Monday, December 17, 2012

The Blame Game

In a New Yorker report "Why Smart People Are Stupid," Jonah Lehrer writes that people are bias when it comes to thinking.  According to the study, the smarter we are the more bias we become.  In a workplace full of intelligent employees, you can see how bias may get in the way.  If you are not sure how this could apply to your library, allow me to paint this picture for you:

A very hard worker named Sally always does her job diligently.  While weeding a particular section of the library, Sally noticed quite a few materials from another collection misshelved.  Concerned, she spoke with Jane, her supervisor.  Sally asked Jane to spread word via email about the misshelved collection, asking other workers to be mindful when sorting materials on the cart.  Jane was hesitant to send an email after reading the New Yorker article.  She understood that most everyone would already think the email did not apply to them, assuming the oversight must be someone else.  But Jane relented and sent the email.  The following day, after having sent the email, Jane went to assist Sally with sorting books.  The first thing she noticed was that Sally had missorted an item from the collection she had referred to yesterday.  Knowing that it was just a mistake, Jane corrected the error and never mentioned a thing to Sally.

This scenario is very common among the workplace.  When things go wrong, we naturally look for the right person to blame, often times forgetting that everyone has the same fatal flaw - our humanity.  Being human means being prone to make mistakes.  

You may be very familiar with Jane's situation and have probably sent out a few of those emails yourself.  The key is to not let employees and coworkers run amok with constant finger pointing and corrections.  There are two significant factors to look out for:
  1. Verification - the employee wants you to understand that there is a bigger issue which needs to be addressed.  Asking questions to identify if the problem is repetitive or a one time occurrence will clue you in on what action to take.  If mistakes are happening over and over again, it may be time to offer training on that topic.
  2. Venting - the employee wants you to know that a mistake has happened and has effected them personally.  These are usually one time occurrences where the employee needs to be reminded about humanity's flaw and that forgiving and forgetting is the best policy.
Just as Sally would not have suspected she was the one contributing to the misshelving, it can be difficult to consider yourself as a culprit of the crime.  The beauty of mistakes is that it makes us human.  The key is allowing others to make mistakes as well.  Before bringing mistakes to your supervisor's attention, take into consideration two things:
  1. Verification - is this issue something that has been repeatedly happening and needs to be addressed either in a meeting or through training?  If this is the case, then a supervisor should be alerted to make them aware of the gap in information.
  2. Venting - if the mistake is a one time deal, it may be best to remember our humanity and forgive the person the mistake.  If you know who made the mistake, you can politely call their attention to the mistake.  If not, just shrug it off and know that there have been plenty of mistakes you've made in the past but never knew about them.
Basically, give people the benefit of the doubt and remember you are only as perfect as your coworker.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Transferred! Now What?

A lot of people fear change - and for good reason.  Change means having to face the unknown head-on, learning something new and, sometimes, meeting new people.  When you get transferred to a new location, all of these factors are at play.  But before you get down in the dumps over all the change you will have to face, reflect on what this change will mean and how it can benefit you.  Every situation is different but here's what I did when I found out that I would be making a lateral transfer to a new location:

  • Get to know the people you will be working with and the building you will be working in.  Try scheduling a time to meet with staff and supervisors before your arrival so you at least know what to expect on your first day at the new location.  
  • Be prepared to ask lots of questions and don't be afraid of looking like an idiot.  In time, you will get to know the hang of things and your coworkers will realize that you are not an idiot after all.
  • Know your role at the new location.  Expectations may be different at a new location and this is important information to have up front.
  • Learn what your coworkers roles are.  This will prevent you from stepping on any toes where day to day tasks are concerned.
Teen area of my new branch
  • Creating an Us vs. Them scenario.  Try not to use phrases like "at my old place we used to do things like this."  Saying things like this will only create a chasm between you and your new coworkers.
  • Changing things too fast.  If you are in a position where you have the ability to change the way things are done, wait a breath or two before diving in.  Making swift changes has the potential to start a staff rebellion.
  • Using the pronoun "you" instead of "we."  This is a hard one to break, but the sooner you begin asking questions like "we shelve our books here?" instead of "you shelve your books here?" you will begin feeling like a member of your new team.
  • Clinging to the past.  If you continue to reference your old location in conversations then you are preventing yourself from making connections with your new coworkers. This doesn't mean you can never talk about your past, it just means selecting the appropriate stories and the times to tell them.
  • Something new and exciting.  When we have been doing the same thing for so long, we often get a fog over our eyes.  Making a change allows our bodies to wake up from the fog and revisit why we do the things we do.
  • Meeting new people.  Depending on your position and your intentions for your career, meeting people may or may not be at the top of your priorities.  Whether you want to network or just find someone you can discuss a book with, meeting new people at a new location is rarely a bad thing.
  • Learning something different.  If you work in an organization with multiple locations, I can guarantee that each place does something different.  Different is never good or bad, it's just different.  Use this opportunity to look at things in a whole new light.
  • New customers.  When you are new to a location, you get to meet new customers and touch the lives of different people within the community.

Embracing change, instead of fearing it, will definitely put you on the right path to getting comfortable in your new location. While transferring locations can take quite a mental toll on our bodies, following these tips may help you integrate much easier and develop connections with other staff members more quickly.  What other tips might you suggest to help ease the transfer process?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Customer Service Fatigue

My coworker, Laura,  used the term Customer Service Fatigue to describe the burnt-out feeling we, as professionals,  get after being "switched on" all the time.  You know what I mean.  It's that tiredness of repeatedly greeting customers and annoyance at explaining how the copier works, again.  Customer service fatigue is a natural feeling but, left untreated, it can become a real problem for you, your coworkers, and your customers.  Here are a few symptoms to watch out for:

  • Finger Pointing - if you are pointing to an area in the building and not walking the customer there, then you may have a problem.
  • Giving Directions - this one goes along with finger pointing; it's much easier to just show the customer.
  • Terse Replies - this happens when we are all talked out or have been repeating ourselves so much we stop communicating.
  • Saying No - sometimes you have to say no, but if you've stopped offering another solution then it may be time to regenerate.
These symptoms can occur at any time and for any number of reasons, but let's talk about how to treat them by addressing common situations which may bring on bouts of Customer Service Fatigue:

It's a busy Saturday; you've been running around all day and the lines at the desk just haven't let up.  No doubt about it, you are tired.  When the next customer in line asks you where the science fiction books are located, you are tempted to point your finger and give directions.  After all, the collection is pretty easy to find because it's only the last shelving unit on the left side. When you begin to feel Customer Service Fatigue because your body is physically tired, overcoming the exhaustion you feel and giving the best customer service seems impossible.  You've probably heard the phrase "point with your feet, not with your hands" in customer service training you've received in the past.  It's really good advice, and I try to adhere to it as much as possible, but the reality is such that it's not always possible.  For this I give a conceit: use your hands to gesture and give verbal directions but ask if they would like assistance.  Saying something like "the science fiction section is straight back and to the left, would you like me to show you," gives customers the power to accept or decline your help and gives you a 50/50 shot at exerting extra energy.  By offering the help, you are keeping up customer service expectation levels while still giving your body a break.

