Good Library Customer Service

Pointing to good examples of well-designed library user experience is something we’ll always want to do here at DBL. This post is not exactly one of those, but it does point you to a good article that shares some useful thoughts and observations about customer service in the library – and as DBL has stated previously, customer service is an important component of any library UX strategy.

The September 1 issue of Library Journal includes an article (the Backtalk Column) titled “Lessons of Good Customer Service” by Amy Fry. What makes this a worthwhile read is that Fry shares her experiences as a member of the Barnes & Noble retail sales force, and how that has influenced her thinking about customer service in her library. One of the observations that caught my attention (and something I’ve commented on previously) was that front-line librarians do indeed have something to sell – so having some qualities of a talented salesperson can contribute to better customer service and library outreach.

Fry also shares some lessons learned from working on the front line in a public library (something I’ve experienced myself quite a few years ago). One of the important ones for delivering good customer service in libraries is understanding how to say no to users. It’s vitally important to have policies, but not when the policies are rigidly followed in order to deny patrons services because it may be inconvenient for staff. Libraries are often too focused on a rules-based culture. Retail organizations like Barnes & Nobles know they wouldn’t stay in business long if they couldn’t do everything possible to say “yes” to customers who need special accommodations.

So while customer service is not in and of itself a user experience, without good customer service at every touchpoint in the library, there is no hope for a better library experience.

Debating An Authentic Experience

Starbucks recently tried something new, which they often do, and you wouldn’t think that would generate a controversial discussion about the nature of the user experience but it did. As one of the original poster children of the user experience, Starbucks has of late lost some degree of its UX mojo. Certainly the recession has played some role in driving customers to competitors such as McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts or in eliminating coffee purchases altogether. But Starbucks has itself made some moves that have contributed to the diminishing of their special user experience. Some analysts point to the addition of breakfast sandwiches. Others ask if Starbucks has diluted its experience by introducing innovations to speed up transactions.

A number of these questions were directed to Howard Schultz, founder and current CEO of Starbucks, in an interview with BusinessWeek. It is clear that Schultz is determined to somehow take a corporate behemoth that has had to introduce efficiency measures to remain competitive, and get back to the original vision of a coffee house based on delivering a unique user experience. So Schultz did something interesting. He asked Starbucks employees to share their vision of a coffeeshop that would compete with Starbucks. Schultz was looking for ideas that move Starbucks in a new direction. “You want to be there,” he says. “To me that store reinforces all the things I believe in. It’s not marketing, research, consultants, it’s just the experience.” [Schultz said this in the interview when he described a new ice cream store he visited that reminded him of what Starbucks was when it began]

Schultz’s search for a more authentic coffeehouse experience lead Starbucks to open a new outlet in Seattle called 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea. The idea is to provide a new coffeeshop experience that gets back to the original Starbucks vision. Things became interesting when Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path wrote a blog post in which he responded to this whole concept of a corporate-designed “authenic” coffeeshop experience. Merholz questioned whether such a thing is even possible, and concluded that it is not. He basically said it is “doomed to fail”. Merholz raises a good question. Can you set out, as a large entity, to design an experience that should seemingly only be possible if there’s real passion and originality to the concept? The experience has to emerge from a unique set of circumstances that one can’t simply program the way a film set is designed to simulate a time or place. Can Home Depot design a small Main Street hardware store experience into its big-box store setting anymore than Starbucks can design a local, independent coffeeshop vibe into its new store?

Merholz makes some good points when he claims you can’t fake an experience and that it’s dishonest for Starbucks to call itself another name when it’s still Starbucks at the core. Take a look at Merholz’s post and a follow-up in which he responds to some of the many comments he received, and shares some new perspectives on this issue of delivering an authentic experience. The lesson I’d like to take away from all of this is how can we librarians be savvy about designing an authentic library experience.

My thinking is that the authentic library experience is designed around the practices of totality, relationship building and delivering meaning. The latter two are things that should come naturally to library workers, and we need to become more systematic in making them happen. Totality is harder to achieve and something we need to do better. Where a library might run into danger with authenticity is trying to replicate the experience of a service or retailer known for designing great user experiences. But that particular experience may prove to be a poor fit for the library. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the size of the library is; a larger research university can be just of capable of creating a unique experience as is the small-town public library. But each must work at designing an experience that is authentic – driven by the passion of the library workers. Know the users. Be clear about core values. Any number of DBL posts have communicated that message. This one reinforces it.