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?