Everyone seems to be using the printer today and if you have to explain the printing process one more time then you may just burst.  It's not that difficult! One of the most difficult things about customer service is repetition. Realizing that customers are not equipped with the same information as you is easy in theory but difficult in practice.  Treating each customer as if they know nothing can be painstakingly repetitive at times but, before giving the Cliff's Notes version of anything, think about the time you will be saving yourself in the future.  If a customer is unsure of the procedure then the likelihood of him coming back and eating up more of your time is great.  Even worse, the customer may never come back.  Having this at the forefront of your mind may make it easier to give full explanations and, preferably, demonstrate at the same time.  When giving an explanation, use the strategy above and ask the customer if he would like assistance.  If you've already given a terse reply and you realize it after the fact, like I have on many occasions, don't be afraid to follow up with the customer.

A customer needs a book that the library no longer carries.  You've already offered to submit a request for Interlibrary Loan but the customer needs it right away.  You feel bad about sending her away, but what else can be done?  Sometimes the library can't fill a request, but it can help arm the customer with information.  Your Customer Service Fatigue may tell you that you've already done enough to help this customer, and that may be true, but I've found that going the extra mile is a great cure for the "Saying No" symptom.  When you truly see something to the end, you may find yourself invigorated to do more great customer service.  For this particular customer, needing the book right away probably means she will need to buy it.  There have been times when I have called around to different used bookstores in order to locate a title, looked it up on Amazon, and even reserved it at Barnes and Noble for a customer to pick up.  Since I couldn't put the book in their hands, I found someone who could.  If you ever find yourself saying "no," try your best to add a "but."

The reality of life is that we can't always be on our A game, but that doesn't mean our customer service should lack.  Remember that these are only treatments for the symptoms to Customer Service Fatigue and may not treat the issue completely.  If you find yourself having any serious side effects, please consult your nearest librarian for help.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Library Design 101: Planning for the Future

In the previous segments of Library Design 101, we covered the many designs of libraries and the functionality of space.  For this segment, we are going to focus on what happens when your design becomes outdated.  As time continues to roll on, design goes through phases of what is fashionable and what is not.  Whether you are in an old building or new, you will eventually face the challenge of trying to make an outdated design look timeless.  Here are a few things to help you achieve that look:

If the design of the library isn't cohesive, it doesn't matter what cool and modern furniture you have.  To make your library design cohesive you should consider factors like color, function, and form.  Taking into consideration all of these factors and the materials you have to work with, it is possible to create a cohesive design with mismatched furniture. Without unity among furniture pieces, the space will instantly have a dated look.  When cohesion is created, it doesn't matter what decade the furniture is from, the space suddenly comes alive for both staff and customers.

In the last segment, I mentioned that shelves often define the space within the library because they are big, natural dividers and usually extremely difficult to move.  Because shelves are difficult to move, it means that everything in the library usually just gets moved around according to the already defined space.  While I could argue that moving shelves are definitely worth the trouble, I will make the case for other movable pieces instead.  The furniture I have in mind for this category can be divided into three groups:

1. Tables and Chairs - are the easiest thing in the library to move besides the books and are often relocated by customers on a daily basis.  It may seem like tables and chairs are easy enough to arrange but, in fact, a lot more thought could go into the way we set up this furniture.  Consider first how the customer uses the furniture by observing behavior.  If you are constantly replacing chairs to their rightful place or pushing tables back together, then you may want to reconsider the configuration to maximize customer benefit.  Having worked in a building that was constructed before the internet, arranging tables to coincide with outlets for laptops was a big driving force in planning our library space for the future.  What other uses can you think of that may determine how you arrange tables and chairs?

2. Displays - and other marketing furniture are great ways to define the space and make it relevant to your customer's needs.  Thinking unconventionally, art can be a great display to modernize your outdated space.  Art doesn't have to be watercolors or oil on canvas; it can be anything (fashion included.)  Display tables for books and other promotional marketing material have the capability of creating traffic patterns which you can work toward the library's benefit.  Items on display should change often enough so customers and staff remain intrigued by them and even display furniture should rotate on occasion to stimulate and renew enthusiasm about the space.  Take into consideration how often your the average customer visits the library and change displays accordingly.  Doing this will ensure that complacency does not happen.

3. Shelving - is often in the form of big shelving units but you can most likely move the individual shelves.  Your library may also have separate shelving units that hold collections which can be moved easily.  These units can really deter customers and make the space inefficient if used incorrectly.  The shelving unit pictured to the left is one such case.  When placed five feet to the left, it caused the space to feel cramped and overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, the audiobooks featured on the display did not circulate because of the poor atmosphere is created within the space.  Moving it where it now stands helped tremendously with the functionality of the space and, therefore, with circulation.

Shelving that, for the most part, stays where it is initially set up can be a little more difficult to bring into the 21st century.  For these structures, incorporating modern elements (i.e. signage, displays within the shelves, etc.) can transform an outdated shelving unit into a bookstore design.  Because shelving is expensive, changing out and updating the little things can work a whole lot of magic.

Using these principals and the ones outlined in the Library Design 101 and 102, find what design element work for your library.  Sometimes it's impossible to know what will work and what will not.  You should never be afraid to try out something new for fear of failure.  In the grand scheme of things, it is better to try and fail instead of always wondering "what if . . ."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Library Design 101: Logical Arrangments

A great design concept means nothing until schematics are involved.  As I stated in Library Design 101: Design Concepts, form should follow function and if the space you've designed does not meet the customer's needs, it manifests itself in the form of moving furniture.  Furniture rearrangement is the type of cue we should take from our customers to create a better spacial arrangement.  Let's consider the must-haves of every library and incorporate them into a logical design using a hypothetical library layout.  Most libraries use one of two different basic layouts (shown below.)
These two illustrations do not really show the complexity of architectural design, which may provide additional space such as meeting rooms, reading rooms, and any other nook and cranny, but I want this to be relevant to the most basic of library spaces.  Therefore, the space that customers occupy can usually be broken into a Square or L-shape schematic like these.

Now that we have space, consider everything that will go into the library - tables, chairs, computers, and shelves are the basics.  In order to break up the negative space, we use furniture to form sections of the library varying by collection type.  The most common furniture used to make these distinctions are shelves.  In an L-shaped library, it is common practice to put children's materials on one side while having adult and other study furniture on the opposite side.  In a square shaped space, a little more effort must be applied.

