Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #3

I've actually had someone throw a book at me? Why would they do that?

You've probably noticed that people often get mad when things don't go their way.  How we deal with our anger is dependent on a lot of things including, but not limited to, family, friends, hormones, and past experiences.  You just never know what is going on in someone's life.  In fact, it's pretty safe to assume that anyone who gets that upset is living a pretty unhappy existence.  As librarians, we do small things every day to turn someone's life around but, in the case of this customer type, chances are you will not be making much of an impact.  For the average serial angry customer, know that it's not personal and handle the transaction like any other.  After your encounter with this person, just be thankful that you are you and not them.

Book throwing, irate customers are usually a rare find.  Most people restrict their anger to loud voices but, every once in a while, you may get a slew of profanity and some objects being flung around. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!  Although our jobs as librarians require us to help everyone without judgement, that mandate stops short at being abused.  You should always feel empowered to end a transaction that has taken a turn for the worse.  Use language that shows you are willing to help, but only if their behavior improves: "I want to help you but I cannot if you continue to use that language."

When you show your authority, one of two things will happen.  Either the person will back down, having realized that they cannot run you over, or they will continue to inflict abuse.  You've given a warning and that's all you need.  When someone takes it upon themselves to ignore your warning and continue their abuse, you reserve the right to cease conversation immediately and tell them to leave.  The important thing in any situation like this is to keep your calm, be firm and polite, and do not allow the customer to drag you down to their level - and they will try.  If you haven't read Black Belt Librarian by Warren Graham, then I suggest this as a great jumping off point. I also suggest looking into your library's rules for customer behavior.  Having policies which cover the expectations of customer behavior can be helpful when you encounter a situation like this as it provides support for your actions.

Why do customers try to pull one over on us and get another library card when they already have an account with an outstanding balance?

In my experience, the best customer service comes from those who think the best of people.  When we assume that customers are "trying to pull one over on us" then we automatically begin to use defensive behavior.  This doesn't mean that thinking the best of people means you have to be naive - it only means you take an offensive approach.

In my experience, it's a 50/50 chance that the person making a library card remembers there account history. These customers are not the average every-couple-of-months visitor.  Instead, these customers are a once-every-couple-of-years visitor.  I'm not sure about you, but I don't have much recollection of what I did two years ago, therefore, I take an offensive approach to these transactions in order to bring out the best in a customer.  Take a look at these two transactions and see if they sound familiar:

I've seen both of these scenarios play out and I'm sure you can guess which one ended up with a better outcome.  The conversation on the left almost always ends up with an upset customer, a disenchanted employee, and a manager that has to clear all the fees because it's just better to take the customer at their word in situations like this.  The conversation on the right, however, plays a good offensive game because the staff member uses offensive tactics to keep the transaction conversational instead of accusatory.  The customer on the right may go on to argue about the account fees but chances are the staff member will walk away from the transaction in the same spirits as he/she entered.  Why? Because staff didn't give the customer an opportunity to tackle.

Do you have other tips or tricks for getting the best out of you customers?  I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #2

Our library has an automated check out station, so why do customers insist I check out their books instead of waiting to use the machine?

Besides the fact that people hate waiting, the perception of the library is a huge factor here.  Unlike other organizations, we constantly struggle with philosophical questions like "who are we" and "what is our purpose."  Like most departments of the government, libraries are full of policies and guidelines but we also have traits in common with retail stores which put the focus on customer satisfaction.  Not sure where I'm going with this? Allow me to continue.

You can argue until you are blue in the face about how people need libraries.  I'm not one to argue with you, but the people who vote on raising taxes might.  We have to face it, people don't need libraries like they need the police department or DMV.  In the eyes of many, libraries are a luxury, not a necessity.  Therefore, unlike the departments which are governed by rules and regulations and can afford to piss people off, we are not afforded the same luxury.  It's for this reason we look to service models of retail businesses for inspiration.

This question from a staff member puzzled me, to say the least.  Why should it even matter if the customer doesn't want to use the automated machine?  And then I realized that it came down to rules.  Somewhere, at some time, someone said "everyone must use the automated machine to check out materials" and that statement became law.

Pretend that you are standing in line at the Tag Office and there are several open windows but one of the employees is not taking anyone.  Chances are, you won't say anything but you might be a little upset over the amount of time it's taking to get through the line.  But your anger doesn't matter because it's the Tag Office, and we have to go there every year to keep our cars legal.  

Take the same scenario and apply it to a grocery store and you get a different outcome.  Chances are you will ask if a register is open and, if it's not and the lines are long, then the chances are even greater that you will not return to that store.  

It's a "need" versus "want" spectrum and libraries are caught in between.  Considering that people choose to go to the library (as opposed to being forced to go to the tag office,) puts us more on the "want" side of the spectrum.  The customers referred to in the question above have much more in common with the customers in the grocery store scenario.  And when we factor in the fact that automated services are involved, I think you will definitely see the parallels.

If we look at service models of other companies who utilize automated machines (Walmart, Kroger, USPS) one will notice the check-out choices.  For a customer who sees more similarity between his library and grocery store than the tag office, it is safe to assume that this customer just wants quality customer service.  If choice is the norm for most individuals, then it's reasonable for them to expect the same choice at their library.  After all, it is our nature to look for the fastest route to get where we want to be; in grocery stores we look for the smallest line, in traffic we look for the fastest lane, and in libraries we carry that same mentality.

