On Managing" column, LA&M, Summer, 2001

To Save the Time of the User: Customer Service at the Millenium
John Lubans

Not long ago, the business media declared the dawning of the age of the customer.

Corporations 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 positive effect!).

Well, 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 extreme skewing.

You 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.

The 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.

Since 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 desks".

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?

Let’s take a look at a recent interaction I had at the Circulation desk.

My 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.

When 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.

For 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?

I’ve 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.


Later 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.

I cannot imagine a repeat of my overdue book fiasco in her library.

For 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.

A 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.

Getting to uncommonly good customer service:

I’ll start with a rhetorical question: " What can an organization do to assure good customer service?"

Here are some difference-making answers:

1. Untie the hands of the staff.

2. Get rid of the bad apples.

3. Listen to your users. 

4. Clarify policies.

Untie 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.

Certainly, 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.

Avoid 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 decisions, etc.

So 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.

In 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 pleasing patrons?

My 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.              

The 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.

Get rid of the bad apples. The misanthropic do not have a place in a service industry like libraries.

If 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.

For 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.

All 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.

But, 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. 

All too often, avoidance seems to be the preferred model of conflict resolution.

Over 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.

What 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 milestones.

When 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.

Listen 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 questions".

At 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.

I’ve 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.

From 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.

Be 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. 

E.g., 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 the policy.

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? 

Talk 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 one.

In short, because circumstances change and the unanticipated happens, policies should be flexible and responsive to situations.

In 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 accumulation.

It is unfortunate that the tension between these two views has never been relaxed. In many ways, that root-core difference in philosophy suggests just how far we have to go before we can gain the requisite clarity for the best customer service.