I like to think in terms of noisy and quiet. Thinking in terms of how people use the library, you can divide them into groups of whether their transactions will be noisy or quiet.  Children, for example, are not exactly the most quiet of customers.  Placing this section in an area where noise is to be expected, like the front of the library near the circulation desk, may be an optimal placement.  For those people who come to the library seeking peace, may find refuge toward the back.  Here is a suggested schematic design (drawn in Paint, so please excuse my crude, not-to-scale drawing.)   

In the drawing, lines designate shelving units, circles represent placement of tables, and squares recommend placement of computers.  In the Square layout, I've designated the front, left space to children's materials.  From here, the customer can grow counter-clockwise into young adult and then into the adult collection.  Because my tables are not to scale, imagine that multiple tables and reading chairs occupy these areas to make a common space.  Computers are in the far corner for several reasons:
  • It gives a sense of privacy, as most people using public computers must do so to conduct private business when there is no home computer in the household.
  • It is far away from the children's area (think CIPA)
  • Computers generate noise as well, and this secludes them from the study area in the center of the library.
  • Computers placed in the back (like milk in a grocery store) forces customers to unconsciously browse the library.
In the L-shaped layout, the same counter-clockwise rotation is true, keeping in mind the children's area,  young adult section, computers, and adult study areas.  

You may have noticed some negative space remaining in my crude drawing.  I'm sure that you are thinking of multiple sections I've left out or displays that have not been considered, and you would be exactly right.  We'll get to that in my next post, Library Design 101: Designing for the Future.

Until next time, I'd love to hear your answer to this question:
In the L-shape design, considering you enter the building from the bottom left corner and proceed to the adult collection,  should the non-fiction section (Dewey 001-999) begin at the red or purple arrows?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Library Design 101: Design Concepts

So you've observed your customers and staff and have taken extensive notes on how the library is used, but now what?  After all, we went to library school and I certainly don't remember any classes offering Library Design 101.  You probably never thought much about design before, but as I've written previously, a well planned space can positively influence you customers and staff and help achieve the ultimate user experience.  If design is a concept that terrifies you, then worry no more because I am here to help with this three part post on Design Concepts, Logical Arrangements, and Designing for the Future.  Let's get started with some basic design concepts:

Every library building and community is different and the library's design should reflect that.  I've had the pleasure of working at several libraries, all different in design and type of community served, but they each taught me one valuable lesson - it's what's on the inside that counts.  Whether you are in a brand new, state-of-the-art building, a historic piece of architecture, or a converted building, you probably have little control over the physical structure of the building.  That's okay because you can definitely take advantage of the inside.

Community standards play a big role in libraries - it affects the books we purchase and the programs we offer - so it stands to reason that the design of our buildings should actively reflect those same community standards.  Take, for instance, the design of the Seattle Public Library's Central Library and its very contemporary design.  From the architecture to the interior design, the style reflects the community standards.  Obviously this type of design wouldn't go over as well in a small town community (not even considering the budget constraints,) but for a city that is known for its modernity the design is just right. The library you work in, however, is most likely to resembles the picture above.  An older building, true, but still full of potential on the inside.  If you work in an older building - don't fret too much about the outdated exterior - take control of the interior.  Considering the community standards, think about how these interior designs may (or may not) fit.
  • Contemporary - Probably the most used design style in libraries today, this style is often a safe bet because it is, well, contemporary.  Defined by the styles of the current time, libraries often incorporate sleek furniture and lighting like you see in the picture to the left.  This look comes standard on most newly built or renovated libraries but there is no reason to not put this style into a building like the one above. Because it is more cost effective to make cosmetic changes than build a new structure, bringing the interior into contemporary design is a great way to keep the library relevant.
  • Traditional - Of course, it may be that your community is not ready for a contemporary design.  That's okay, because we are designing our library based on community standards.  For this community you may want to take a traditional approach.  The traditional style focuses more on color and comfort than anything else.  Think of your living room and try to invoke some of the same emotions.
  • Rustic
  • Rustic - A design that is exactly what you think it is, uses darker hues along with wood and metals such as iron and copper.  In this library in Colorado, the carved wood for the side table and cozy fireplace to read books by are signature features of the rustic style.  
  • Modern - I referenced Seattle's main library before and that's because it has been the point of reference for modern library design over the last couple of years.  Modern is a term that was coined in the 1920s and we still seem to use it to describe "forward thinking" design.  Modern is definitely not for every library, but certain additions of furniture or bold/bright colors will certainly modernize a library and bring it into a contemporary design.
Knowing these different styles is important if you want to design by community.  Following the belief that "form follows function," a term coined by the Bauhaus, it is important to understand what your community's expectations will be.  After you've thought of the overall concept for your library, you can begin to consider spacial function and how the community will actually use the space.  We'll cover that on the next post - Library Design 101: Logical Arrangements.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Space + Staff = Greatness

I commented to my supervisor the other day that I could really see a change in the way the library is used by our customers, thinking that we may have finally achieved the concept of the "The Third Place."  I attributed this positive change to the thoughtfulness of the space.  My supervisor, as any good boss would do, was quick to point out that it was definitely the staff's great customer service as well.  But, of course, it was the staff!  Within the library, the space and the staff are not mutually exclusive as one might think.  It's all in the user experience - you can't have one without the other.

It should not come as a shock to you that color and design influences emotions.  Most of the time we are interested in the effects that design has on our customers.  For example, the use of McDonald's Red and Yellow colors are meant to inspire satiety and invoke uneasiness to make you leave promptly thereafter.   Design follows the same principle.  Open design concepts make spaces more inviting (hence my comment regarding the space affecting our customers use.)  But the open concept also feels inviting to staff, as well, and encourages them to be at their best.  Here are three reasons why design directly influences your staff's customer service level:

The functionality of space means each piece of furniture is placed with a specific function in mind.  Giving thought to the everyday routine, just the simple act of moving a waste paper basket can mean freeing up seconds of staff time.  Those seconds add up to minutes and everyone's job is made a little easier.  Just as I suggested to observe how customers use the library, let me add that observing how staff use the same space can help you make appropriate changes.

The important thing to remember is that functions change over time.  The way customers use the library now is slightly different from 10 years ago so it makes sense that our behind-the-scenes operations have changed a bit, too.  Reevaluating the functionality of furniture and space should be done consistently and, if I may add, should also be reactionary to staff input.  In my branch, when several staff members decided they would like to try rearranging the sorting carts to improve efficiency we gave it a trial run.  In the end, we collectively decided that the new arrangement didn't work. The fact that we tried a new method, however, meant something profound - staff voices were heard and acted upon.

Staff take pride in a beautiful workplace. Having taken the time to carefully think out the design we use, whether it be for furniture, paint, signs, or displays, everything is part of one cohesive unit that adds to an overall effect.  The more appealing the space becomes, the more likely staff are going to nurture the space and aid in its effectiveness.  The library is essentially an evolving work of art that invigorates and motivates staff.

It is a bold statement - to say that design can do so much - but in my experience from visiting libraries, I've noticed a direct correlation between customer service and library design.  I think a quantitative study regarding this theory would be interesting to pursue.

The idea behind "The Third Place" accounts for comfort.  If the space is not comfortable, no one will want to be a part of it.  For staff, the library is the "second place" - work.  If you've considered the function of each piece of furniture and rearranged so that staff are taking pride in their work space, then you should notice a certain level of comfort start to set in.  Comfort is good.  If staff have to be at work, it may as well be comforting to them.  I know my worst customer service happens on my "off" days so, it stands to reason that, if staff are not happy then the customers will not be happy either.

Is comfort ever a bad thing?  While I wouldn't say that comfort in of itself is bad, I do think it can sometimes lead to complacency.  We begin to take things for granted and let ourselves slide but you can prevent that with a simple change of display.  Staff are impacted by the slightest visual change and by altering simple design elements of the library space (i.e. changing a display, moving a table, moving a collection, etc.) you keep them motivated while keeping up that level of pride in the overall design.

Maybe it seems too good to be true - getting better customer service out of your employees by sprucing up the place - but it sure couldn't hurt.  I recommend making a change because, at the very least, your customers will benefit from a well thought out design.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Prepare to be Dazzling

From the introduction of my blog I've been posting about three things: The User Experience, Customer Service, and Training.  I've focused intensely on customer service the past several months so this post is all about training - specifically how to be a good trainer.  In the past I've written about how to come up with training topics, how to choose the right format, and even a couple of tidbits on what to do during the training session like role playing (or, why you shouldn't include role playing.)  This post, however, is all about presentation.  In order to dazzle your trainees, you have to be dazzling yourself.

One of my favorite librarians is Steven Bell.  He writes about all of my favorite topics and makes a mean presentation.  He recently wrote this about making presentations and, while one could argue that making presentations and leading a training session are two completely different things, they definitely share more similarities than differences.  In his post, he references three things to making a great presentation which I will focus on here in regard to training.  The three things, paraphrased as needed, are listed below:
  1. It's about the audience - not me.
  2. I'm going to enjoy this - not just survive it.
  3. I will live in the moment and not stress if I forget something or if a problem occurs.
Me in the thick of it
These are not revolutionary ideas, but when put to use they make a world of difference.  Let's look at them separately and within the context of training.

"It's About the Audience - Not Me"
As you prepare your training, you should consider first what your trainees want to know - not necessarily what you want to teach them.  Most of the time, the two needs overlap, but every once in a while a trainer has not correctly evaluated the needs of the trainees.  It is instances such as these where the training session seems to fall apart.  You can't guarantee a perfect training every time, but you can certainly take precautions.

Before beginning a session, I often like to ask "what would you like to take away from this session."  Knowing this tidbit of information can help you stay on track and cover key areas of importance.  If you know who will be attending prior to the training, you can ask participants in advance to help you structure the lesson.

Think about who will be attending your training.  You can't always know for sure, but specific topics attract different demographics with varying skills.  In the next several weeks, I am offering a Computer Basics class to cover the most basic components of computer literacy.  I have no idea who will attend but I can make a pretty good guess that most trainees will be in a targeted age range and will have a specific reason for wanting to learn the computer.  Knowing this information has helped me tailor my vocabulary, posture, and overall delivery of the training.

"I'm Going to Enjoy This - Not Just Survive It"
If you can fool yourself into being in better mood, you can certainly trick yourself into enjoyment.  But, the truth is, you shouldn't have to trick yourself into anything.  You are the expert, that's why people have come to learn from you! When placed in front of an audience, you should be feeling a rush of adrenaline.  Use that natural high to show your enthusiasm and the trainees will pick up on your energetic vibe, enjoying what you have to offer.  The best way to enjoy yourself is by doing the next step . . .

"I Will Live in the Moment and Not Stress if I Forget Something or a Problem Occurs"
One of the only ways to enjoy yourself during this session is to relax.  I've already stated that you are the expert and, that being said, it's okay to mess up.  Accepting the fact that you aren't perfect and you may forget something will put you at ease.  If you are relaxed, then you are less likely to forget.

The nature of training is that the unexpected may occur.  If a major problem does happen (i.e. a projector isn't cooperating, there is no wifi even though you were promised there would be, etc.) don't sweat it.  People are there for the information, not your cool slides, so give the people what they need.  You will be surprised by how much that adrenaline carries you through the most difficult of situations.  Presumably, you like the topic you are training on so you should let that passion show through.  If it turns out you don't like the subject matter, then perhaps find someone else to lead the session - one rotten apple spoils the bunch!

As the trainer, you set the tone for the entire session.  By letting go, you embrace the possibility of a better class every time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Children @ Your Library

I hardly ever went to the library as a child so I don't have any anecdotes about how great the children's librarian was and how she got me hooked on reading.  Almost everyone has one of these nostalgic stories of the children's librarian of yesteryear which leads me to my point that librarians should be memorable to kids - and not in a negative way.

Understanding that the importance of a child's reference question ranks just as high as the adult customer standing in your line is a good start toward making a positive impact on that child.  A guest writer for Letters to a Young Librarian, Jenn Estep, commented on what it takes to be a good children's librarian and the points she makes are very valid. If your library is lucky enough to have a separate children's department and librarians who specialize in this area then you may not find what I have to say particularly helpful.  If, however, your library is a branch like mine with no one particular person to handle children's reference, this post is a good starting place.  Jenn Estep's post assumes that you actually want to be a children's librarian, and maybe you do, but maybe you don't.  Maybe you just want to survive the amount of time it takes to shelve the cart of juvenile books and the numerous questions you will surely be asked during that time.  Whichever lofty goal you have set for yourself, allow me to offer some non-children's librarian tips for handling children's reference:

Children Are Customers, Too
Treating a child's question with as much care as an adult asking about your business resources is the first step toward engaging the child.  It is easy to overlook their needs because children are less likely to complain about being ignored. But as advertisers will tell you, children are the most powerful customers of all and warrant your full attention.  So often, I see the library staffer approach of only speaking with a parent and never acknowledging the child standing right next to them.  In a scenario like this, I wouldn't blame the child for never wanting to step foot in a library again.  If you can make a genuine connection with a child, however, you have a customer for life.  And what parent can say no to a child begging to go to the library?

Your MRBs Are No Good Here
Children's librarians take special courses in child reference behaviors during library school.  If you work in a library, you probably had training on Model Reference Behaviors and it may or may not have included a section on children's reference questions.  One of the key points drilled into our heads regarding MRBs is to ALWAYS ask open ended questions.  But for children, who are still developing language skills, answering open ended questions can be difficult.  Instead, I recommend asking multiple choice questions to prevent a game of 20 questions.  Here is a great example:

Child: Where are your books on dogs?
Librarian: I have lots of books on dogs.  Do you have a dog or do you just like them?
Child: I have a beagle.
Librarian: That's awesome!  I wish I had a dog but I'm allergic to them.  Did you want to look at books about Beagles or learn about other types of dogs?
Child: Beagles.
Librarian: Let's go look and see what we have. (As you walk to the books ask other questions such as, "do you have to take care of your dog," "how old is your dog," and/or "do you have any other animals?" The answers to these fun questions will help narrow the specific type of book the child is looking for)   

Most children are succinct in their answers and the only way to get them talking is to make a connection on a topic they love.  By having a conversational reference interview, you put the child at ease and increase the likelihood that the child will return to the library.

Early Childhood Literacy Matters
My wonderful coworkers, who have much more knowledge about children's reference than I do, have worked on several projects dealing with Early Childhood Literacy that really makes a difference.  From reader's advisory workshops to a literacy station in our juvenile collection (right,) children feel at home in the library even if they never seek the help of a library staff member.  Hopefully, I will be able to share the reader's advisory workshop with you in the near future, as well.

Working with children can be so rewarding if you let it.  It is impossible for me to cover every single nuance of assisting children at your library, but I certainly hope this gives you a jumping off point toward understanding our littlest, and perhaps most important, customers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ESL Expectations

My library will soon be starting up its fall session of Let's Talk, a session of English conversational classes that we host each Fall and Spring, and this has got me thinking about how libraries assist the ESL community as a whole.  If your library is like mine, it may offer something similar to our Let's Talk classes or may even provide citizenship classes.  All of it is great, but it's not the programs where libraries seem to fall short.  The regular, day to day interactions we have with ESL customers has a huge impact on both their library experience and their cultural experience as a whole.  If we, as librarians, fail to meet their needs in the most simple of information exchanges, that is one customer we have lost that even the most promising of programs cannot bring back.

It's All in the Smile, Except When it Isn't
A smile says a lot and it sure helps put customers at ease, but it cannot translate what a customer is trying to tell you.  You may be familiar with the frustration of assisting an ESL customer when you are not quite sure what they need.  If you've experienced this frustration first hand, imagine instead that you are the customer and your language limitations have been reached.  You've already embarrassed yourself trying to communicate and you see that the Librarian has no idea what you need.  The easiest solution?  Just saying yes and accepting whatever the Librarian gives you knowing that, in the end, you will have to help yourself.  This customer will most likely not come back and, if they do, they will not be asking for help in the future.

Because the ESL community spans the entire scope of languages and cultures, it is important to approach each customer as an individual and meet their specific needs.  But how can you know what the need is if you cannot understand?  I suggest following these Model Reference Behaviors for ESL customers, presented in an InfoPeople workshop on Customer Service Skills for Culturally Diverse Communities.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Yes Sometimes Means No - Either out of respect to you or because they are frustrated, a customer may respond in the affirmative when it is really not what they need.  When you see the eyes light up, you know that this is a genuine YES!
  • Speak to the Individual, Not the Translator - Out of respect for the customer, you should look at them as you are speaking even if they do not understand a single word.
  • Listen, Listen, and Listen - Get to know the individual.  Understanding a little about their history will give you insight to what they want for their future.  It will also help you understand other customers who come in with a similar history or culture.
  • Match Vocabulary - By using the same words and phrases the customer uses, you increase your chance of being understood.  For example, it is always better to use the term borrow rather than check-out.
  • Translations When Possible - If there is a language spoken among many customers, it is in the Library's best interest to translate important information in that language.  New Card handouts, for example, that explain late fees will best be understood if it is written in their native language.
The concept of libraries as we view them in North America and in other western cultures is not a familiar one to most ESL customers.  Libraries are often viewed as highly academic and, oftentimes, are not free to the public.  Libraries have their work cut out for them when it comes to reaching out to the ESL community and educating them about what a great resource their local library is.  Once they come in, let's try to keep them here by continually exceeding their expectations.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Not Your Grandma's Library

The library prides itself on being a place open to all.  From children's services to eBook tutorials, the library has everything you need and more.  But, when helping an elderly customer the other day I noticed that something was amiss.  Most libraries have staff with different skill sets who can be called upon in certain customer service situations.  You may have a children's specialist, a reader's advisory expert, a business connoisseur, and so on.  Of all these specialties, I've never encountered a  senior specialist - someone who, at the very least, knows the best way to assist older adults.

Having realized the deficiency, I continued to assist my customer perform a search on Google all the while taking mental notes of my own exchanges with the woman.  I successfully helped her find what she was looking for online. The customer service transaction took a painstakingly long amount of time and I found myself becoming frustrated throughout the process.  But why would I feel this way?  After all, she is a customer and I am there to help.  Had she have been a child, I probably would have approached the situation with more patience and understanding.  And so I went on a journey to understand why we, as librarians, seem to be gerontophobic and how we can turn our fears into a positive customer service experience.  Here's what I've found:

Aging from infancy to adulthood is a developmental process of resolving emotional conflicts.  The conflict of independence vs. dependence in childhood and the conflict of meaningful work vs. monetary need in  adulthood are just a couple of examples of our progression through life.  Often times, the development into old age is seen as degenerative when, really, it is just a developmental process of resolving emotional conflicts.  More often than not, the conflict needing to be resolved is deeply rooted in the need for control.

The development into Senior adulthood is marked by one key word - loss.  Loss of strength, loved ones, and independence are just a couple of factors that Seniors face which foster the need to retain some amount of control in their lives.  In addition to control is the need to pass on a legacy.  We often associate repetitive storytelling as a sign of deterioration but, in fact, storytelling serves a significant purpose in validation.  More often than not, Seniors will retell stories until they are met with satisfactory responses which ensure their experiences will be remembered.

Taking into consideration these two key points about Senior development, think about your own interactions with the elderly.  The best way to communicate with them is by listening to their subtle hints about what they really want and need.  Here are a few checkpoints to help you communicate better:

  • Explain the how and why simplistically but avoid being condescending
  • Recognize that you are talking to someone with intelligence and years of life experience
  • Lead instead of instructing or taking over completely
  • Understand that anger is often frustration in disguise
  • Diffuse angry customers by putting the control back in their hands - usually through listening
  • Be patient
Using these communication skills in your everyday interactions and you'll see a difference in, not only the Senior customer, but yourself as well.  If you would like more information on this topic, I highly recommend How to Say it to Seniors by David Solie, the source for all of the information written here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dig Deeper

At the heart of the library is information.  It's the place people go when a search on Google didn't yield the results they were looking for.  So now, they are standing in front of you needing help and not doing a very good job of asking for it.  We've all seen it before to the tune of "where are your [insert topic] books?"  It's a convoluded question disguised as a seemingly simple directional question.  What is really plaguing their mind is something along the lines of "what can I eat now that I've been diagnosed with gluten intolerance?" or some other equally direct question.  If a customer asks Question A but really wants the answer to Question B, how do we, as librarians, get them from A to B?

It's all in the Model Reference Behaviors (MRB,) the six step plan to achieve customer satisfaction.  They are as follows:

Be Approachable and Welcoming
Paraphrase the Question 
Ask Open Questions to Elicit More Information
Verify the Real Question
Find the Answer in the First Source
Follow Up

It's a tried and true method that every library information specialist is taught and, yet, no one seems to stick to the method.  Why? Because it is never taught realistically - factoring in time constraints, difficult customers, and using antiquated wording.  Here is a sample reference interview that is meant to exhibit Model Reference Behaviors.  The reference transaction is ideal but definitely unrealistic.  Using the same scenario, let's deconstruct this reference interview and form our own, realistic version of the transaction.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Library Experience: Leave Your Mark

The whole idea behind leaving a mark is about doing good in the community.  Seems easy enough.  The library is a cornerstone of the community, after all.  Unfortunately, in times of financial hardship constituents often forget about the library and the value it brings to the community at large.  Joseph Michelli's fifth and final principle in The Starbucks Experience, Leave Your Mark, explains how to have a positive impact on the community and keep them coming back.  While this principle is directly targeted to for-profit companies, the idea behind the principle is still the same - partner with the community and the community will partner with you.  Let's break this down into two parts:

Great leadership is just one of the many keys to success - but it's a big one.  It's no secret that happy workers are a byproduct of quality leadership.  You can indirectly impact the community just by having a positive impact on your staff.  I've discussed library leadership in the past and, although every leader has his/her own style, they all have one thing in common - motivation.  Leaders know how to motivate staff to do their best.  When staff feel supported they tend to perform their job at a higher level and that makes customers happy.  It's a trickle down theory of sorts.

Outreach has become an integral part of spreading the word about the library.  Appearing at community festivals and PTA meetings are an excellent way to engage new customers.  Sometimes, however, you have to kick it up a notch.  When other organizations crop up, "leaders could be far more effective if they searched for common ground that could lead to successful partnerships," says Michelli.  Partnering with other organizations will help the library thrive because it opens up the ability to reach out to new users through another organization.  By forming a symbiotic relationship, both organizations can provide referrals, co-sponsor events, and advocate for one another.

Ultimately, before you can leave a mark you have to consider what kind of impact you want to have on your community.  Think of the things you would like to accomplish within the community and let the five principles lead you there.  Just in case you've forgotten, the five principles are:

Principle #1: Make It Your Own
Principle #2: Everything Matters
Principle #3: Surprise and Delight
Principle #4: Embrace Resistance
Principle #5: Leave Your Mark

So, what lasting impression do you want to leave on your community?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Library Experience: Embrace Resistance

You can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.
-Variation on Abraham Lincoln

I always loved this saying because of its ring of truth.  Try as we might, not every customer is always pleased and how we handle the situation can determine if that customer will be visiting again.  Principle #4 of The Starbucks Experience, by Joseph Michelli, explains the importance of embracing those dissenters and effectively listening to their concerns.

It's natural to want to rebut complaints and accusations made against you or your organization, but doing so will almost guarantee a lost customer.  Most of the time, people just want their complaints to be heard and know that someone actually cares.  Building on the first three principles, Embracing Resistance means using your welcoming strategies to get the customer to open up, listening to the details, and then surprising them with your compassion.  Let's break this down:

If you remember from the very first principle, Make it Your Own, Be Welcoming is the first step to turning around customer service.  Applied to the upset customer, be welcoming means having an open stance and showing him/her that you care about their individual situation.  We often note that the only people who take the time to comment are the complainers.  While I don't think that is the case, it is notable to mention that most people who do make negative comments are motivated by high emotions which make these comments longer (and more memorable) than the positive feedback we receive.  Because it often takes a high emotional level to induce negative feedback, this means there could be other dissatisfied, low-emotional, customers who have not expressed themselves.  Your welcoming and open stance will put the high emotional  customer at ease and will allow a low-emotional customer to open up about their problem before it escalates.

Principle #2, Everything Matters, means it is all in the details.  Actively listening will provide you with essential details on how to improve a customer service situation.  But listening is very difficult!  Have a partner make a complaint to you and then write down all the things running through your mind.  Most likely, you were thinking of ways to respond before he/she had finished.  Active listening means fully understanding the complaint, details and all.  I guarantee that your response will be better crafted after having understood the complaint rather than trying to formulate a response as the customer is speaking.

Customer's expect a wrong to be righted - surprising them with your compassion and empathy will solidify their loyalty.  The Surprise and Delight principle means giving the customer something they would not expect. That surprise can be something as simple as compassion.  You'd be surprised at how tolerant people are of errors when you show them you are doing everything you can to make it right again. Having listened to the customer's full complaint and acknowledging their concern, you can begin to look at this as an opportunity to gain a customer for life.

With these principles in mind, I challenge you to actively engage and listen to your customer.  By thinking of each complaint as an opportunity to grow and change, you may feel  more inclined to embrace the criticism and less likely to rebut the complaint.

To be continued with Principle #5: Leave Your Mark . . .

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Library Experience: Surprise and Delight

In the last post, I focused on the physical attributes of libraries that make a difference in customers' relationships with the organization.  This post, which comes from the third principle of Joseph Michelli's The Starbucks Experience, focuses on the attitude of staff and how it affects customer loyalty.  This may come as a shock to you but customers usually expect good customer service from the places they visit.  When an organization can deliver EXCEPTIONAL customer service, the customer is usually both surprised and delighted by the exchange.  Let's look at some examples of both planned and unplanned surprises that can go a long way to make the customer in front of you a frequent visitor and life-long fan of your library.

Going the extra mile is a recipe for success.  Helping a customer carry their books to the car or walking them to the shelves to retrieve a title are great, and yet simple, ways to make a difference in your customer's experience.  As I've said before, most customers think they are bothering the staff when asking for help, not realizing that helping them is what we are paid to do.  Anticipating when a customer needs help, instead of waiting for them to ask, means the customer will be more likely to come to you with future inquiries.  And that's what we want, isnt it?  The goal should always be about making this customer a customer for life.

It's amazing how far a smile can go.  Even the most hard-to-crack people will acknowledge a smile.  Even better than a smile, is a word of recognition.  "How are you," and "did you find everything okay today," are great acknowledgements that will delight the customer and make them feel welcomed.  If you're seeking something better than a smile and a word of recognition, you should surprise your customer by digging deeper.  For example, if you are assisting a customer searching for Michael Crichton books, ask them specifically about the book and why they like them.  Doing this not only engages the customer but will give you reader's advisory information to pass on to the next reader.  If there is one thing in life you can count on it's that people love to talk about themselves and, by extension, the books they read.

The library suffers from a PR problem.  People tend to only think of the library in terms of books and, as you and I know, this is just not true.  The library has been, and always will be, about passing on information.  In the past, information was provided in books but now information has become much more collaborative.  This explains why you see your neighborhood branch with more hustle and bustle.  Planning programs that the community wouldn't associate with the library will accomplish the surprise and delight goal we are trying to achieve.

If you would like to plan more programs but just do not know where to start, here's a few tips to get your library going.  Ideally, the program should highlight the library's collection and information resources but, truth be told, anything goes because it's all information!

Remember it's all in the attitude.  What unplanned thing do you do everyday to make your customer's happy?  What can you plan that will certainly be a surprise to your library customers?

To be continued with Principle #4: Embrace Resistance . . .

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Library Experience: Everything Matters

The second principle of Joseph Michelli's The Starbucks Experience delves a little further into the first point of  Principle #1: Be Welcoming.  Considering that everything matters, it is the smallest of gestures which usually win over our customers.  Basic Customer Service can be broken down into two categories: attitude and atmosphere. The reasons behind a company's success usually lie within the fact that people want to be there because (a) they are treated well and (b) the space makes them feel at home.  When using an 'everything matters' approach, focusing on the little things is what will make the space around you work in your favor.

In my Rate Your Library post, I suggested taking time out to observe customer behavior and take note of how the space is used around you.  If you haven't done this already, please do.  It will make a huge impact on how you view the library's space.  Once you've completed those steps, take it a step further and consider the furniture, shelves, signs, fliers, and anything else that the customer comes in contact with.  Take note of their use and functionality.  Here are few items on my list that should be given thought before arranging.

Study area with a dab of comfy chairs for good measure
1.  Side Tables and Reading Chairs - The library is usually made up of two types of chairs and tables - those for reading and those for studying.  Reading chairs and their accompanying side tables are usually found in and around the magazine area - a key place for reading.  But what about those browsing the fiction section who would like to sit and read before they make their final selections?  Having reading chairs throughout the library in key places will make the library feel more like home and invite the customer to stay a while.  Likewise, side tables can be the perfect accent table with a plant or lamp, small display, or marketing area.  Don't let your small tables be lazy, put them to use!

2.  Study Tables and Chairs - If customers have come to the library to study, it makes sense that they would like a little peace and quiet.  Before rearranging tables, think of the flow of traffic and place these tables in areas that receive little interference.  Your customer will be delighted to find a great study area away from all the activity.

Makeshift WiFi tables certainly do the trick
3.  Wifi Area - Laptops, unfortunately, do not live up to their name.  Although designed to be used on the go, people tend to leave their convenient computers plugged in to the outlet at all times.  This can create a problem for the library not equipped with a plethora of electrical outlets.  Do not despair for there is always a workaround.  Scout out the library to find optimal places for plugging in.  This could mean an entire overhaul on the layout of your library but I guarantee it will be worth it.

4.  Displays, Signs, etc. - My previous post about library signage pretty much sums everything up regarding placement and wording of signs.  Displays, like signs, should be used as needed.  Always choose quality over quantity and, if you've rated your library appropriately, then you should know the key areas where displays will be met with interest.  Keeping the balance between aesthetically pleasing and easy to restock displays will delight library customers while taking  weight off of staff.  If it's difficult to keep displays well stocked then it means you have too many.  Also, take note of the small things around the library that people normally pay no attention to.  Shopping baskets, I have discovered, are used more frequently when placed at the point of need (i.e. by the books) rather than the front door.

5.  Shelving - The most important furniture in the building are the shelves.  Lots of thought goes into what to put on the shelves but little thought is usually put into arranging the shelves themselves.  Public libraries cater to the browsing customer - someone who comes in with only a general idea of what they are looking for.  Shelves should be arranged in a logical browsing order.  If a customer wants to browse titles by a particular author, the more times this author is broken up (whether it be by paperback, hardback, or genre) it makes it more difficult for the customer to find.

What other things can you add to this list which matter to your customers?

To be continued with Principle #3: Surprise and Delight . . .

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Library Experience: Make It Your Own

Over the next several posts, I plan to talk about the Library Experience based on a great read by Joseph A. Michelli, The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary.  You may be thinking that Starbucks and libraries have nothing in common (unless your library has a cafe) but you couldn't be further from the truth.  Libraries have at least one thing in common with all businesses - customer service.  Like a business, we thrive on our customers and, as long as they continue to need us, we will continue to exist.  Throw a bit of great customer service into the mix and you have a recipe for success.  Here's the lowdown on how to make your library successful by following Principle #1: Make it Your Own.

It is often easy to overlook the small things.  Assuming your library has an info desk and the day is an ordinary one, ask yourself these questions.  Is there someone at the info desk?  Are they facing the flow of traffic? Are they alert to customer needs?  Are they smiling?  If the answer to any of these questions is 'no,' then there may be a problem.  Library staffers should appear accessible to customers and the best way to achieve this is  by simply being available.  Consider where the desk location is and figure the path most customers take to come and ask for help.  This point of contact is the ideal place for the transaction.  If, for example, an employee is set up at another computer and they frequently say "I can assist you over here," then the employee is at the wrong computer.

Being welcoming isn't just limited to employee-customer interaction, either.  Library design can have a great impact on customers' moods.  Michelli talks about creating the 'third place,' the place where people want to be when they are not at home or work.  The library has a lot of potential to be the third place and taking designing cues from places like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble will only help the cause.  Taking furniture placement and signs into consideration, you should evaluate what works and what doesn't.  Avoid clutter at all costs remembering that everything should serve two purposes: functionality and visual appeal.

There is a lot to say about being genuine but, ultimately, it is the epitome of 'making it your own.' If you are familiar with Chick-fil-a, then you are aware of their great customer service.  But if you look a little closer, you'll notice that every transaction is the same.  Their key phrase, 'my pleasure,' just doesn't roll off the tongue of everyone the same way.  Why?  Because it is a canned response that is not genuine.

Customer service transactions shouldn't seemed force, but should flow naturally.  This isn't to say that a grumpy person should be left to their own devices.  Quite the contrary.  Providing a customer service workshop to help develop people's own techniques and phrases might prove to be successful.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teaching Digital Literacy in the Library

In the past, one of the many jobs of the librarian was to teach customers the skill of searching for information.  Utilizing the card catalog and sifting information out of stacks of books was the old school way of researching.  Now, information is at your fingertips and study after study shows that people come to the library as a last resort.  The customer trying to write their research paper comes to the library expecting the nice librarian to hand them a book or two.  Most of the time, the information they need is not in a book at all but in a subscription database or, sometimes, even on Google.  It never ceases to amaze me at how incredulous the customer is at the little nuggets of information I find for them.  The librarian isn't there for just academic research, though.  In a public library most people seek assistance for their legal, medical, or business needs after their online searches return very little.

