Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Teaching Customer Service

Is customer service teachable?  As I posed this question to a coworker, she used a great word that I felt applied to customer service in the way that training or teaching doesn't.   The words training and teaching often have the implication of a one-time class.  While there may be follow up to a one-time class, an end to the training itself is usually very clear.  For most topics, by the end of the training period, learners should be able to perform the task.  But customer service is skill that is developed over time and is different for every individual.  Because customer service expectations are different for every individual and organization, teaching customer service may require a career-long effort.  My coworker, who has been in the profession for over 25 years, understands customer service and applied the more far-reaching term of coaching*  to this training topic.

It stands to reason that customer service may come more naturally to some than others - but that doesn't mean that expectations should be different for every employee.  There are a multitude of customer service faux pas (including apathy, laziness, etc.) but the most complex customer situations usually involve gray areas.  Any of these customer service situations can be resolved through positive coaching strategies throughout an employee's career.  The following is what I consider to be absolutely necessary in order to create a customer oriented environment.

Google defines customer service as the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services.  It should go without saying that most organizations strive for good customer service outcomes in order to yield customer loyalty.  Libraries, too, have jumped on the customer service bandwagon, and for good reason - consumers go where they are treated well.  But customer service expectations and beliefs on how to achieve good customer service outcomes vary from organization to organization.  No organization is exempt from having bad days, but I suspect that there is a common reason why these companies are frequently reported as having the best customer service with an average of only 3.6% of negative feedback.

If you've been a customer of one of these companies, then you may be able to pinpoint their best qualities.  It's easy to make broad generalizations about giving good customer service, but I find that if you don't explain what your expectation of good customer service is, then the results will vary by employee.

Chik-fil-a has certainly had its share of bad publicity, but it consistently ranks high in customer service.  According to a former employee, their customer service standards are high and their expectations are very specific.  If you've ever visited one of these fast food restaurants, you may have noticed the "my pleasure" after every "thank you" or that employees come outside the building to work the drive-thru on busy days.  These specifics are what keep customer loyalty high.

But cookie cutter responses like "my pleasure" may not be your cup of tea.  Call centers have realized that, when it comes to good customer service, finding a common thread with the customer will increase the likelihood that the transaction goes smoothly.  Finding the common thread is what separates the good companies from the bad ones.  You know the bad ones; the call centers that stick to a script and get flustered when you ask a question that cannot be answered without veering from the routine.  If you've ever used a call center and heard "this call may be monitored for quality control," then there is a chance that your transaction is being used as a learning experience - a coaching experience, actually.

So where do libraries fall in all this?  It all depends on your library, the community standards, and the needs of the customers.  A customer service policy that works in one library may not work in another - but there should be a customer service policy that clearly defines the expectations of each staff member to ensure quality outcomes for each customer.

With customer service, you may choose to coach your staff throughout their career instead of training them once and expecting the best.  Here are some steps to follow to aid you in customer service coaching:

1.  Before you begin, make sure that you are a good role model.  If your customer service skills are lacking, then your employees will follow suit.  "Do as I say, not as I do" is never a good philosophy - ever.

2.  Make sure that no one is exempt from customer service coaching.  Those that give exemplary service may have some tips and tricks to share.  They may also enjoy learning something as well.

3.   Coaching can be done one-on-one (tailored to meet the needs of the individual staff member) or as a group.  If group coaching is not successful for some, work in one-on-one coaching sessions into quarterly meetings. If you are not currently meeting with your staff just to have a conversation with them once in a while, then now is a good time to start.

4.   Role playing is not really a good idea.  It is a false environment that generates fear when a learning environment should be safe.  Discussions are usually a good way to go.  You can use scenarios to trigger responses from the group and use the information to shape their ideas of how customer service should be.

5.  Rinse and Repeat.  A good manager will know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and should be able to develop discussion topics and form appropriate groups to maximize a learning environment.

Quality customer service is a skill that one acquires through practice.  Occasionally, staff members may suffer from customer service fatigue and may become jaded.  The moment we stop thinking of our customers in a positive manner is the instant we begin to give poor customer service.  Coaching may be an opportunity to prevent that breaking point.

