosen, not something waiting to happen.” (The High Performing Library)

The Metropolitan Library System (IL) produced a report in 2008 on Best Practices for the Customer focused Library, which is still applicable four years later. They worked with consultants to evaluate the ways in which customers used the library, creating user profiles, density maps of where users tended to congregate, and studying patterns of behavior. The best practice solutions are inspired by retail service models. Each solution is offered in three levels: no budget, low budget, or high budget.
Change is not easy: you will face frustrations with budget and staff. It takes resources and planning, but a customer-focused library reaps dividends in satisfied patrons who return for additional services.”

Be a secret shopper at your own library and rate the level of customer fulfillment with this poll: