Getting Beyond Good Customer Service

We’ve all heard again and again how important it is to offer good customer service at your library. Here at DBL I’ve stressed that a great library user experience is hardly achievable without paying attention to customer service. Do an Internet search on “customer service library” and see how many library-based customer service policies you turn up, not to mention library pundits emphasizing its importance. But when expectations are heightened and the competition for attention ratchets up, good or even great customer service may be too little. What exactly do people want when good customer service seems insufficient?

Perhaps some lessons could be learned by looking to the retail industry. After a dismal 2008 holiday season owing to the recession when only deep discounts could attract customers, things were looking decidedly uncertain for 2009. But instead of depending only on price cuts, retailers of all types, from the most elegant to the most mundane, decided to ramp up customer service into new territory. Stores with reputations for amazing customer service, such as Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman, are rethinking how to show customers their business is truly appreciated. According to an article from the NYT a visible shift is in place:

With signs that this holiday shopping season will not be much better than the last, retailers of all stripes are looking for new ways to make shopping more pleasant. There are improvements not only at fancy stores, but also at mall chains like J. Crew, Gap and Macy’s…Many retailers have been soliciting feedback in person and online as they try to improve the overall shopping experience…Recent surveys from several research firms show consumers continue to rate fashion retailers poorly on customer service…A report entitled the Retail Service Quality Index, released Dec. 1, rated the service in luxury stores like Nordstrom, Bergdorf and Saks as no better than what was found in home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Ace Hardware…“Retailers are very good at the sales transaction,” Mr. Miller said, “but they are not very good at building sales relationships. If I am not going to get service that is any different walking into Wal-Mart as walking into Nordstrom, why would I go to Nordstrom?”

What’s a library to do when consumers are no longer impressed by the customer service at Nordstrom, and are less likely to differentiate the service at a Wal-Mart from a high-priced, less convenient competitor? As long as members of the library’s user community have to go out of their way to get to the library and its more complex online content, it would hardly surprise us if they opted for a lower quality but more convenient resource – no matter how much we smile when they check out a book or answer a reference question. What is making a difference?

As the above quote suggests, building relationships can make a difference. That doesn’t mean librarians now need to get to know every member of the user community on a personal basis, although the more we know our users by name and affiliation the better we can be at establishing meaningful relationships with them. Even the retailers are trying harder. As some stores, as the article reports, they are getting beyond just starting transactions with “Can I help you” or “Do you have a question”. They try to be more conversational by offering comments that are more engaging such as “That’s a great looking sweater” and they also get out from behind sales registers to help customers on the floor. One customer who received personalized service made the following comment: “The same saleswoman came right over and asked, ‘How are you enjoying the bag?’ ” she said. “I was totally impressed.” Relationships are built when we remember those we helped and follow up with them to show our interest.

In our libraries there are many opportunities to start a conversation and build a relationship. Take a moment to ask someone you have recently assisted if he or she found what they needed, if their research project turned out well or if a recommended book or video was enjoyed. Good customer service will continue to be important, but we need to place more emphasis on getting beyond the basics of “may I help you” and “let me know if you need more help”. As struggling retailers are learning, good customer service rarely sets you apart from anyone else in a crowded and competitive marketplace. Their goal is to convert “users” into “loyal community members”. That sounds like a strategy that is right for the times and right for libraries.

Want To Be An Innovator? Put Up Your Antennae!

Continuous improvement is an often sought after goal in libraries. We may be doing good things for our community but resting on our laurels is no formula for future success. It’s important to keep exploring for new ways to enhance the library experience for the end user. A simple way to do that is by making sure we are skilled practitioners of listening and observing. When we do this well we may be amazed at the many great ideas for innovative services that are rooted in what we hear from the library users (and non-users) and in the ways we observe their use of our facilities, collections and services.

In user experience presentations I often mention this simple idea of “listen and observe” , but I was reminded of it by this blog post by Jeffrey Phillips over at Innovate on Purpose. In discussing “How Customer Insights Lead to Innovations” Phillips offers some good examples of how this practice can make a difference. Take the Crayola “Crayon Maker”. Phillips points out that for many years parents and children melted down broken crayons at home so they could shape them into new ones. Crayola picked up on this activity and developed a product that offers the same capability but makes it easier to do.