*I should mention that this coworker frowns upon overusing the word coaching due to the negative connotation that can be derived from repeated use.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Before Leaving Fort Reference

I recently viewed a webinar about embedded librarianship in the community titled Leaving Fort Reference.  As interesting as the webinar was, the content covered in the course is not what inspired this particular post - it was the title.  The original webinar presented by the director and managers of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado, featured information on how to bring librarians to the community when the community may or may not be coming to the library.  But, as the title implies, librarians are not just leaving their reference desk - they are leaving their brick and mortar buildings behind.  As I began to think about the comfort levels of library staff in general, it occurred to me that some staff members are frightened to leave the reference desk, let alone the building.  Before embedded librarianship can begin in the community, it should start with embedded librarianship within the building as a step toward excellent customer service. I will call it planted librarianship.


The concept of roving reference is not a new one, and that is not specifically what I am talking about with planted librarianship.  Roving reference suggests that there is a reference desk and librarians will occasionally step out from behind it and rove the stacks to find customers in need.  At best, this librarian is equipped with an iPad to help answer questions without having to travel to the nearest computer.  I have encountered numerous librarian social networks where a single librarian is looking to enhance the roving reference experience and the response, by an overwhelming majority of librarians, is to go out into the stacks with iPads.  iPads are nifty little tools that are valuable for many things, but they are just a bandaid to a problem - not a solution.

In my experience, libraries usually fall under several of these desk categories:
  • One information desk per floor.
  • Or, if only one floor, one information desk for adult and one information desk for children.
  • Or, only one floor with one desk for all departments.
There is a fourth category that only a fraction of libraries fall into that includes abandoning the desk all together.  It is this fourth category that I call planted librarianship.

You might be asking yourself this question if you are a proponent of roving the stacks to seek out customers in need.  But take a good, long look at how roving reference is being accomplished and when it is being accomplished.  Chances are, no matter how many reference desks your library has, it is in the same boat as mine when it comes to staffing.  The economic depression and budget cuts at a time when the library was seeing its highest number of visitors severely cut into the library's ability to staff appropriately.  With just one desk to service all the library branch's customers, and having difficulty staffing the one desk, it stands to reason that staffing a roving librarian would be nearly impossible.  The times when a library could staff someone to rove the stacks would be at times when this service is unneeded.

Considering funding situations have improved for many libraries, your position on roving reference may be unmoved based on what I've described above.  Therefore, I implore you to consider the following argument as well.  People fear the desk and, depending upon its location, don't want to be bothered by walking the humiliating distance to ask a question.  I use the word humiliating because, for some, it is.  These customers would rather walk out with nothing than have to ask where something is located. Worst of all, this customer type will blame the organization instead of herself for being unable to find what she was looking for.   I know this because I'm one of those customers.  If you can not do roving reference all the time, then these customers are slipping through the cracks.

Currently, I can list on one hand what I actually need at my reference desk: computer, library cards, paper and pencils (possibly a telephone, but that's debatable.)  Everything else is just clutter.  With this in mind, there is no reason why I can't move my reference desk into the stacks.  One could set up a little station, much like the ones in Ikea, to meet the customers where they are browsing.  Instead of having a bulky piece of furniture for a staff of four stationed at the forefront of the adult section, consider freeing up some of that space for a single work kiosk to accommodate one person and several other work stations strategically positioned throughout the collection.

By planting librarians throughout the stacks, it makes asking a reference question a lot less daunting and enables the librarian to quickly see a customer who needs help .  Moreover, it means continual roving of the stacks as it divides the area among staff and allows them to easily monitor a smaller section of the library.  More visible presence of library staff throughout the building in this manner means that the likelihood of teens fooling around in those remote areas of your collection will diminish.

This method may even be advantageous for the children's section as well.  No matter how child friendly the desk is, most children are afraid to ask questions for fear of disturbing adults.  Planted librarianship in the children's section will allow a more proactive measure to helping children.  Asking a child if they would like assistance is more likely to yield a plethora of questions.  From that moment, you've broken down a barrier and the child will be more likely to seek out help in the future.

I'm certainly not the first to call for a change in the reference desk, nor will I be the last.  But there is a reason why so few libraries have changed their reference desk model.  As Sarah Watstein put it, "the reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service."  While I would debate the essentials of a traditional reference desk, I must admit it has symbolic significance which keeps libraries from changing the model.  But, as Steven Bell wrote in debate, "getting rid of the [reference] desk does not mean getting rid of the service."