The idea of using a search engine to find the answer to all your questions seems pretty simple, but even 'digital natives' - those persons who have grown up using the web - are still flummoxed by how search engines retrieve results.  The problem lies in the lack of research fundamentals, or digital literacy.  Students are set up to fail from the very beginning with as little direction as "don't use Wikipedia" or "use scholarly resources."  Wikipedia, however, should be the least of their worries.  Using search terms, quickly analyzing data, and understanding content is a learned skill that librarians have mastered (hence why you need a masters degree) and students who have not been taught these skills cannot be expected to succeed.  It is obvious that instruction must exist in this area and yet librarians are routinely overlooked as teachers, leaders, and trainers on this subject.  Sound like an academic problem?  It's not.

The amount of time spent with customers aiding them in research, whether it be for educational or recreational interests, is great.  In the time of online degrees where students do not have a brick and mortar library to use, the public library becomes a stand in.  It is that librarian who must teach the student how to research.  Additionally, the public librarian must aid hobbyists looking for information on their recreational interests or start-up business owners who need help getting licensed.  Because using a search engine can often lead to conflicting advice or result in paid-for information services, the Public Librarian can be a trustworthy advocate to help customers wade through all the baloney.  So how can we, as Information Specialists, help instruct the public at large and lessen the digital divide all the while advocating for ourselves and our profession? Here's a few suggestions.

1. Computer Classes: An obvious answer to the problem of digital literacy, computer classes will allow customers to become more confident in their searches and learn to help themselves.  Any library staffer who is comfortable in this setting can easily develop a lesson plan, block off a predetermined amount of public computers, and teach.  It really is just as simple as coming up with a lesson plan and determining how long the program/course will run.

2. Specialized Instruction: Sometimes you just can't Google it.  The library offers loads of subscription databases that most people just do not know how to use, if they even know they exist.  Offering specialized instruction for specific hot topics will surely help people's digital literacy skills and help them in their specialized field.  Have a great business database that you'd like to showcase?  Offer a business program for the computer un-savvy. Use a forum like this to instruct on digital literacy highlighting relevant resources the library offers and show attendees how to navigate the world wide web of business.

3.  Social Media Instruction: Sometimes using Google IS the answer.  Along with Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube, etc, these sites and more are accessed quite frequently at the library.  Acknowledging the usefulness of these sites and helping customers familiarize themselves with how they work may help cut down on the amount of time you spend helping customers upload/download images to/from their profiles.

3. Personal Reference Experience: Sometimes digital literacy instruction is just as simple as one-on-one reference transactions.  Library staffers often move quickly from one question to the next and when someone has a genuine reference question it slows our pace down, the line begins to form, and our work gets shoddy.  It may seem faster to just do the customer's research for them, but your customer will be more satisfied and equipped for the future if you work with them and show them all your tips and tricks to finding the right stuff.

These ideas are straight forward and simple, the application is easy, and the reward is great.  Don't wait on the ALA and FCC to come to your rescue.  If you can do anything to bridge the digital gap, then go for it. 2011 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, John Palfrey, is quoted saying "librarians have to get in front of the digital mob and call it a parade."  If people do not see librarians as teachers, leaders, and trainers, then we need to advocate for ourselves within our communities and show customers that we are still the gatekeepers of information - digital or otherwise.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When to Break the Rules

Libraries and overdue fines go together like peanut butter and jelly, but why?  More and more libraries are taking the plunge to eliminate late fees for various reasons but the vast majority of systems are sticking to their policies.  Whether you agree with overdue fines or not, the fact remains that handling fine related accounts are the most difficult among customer service issues.  This particular post is inspired by my husband who is not a librarian but a customer service representative for an unnamed company.  Long story short, he complains about receiving negative feedback on his customer service surveys due, in large part, because he refused to make a fee waiver of some sort.  The background story for each customer is different but the end result is the same - the customer is unhappy.  I liken this story to libraries because it is similar; a library customer pays for a service (usually through property taxes,) he/she gets a late fee or is charged for a damaged book (like overages on your cell phone bill,) and the customer either pays or disputes the charge.

Most library staffers fall into two categories when it comes to late fees - the Rule Follower and the Rule Bender.  The Rule Follower adheres to library policy that the customer is responsible for overdue fees that have accrued and expects the customer to hold up their end of the deal.  It's only in extreme circumstances that the Rule Follower will make an exception and, even then, he/she will often request documentation.  The Rule Bender, however, is a pushover and aims to please the customer at whatever cost.  Living in a world of gray area, the Rule Bender often empathizes with the customer to the detriment of the Rule Follower (who had previously told the same customer "no.")  I'm purposefully polarizing the two types to make a point because it begs the question 'when should we break the rules and when should we stick to our guns?'

Let's consider a few scenarios which repeatedly rear their heads:

The Storyteller - This customer has a long story detailing exactly why the books checked out to her are extremely late and now total a fine upwards of $70.  She demands that it's not her fault and she shouldn't have to pay the enormous late fee.

The Beggar - She knows that the books were late and that there would be a fine to pay but she wasn't expecting the fee to be in the hundreds after returning the 60 children's books a couple weeks late.  She begs you to have mercy and not make her pay that full amount.

The Screamer - This customer usually feels affronted by the library when he is told that his outstanding balance is $25 and he insists that this has already been taken care of.  Yelling is his natural way of letting you know he's unhappy and he usually will not relent until the issue has been resolved to his satisfaction.

The Innocent - The just-turned 18 year old didn't realize that mom made a card for her when she was 12 and ran up a large fine.  She pleads that she can't be held responsible for her parent's mistake.

The Payer - This customer loves the library and repeatedly racks up fines and pays them consistently without ever arguing.  He/she has probably paid thousands of dollars over the last several years in overdue fees and never complains.

The Habit - A habitual customer who has repeatedly had fines forgiven.  He knows the game and will always ask for his fines to be taken care of.

In some of the real life versions of these scenarios I've seen customers throw up their hands and say they will sever ties with the library when the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.  In these situations was there nothing that could be done to save the relationship?  While every situation is different, I can only think of one where a library would want to purposefully sever ties with the customer.  This would involve stealing library materials and it is rarely the case.  In the end, an unwavering library staffer risks turning the customer away from the library and an empathetic librarian may waive too much when he/she could have bargained for more.

So where is the fine line?  It varies for each individual and finding it can be difficult.  How do you handle these scenarios without losing the customer's support of the library?