Here’s another anecdote I came across. Makers of body shampoo wanted to learn more about how men use the product. When they just asked questions in focus groups they heard the attendees answer without thinking much about how they really use the products. But in a study where men were observed using the product the market research folks discovered most men used the body shampoo to shampoo their hair. In the focus groups, no one said anything about this. Now when you go to the supermarket you see body shampoo for men that is also marketed as hair shampoo in one bottle. It’s probably the same shampoo it was before, but this innovation based on observation has increased the market share of these all-in-one products.

listen and observe for innovation inspiration
listen and observe for innovation inspiration

While “listen and observe” is easy advice to give, it is a challenge to implement as a regular practice. We are often so used to being in our own little world that it is hard to notice when something different happens that should signal to us that we’ve just seen or heard something worthy of our attention. It is, I think, a personal behavioral trait that makes innovators who they are. They are the folks who have their antennae up, ready to pick up the signals that communicate something important is happening. They are listening and observing. It’s no different with individuals who have a talent for identifying totally unrelated events or trends, and who have the ability to connect them – to put the puzzle pieces together – in predicting new expectations and trends – before people even realize it’s something they want or need.

How to get started? Visualize yourself as that person who has the antennae up and ready to gather the signals. Practice your listening and observing when you are outside the library. Be a people watcher when you go to stores and restaurants. Look for unusual or odd behaviors that indicate people want something that isn’t readily available. When people complain or whine about something, don’t just ignore them or take the fastest, shortest route to making them go away. Instead think about why they are complaining or whining – or simply asking why they can’t do something they want to do at your library. Watch how your library users make use of the facility, the equipment or the technology. It may be only one time out of a hundred or a thousand that you will notice something unusual, but it’s that one time that could make all the difference in the world to you, your colleagues and the members of your library community. So get those antennae up and get out there!

Differentiating The Information Commodity

One of the core components of creating a unique user experience is making it clear to the end user or customer that a product or service is differentiated from competitors so that it compels the individual to seek out this different experience. At DBL we’ve discussed the importance of identifying ways to differentiate the library. From the end-user perspective, what is it about the library that makes it different and unique from all other potential sources of information – especially the ones that are more convenient to use.

One of the challenges librarians face is that their primary product, information, is a commodity that is difficult to differentiate. It used to be that academic libraries could emphasize their scholarly content as different from what search engines offered, but Google Scholar changed all that. The end user perceives all information as relatively the same, especially when they can find it on their own, and it all seems to relate to the question or topic of choice. And even if it isn’t the highest quality information, if finding it is convenient and fast then it’s good enough.

The Branding Strategy blog explores how one might go about differentiating or branding a commodity. In fact, one of the bloggers there, Brad VanAuken, said “I am a firm believer that everything can be branded/differentiated. I have never encountered a product or service that I could not brand/differentiate”. In that same post he provided some examples of branding products for differentiation. In a more recent post VanAuken wrote more specifically about how to differentiate commodities. Commodities, like the information contained in articles and books, is difficult to differentiate. What is different about the information found in a book in the local public library and the same or a similar book found online via Google books or Amazon?

The answer is nothing, at least nothing much different than the vodka found in bottles from two different companies, or for that matter much of the water sold in plastic bottles. Can you really taste the difference between two brands? But why does one brand command a higher price and why do more consumers know the name or can recite its tagline? The reason is differentiation. It’s the same thing with information. It may be the same but one provider may have more brand recognition, another may offer great convenience and yet another may deliver unique packaging. Libraries offer books and other information for free. You’d think that would be a significant and desirable differentiating factor. But when you factor in questionable convenience, difficulty finding out what the library offers and some complexity in getting to the information, free looks like less of a bargain. Then again, the vodka example shows consumers will pay more if they believe they are getting higher quality or more value for their money. But will they go to more trouble and spend more valuable time to get it?

So what advice does VanAuken offer for how to differentiate any commodity? Some are the sort of things you’d expect: superior quality control; great customer service; best range of product availability. While all of these would be desirable for any library, doing them all well in order to compete with an Amazon or Barnes & Noble could be quite a challenge. He also says that one way to differentiate with commodities is to identify unique categories of customers and focus on meeting their unique needs. This is one area in which libraries of all types might be most successful. We often know our user segments (children, teens, college students, professionals), and we often know more about them and their research needs than the competition.

One way in which libraries, particularly academic libraries, might differentiate their information is to better connect the end user with highly specialized resources that may be linked to a specific issue or discipline. The same could be said for the mostly unique content in special collections. While Google is digitizing these unique materials from its library partners’ collections, there still remains much that is unique and valuable for differentiation. Promoting these unique databases and collections will present a challenge since they have small numbers of potential users. But reaching these smaller groups, over time, can convert to a large user base. We are challenged to differentiate the library’s core commodity – raw information – but as VanAuken says, “Everything can be branded/differentiated.”