As with any major shift, there will always be pros and cons.  Unless you are willing to give it a chance, you may never know if your reference services could be better.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Resumes, Cover Letters, and Interviews . . . Oh My!

I've had lots to say on the subject of interviews, but not much on writing resumes and cover letters.  That is, not until now.  After taking this fantastic webinar presented by LLAMA (Library Leadership & Management Association) and taught by Sharon Holderman, I finally have the confidence to share with you some crucial information about writing your resume and cover letter.  I strongly suggest that you view this webinar in its entirety but, if that's not possible, I have summarized the highlights for you here:

It shouldn't surprise you that assumptions are made about you based on what you say in your cover letter and resume.  As a result, it's important to package yourself nicely using these two documents.  Whether you have never written a cover letter or would like to just freshen up your resume, it's important to remember that these career summations should be professional in nature, use formal language, and should describe the work you have done using concrete language instead of abstract concepts.  Holderman describes this language as "Show, Don't Tell," meaning that it is better to write about specific accomplishments rather than listing vague job responsibilities.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, your cover letter and resume should improve by leaps and bounds.

The important thing to remember about the cover letter is that it is supplementary information to the resume, which is the meat of the application.  The cover letter is meant to explain your interest in the position and to highlight several accomplishments, making your case as to why you are an outstanding candidate.  Using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, you will give specific examples of your work achievements and make connections between work you've done in previous jobs to the job description of the position you are applying for.  For example, it does no good to tell a potential employer that you were a staff trainer.  Instead, you want to show that potential employer exactly what it meant to be a staff trainer. Compare these two sentences:

  • I have 7 years experience as a staff trainer.
  • As a trainer for staff in branch of 20 employees, I successfully developed and executed training programs covering topics such as customer service and technology.
There is a sizable difference between these two sentences and it should be obvious which one an employer will prefer.  Additionally, the latter of the two sentences is more specific and will help a future employer draw similarities between your past position and this one.

Of course, being specific to the job description means writing a different cover letter for each job you apply.  While this can be a little time consuming, it puts you ahead of many candidates who write generic cover letters that could be mass produced for multiple jobs.  And, it should go without saying, never send a cover letter addressed to the wrong person or organization!  That is a sure fire way to get yourself put in the "No" pile.

The most important content of your application can be found in the resume.  Still using the "Show, Don't Tell" method, here are a few resume FAQs (view the webinar for a more in-depth coverage:)
  1. Should my resume be 1 page or more? You should have quality content in your resume.  If that means you only have one page worth of stuff to say about yourself, then 1 page is fine.  If you go past 1 page, however, all subsequent pages should be filled to maintain an appropriate white/black space ratio.  No resume should be 1 1/2 pages.
  2. In what order should I place everything?  There is no cut and dry answer to this question because it varies depending on the importance you place on different subject areas.  The top of your resume is prime real estate, so put the things you want to stand out toward the top.  This means deleting that "objective" section at the top of your resume.
  3. Is it okay to use color and/or graphics on my resume? We all want our resumes to stand out, but you definitely don't want it to stand out for the wrong reasons.  Depending on how you use the color and/or graphics, the result could be hit or miss.  Whatever you use, your resume should look good if printed in black and white.
  4. Should I include references? Whether you include references or not does not necessarily matter but placing the phrase "references available upon request" is a no-no.  If Human Resources wants references they are going to get them - and not because you told them to ask.  It is typical to include 3-4 references who can speak on behalf of your work history.  This means that family members, unless they have employed you, are not a good option for references.
Now that you've got your resume and cover letter together, you are ready to apply for jobs.  Unfortunately, the good old days of mailing in your documents are over and online application systems reign supreme.  Whether you love them or hate them, application systems certainly make the job of Human Resources a little easier by allowing the online system to sort through applications based on minimum qualifications and level out the playing field for candidates.  For best results, be sure that everything on the application and resume match and never write "see resume" in an application field.   While an application may seem tedious and redundant to your resume, most organizations require it and consider it to be as much a part of the initial impression as the resume and cover letter.  The good thing about application systems, however, is that you only need to fill the information in once and the system will remember you for subsequent positions you may apply for.

Once you've applied and an interview is scheduled, be sure to brush up on those skills and land the dream job you want!