For some, it's not even about waiting in line.  There could be a myriad of reasons why this particular customer sought out the staff member for help.  In this, I think libraries and the post office have a lot in common.  We are both appendages of bigger organizations (local government, universities, hospitals, etc) and we toe the line of bureaucracy and customer service.  We also have customers that use us infrequently.

According to ALA, libraries average about 5.3 visits per capita.  That means most customers are coming in every couple of months.  I would imagine that visits to the post office are quite similar to these numbers.  When I walk into the post office, I always feel a little lost and I can imagine that is how a majority of library customers feel as well.  What it boils down to is this: customers are not at the library like you and I are at the library.  We expect them to know how to use our non-intuitive services or at least attempt to figure it out. We may get Customer Service Fatigue from the repetition of explanation after explanation, but you save yourself more time in the end by spending the extra time with the customer up front. Every time I have to repeat the same instructions to a customer regarding their print job I just think about the post office; I know I can use the automated machine to mail a package but, sometimes, it's just easier to ask for help because nobody knows the procedures better than the staff.

To conclude the answer to this question, either the customers don't want to wait in line or they just need help.  But in the end, it shouldn't matter why. The only thing that matters is that you help them complete the transaction and they leave satisfied.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why'd They Do That: Questions From Staff #1

Ever wonder why customers do the things they do? Whether it's swearing up and down that they've returned a book only to find it home or not turning the corner of the shelf to find the book they are looking for, customers do some pretty strange stuff.  I surveyed staff at my branch to ask them what crazy things customers do and I've tried to give reason to those actions.  Throughout the next several posts, I will dive into the crazy antics and try to put some reasoning behind them.  Here is the first question I received:

Why do customers stand right next to the person you're helping instead of getting in line? 
When it comes to lines, there are typically two types of "line jumpers" - the Thinkers and the Thoughtless.

Before self serve beverages were a thing, it was a common occurrence in places like McDonald's for customers to stand to the side of the line for a refill rather than rejoining a line.  The same phenomenon happens in libraries.  Although customers may not need a top off, they may deem their question to be a quick encounter and not intrusive. How customers come to that conclusion has a lot to do with deductive reasoning.

1: This line is for reference questions
2: My question is not a reference question
3: Therefore, this is not the line for me.

Once a customer has deduced that this line is not applicable to him/her, he/she may seek out another staff member on the floor or, as established, form their own line.  This action may be a nuisance to the staff member and the customer being helped, but the logic is sound based on perceptions and opinion.

At this point, you may signal for the interrupting customer (or Thinker) to proceed or they may just ask the question once you've acknowledged their presence.  Or, as I used to do, perhaps you do not engage the customer in conversation at all and let them wait until the transaction is finished.  While I do not recommend cutting off the person you are helping to refocus on another customer, there is some middle ground that can be gained.

The Thinker's 'Quick' questions range anywhere from "where is the restroom" to "can you locate a book for me." And the meaning of 'quick' can be highly subjective. Because perception and knowledge are two different things, what a Thinker may believe to be a quick question may require a lot more thought on the part of the staff member.  In these instances, the Thinker does not mean any harm at all and should be addressed appropriately.  Before interrupting the customer you are currently helping, wait for a natural break in the conversation (a time when you have to look something up in the catalog or locate articles in databases) before acknowledging the Thinker.  Take a look at this interaction:

A customer bypasses line and walks to reference desk. After the current customer has explained what he is looking for, you pause to look up books on his subject.  Seeing the Thinker to the left of the customer, you address him.
Staff: "I'll be with you in just a moment."
Thinker: "I just have a quick question - where is the Christian Fiction section?"

The staff member is in a bind!  This customer has a seemingly harmless directional question but the staff member's training has told her that pointing is never a good idea and that follow-up questions are key to quality customer service. So what would you do? Often, customers with 'quick' questions are looking for both quick answers and quality customer service.  It may seem hard to deliver both, but with effort it can be done.

Staff: "You want to go to the right - the third shelf from the back is 
where you'll find Christian Fiction.  If you have trouble finding it, let me know."

What you've done by giving this response is providing a quick answer along with the reassurance that you want to help.  Once the customer walks away, however, it is important to remember the follow-up.  Once you get through your line, head out to look for the customer to make sure they've found everything or send another staff member in your place.  The follow-up will ensure that your Thinker got the same customer service as all your other customers.

We've all experienced those people who just don't have time to wait in line - those who think the world revolves around them.  Often times, the Thoughtless are just Thinkers with bad attitudes, but occasionally you may get a real doozy.   Thoughtless customers are often customers you have helped before that habitually interrupt you when you are assisting others.  Sometimes they are nice people who just need a little direction and sometimes they have not-so-pleasant personalities.

For your thoughtless-but-nice customer, a gentle phrase like "Let me finish up with this customer and I will be able to assist you" should work.  In these instances, you probably have helped the customer previously and they wish for you assistance again.  Their logic may follow this deductive reasoning:

1. This line is for customers with new questions.
2. My question is a continuation from my previous question.
3. Therefore, this line is not for me.

Basically, in the customer's eyes, the transaction was never completed - and it will not be completed until they are entirely satisfied.  Although it may mean an occasional interruption, this type of customer will be willing to wait for your excellent customer service.

The Thoughtless customer who comes across as rude or, sometimes, downright hostile is a rare occasion which requires a different approach - empathy.  But we'll save that for another post and another staff member question - Why did they just throw a book at me?