Managing" column, LA&M, Summer, 2001
Save the Time of the User: Customer Service at the Millenium
long ago, the business media declared the dawning of the age of the
embraced this, certainly in their advertising, assuring us customized
service, immediate resolution of problems and even direct contact with
the boss. A few organizations re-hoisted and saluted "The Customer
Is Always Right" banner and boldly promised100% satisfaction or
"Your Money Back". New York City went so far as to give
courtesy training to subway employees and taxi drivers (with some
in spite of these efforts, the customer service experience remains a
mixed one, varying greatly, from extraordinarily fine to abysmal with a
bias toward the negative. Consumer research shows that every victim of a
negative experience retells the story seven or more times, hence the
and I, no doubt, could rant for several pages about personal encounters
with poor service. That same media that declared this the customer era
regales us daily with horror stories of abused customers. Among the most
frequently told stories are about robotic telephone recordings,
directing us a la "Waiting for Godot", to choose from a menu of
buttons, never listing the one we need.
Internet is said to be customer driven. Give e-customers a bad
experience, they’re gone. And because of their rising impatience,
e-customers (including e-library
users) are gone faster than they would be in pre-Internet days.
Worse, they may mount a competing Internet site ("sucks.com")
in retaliation for poor service. Still, a prevalent rant in the Internet
press is e-commerce’s failure to deliver on promises made to the
consumer. Clicking on the help button on most e-sites is a bit like
yelling for help in the middle of the Pacific.
I work in the information services world, what’s happening in other
customer realms sensitizes me to what we are doing in libraries, on line
and off. All too often when
librarians discuss information services quality it is usually with the
smug certainty that our service
is far superior to the lame efforts of, say, information technology. At
one time we could afford to sneer at their so-called "help
Well, we do have a fine tradition, one totally foreign to most e-commerce sites, but we have our less than splendid moments as well. True, few of our public service points operate from behind bullet proof glass, like Medicaid and IRS offices, but then there are those heavily attended library workshops about "problem patrons" – our name for enraged and maddened users. All is not right. Is it within the realm of possibility that we somehow contribute to our patrons becoming problematic?
take a look at a recent interaction I had at the Circulation desk.
father (89 years old) has an overdue library book. He’s been in the
hospital for over three weeks after emergency surgery and is about to
have follow-up surgery.
I explain this to the library staffer, she says she understands the
situation, but that there are no exceptions, per the branch head, for
overdue fines. My father must
pay the fine of $2.80.
some stressed-out psychological reason, I found this response
hysterically funny. Over my chortling disbelief, I asked the clerk what
they’d do if he’d died?
thought about that silly episode and wondered how could this happen? The
obvious, intuitive, thing was for the staff member to thank me for
returning the book, to say forget the fine, and to wish my father well
– he’s a regular at this library. Instead, the response was right
out of the pages of pathological bureaucracy.
in the year, I met a remarkable public library director who has made it
simple for her staff to know how to respond when faced with something
like the above situation. She’s very clear about what she values: the
staff has her support for things that please the public. And, the staff
knows they will not have her
support for things that make the public unhappy.
Of course, these are not just her
personal values, but ones reflective of the community and the
library’s philosophy and purpose.
cannot imagine a repeat of my overdue book fiasco in her library.
those prone to dismiss this as an impossible policy: it
works. The staff loves the clear simplicity. They know exactly what it means and when to use it. That clarity is reinforced
by the director’s daily leading by example. She demonstrates and
interprets what this simple policy means and middle managers and staff
gain an understanding of expectations and how to respond under a
multitude of circumstances.
cautionary word - while the Circulation Desk in public and academic
libraries is often the user’s and librarian’s favorite whipping boy,
it’s well worth remembering that there are other parts of the library
that contribute to user unhappiness. If fact, certain unpublicized
policies and practices do far more damage than any passing incident at
the loan desk.
to uncommonly good customer service:
start with a rhetorical question: " What can an organization do to
assure good customer service?"
are some difference-making answers:
Untie the hands of the staff.
Get rid of the bad apples.
Listen to your users.
the hands of the staff. Make it a
positive thing for library staff to take ownership of customer problems,
intra- and extra-departmentally. Anyone who crosses unit boundaries to
satisfy and resolve a user’s question needs to be applauded (and protected).
Middle managers are central to this form of staff empowerment. It
is essential that middle managers understand and support staff crossing
departmental lines to help a
library user. Make people aware that this level of effort is the
expectation organization-wide. Send anyone who says, "It’s not my
department" or "My hands are tied" to the stacks for a
mandatory three-hour shift of shelf reading.
educate staff about customer service, but do so with practical training
that explores the best ways of responding to real world situations.
As a supervisor, make clear what resolutions you favor and why.
customer services workshops that assume that staff
(or the patron) is the
problem. When good people do stupid things, work place research shows
that the system is at fault 95% of the time. The "system"
includes administrative policy, equipment, facilities, staffing
you see, a workshop designed around teaching staff lessons about
respecting differences and applying commons sense and courtesy assumes
that their shortcomings make for the problem. Instead of addressing ways
to improve the system (a 95% payoff!), these workshops invest in trying
to convince the hardcore problem staff
(a 5% or less payoff) how to treat other people. This latter training
wrongly treats symptoms, not the disease.
fact, once you ask staff and users about customer service issues you
probably won’t need a workshop. But, you will need a process by which
to bring about change in the system. Staff who are verbally abused by
customers ought to have a lot to say about the causes of
dissatisfaction. And, they likely know just what is needed to improve
the situation. Why not ask them what is it that gets in the way of
assumption is that staff know exactly what they are doing within the boundaries mandated by organizational policies and
culture and personal on-the-job experience.
If they have too little or too much discretion in solving
problems the results may be un-satisfactory.
less confusion staff has around organizational values, goals and roles
the better the communication with customers and problem resolution.
Clarity promotes the quintessential factor for freeing up the staff to
do the right thing: a climate of trust in the organization about the
capacity of the staff to do what is best.
Most importantly, there has to be a strong organizational value in place about support. Systems that practice and understand the "each-to-all" mode of support, rather than "self-only", will have much more success in assuring a beneficial response to customers.
rid of the bad apples. The
misanthropic do not have a place in a service industry like libraries.
problem staff still can’t get it right after counseling and training,
they won’t ever. If a staff member is tone deaf to the nuances of
human communication, he or she will respond invariably from personal
preference. That "go-to" preference is the one that gets
them in trouble.
example, a reference librarian who behaves condescendingly to users
should not be at the desk. I recall a case in my early career where
users frequently criticized one librarian for his over-bearing manner.
Counseling and constructive feedback, over a period of years, did not
improve this librarian’s interaction with the public. Actually, the
individual never did agree that he had a problem, so that each
counseling session never got past the denial phase. Yes, he did give
accurate answers to reference questions. However, imagine the kinds of
messages our tolerating his negative behavior sent to other staff and
library users. This person needed to move on and to leave interactions
with faculty and students to the many librarians who enjoy helping
people and providing good information.
that said, let’s get real. Most
of us inherit the sins (and bad
hires) of our administrative forebears. The librarian in the above
example had been in the organization for several years. At least two
other supervisors had failed to address this person’s poor public
interaction. I believe his vigorous denial of any need to change
exhausted those supervisors.
that’s reality. Many of us in a leadership position find ourselves
looking to the employee’s retirement
as the only way of getting rid of them. One of the most frequently
consulted personnel documents is locked in the director’s desk. It is
the list of hire and retirement
dates of all staff.
too often, avoidance seems to be the preferred model of conflict
time, avoidance can distort performance appraisals to such an extent
that no written record exists about an employee’s problematic
behavior. Rather, the written appraisal winds up describing a
contributing and positive staff member (a total stranger to his peers!).
At best, a limp doble entendre
or two may be buried in the written review. That said, documents like
this are of enormous value to the aggrieved when they resist removal and
the process advances to a personnel action hearing. It is ironic, but
the blanket of work place protection shelters the non-deserving and the deserving.
does work, in my experience, is several months of steady and regular
pressure on a person to modify problematic behavior. The problem
behavior and the sought after change needs to be in writing. And, there
needs to be a written plan for improvement with realistic goals and
the supervisor does this, resolutely and constructively, the individual
knows what is expected, has a realistic chance to improve, and may
indeed move on to more compatible work.
to what your users are saying. Several years ago I attended a Disneyland customer workshop.
One workshop concept has stayed with me: "There are no stupid
Disney, staff are trained to hear the unasked question. For example, a
hot and frazzled parent, with kids in tow, asks a Disney staff member,
"What time is the parade?" Because parade times are well
publicized, we might dismiss this as a "stupid question" or
refer them to an information booth somewhere in the distance. But, when
you think about the real question you may have the opportunity to help
the parent enjoy the day. What the parent may be really asking is where
is the best place to view the parade when all the kids and parents are
overheated and cranky.
written elsewhere about the Suggestion-Answer
Book I edited over a period of years at Duke University. A sample
selection from its pages can be found on my web site.
its 3000 pages and 7500 comments we derived hundreds of helpful insights
and suggestions from our users. I was careful never to respond in a way
that could be interpreted that I thought the suggestion was
"stupid". This was my deliberate strategy because I’d
learned from experience that when I thought the suggestion or comment
was lightweight, it turned out to be more than normally useful. And, my
cavalier dismissal of one comment would be read by other users who would
of course hesitate to write in their ideas. The Suggestion Answer Book allowed us to share in the users
experiences, in his or her words and terms. We got to walk in their
shoes. The book gave a voice to the user. Oddly enough, the Suggestion Answer Book upset some librarians. I suppose this was due
to it’s an empowerment of the user.
clear about your policies and their interpretation. Policies
need clarity. If the policy’s purpose and/or rationale are unclear,
interpretations and enforcement will be equally muddied.
restricting food and drink makes little sense to most users and even
some librarians. Predictably, it will have various interpretations among
staff and users. Some staff will be more conscientious (some rabidly so) in enforcing it than others, adding further confusion to
Like that communications game we played as children where a message is whispered from ear to ear with hilarious transformations around the circle, so goes an unclear policy. Unless you work at policy clarification you can expect confusion. For example, at the staff’s request, you create a policy that staff do not need to help readers empty bags of books they’ve brought to the desk. Does your policy really deny help to parents who are carrying small children and people with handicaps?
through policy interpretations with your staff.
My rule of thumb is that unless a policy is crystal clear to
staff, you, and users, it is best left un-implemented until clarity is
achieved. Certainly, trying out a policy is a one way to discover hidden
problems – just make it clear to all that the policy is an exploratory
short, because circumstances change and the unanticipated happens,
policies should be flexible and responsive to situations.
conclusion, this column's title refers to my favorite of Ranganathan's
Laws of Library Science: "To save the time of the reader."
That "law" fits all libraries and applies to the information
side of the Internet. This law has been a fundamental value to me in
making decisions about how we do what we do in libraries. It has
influenced what I do in designing services and seeking to improve
existing ones. Yet, I've been dismayed and frustrated by the numerous
policies and practices that "waste the time of the user". At
the same time, I've come to realize that what Ranganathan's axiom means
to me (and others of my persuasion) does not mean the same thing to all
librarians - expecially those more concerned with conservation and