Exceeding Expectations Depends On What They Are

Have you ever publicly stated or even thought that part of what we should try to accomplish in our libraries is to exceed the expectations of community members? I know I have. I did a search of all my past posts here at DBL and discovered a number of them in which I either directly said something about designing an experience that exceeds expectations or shared information from some other source about ways to do so. I’m sure I’ve also said something about exceeding expectations during presentations. And why not? So much of what I’ve read about great user experiences is focused on doing something that gives the community member more than he or she expected to get. Whether you want to call that a wow experience is up to you (although I think there’s more to it than just expectation exceeding), but we know that when delivering services or building relationships librarians should seek to exceed the expectations of our community members.

Not everyone feels the way I do about exceeding customer expectations, and I think we should be challenged to offer a better explanation of what that means. In one of the most popular posts last year at the Harvard Business Review blog network, Dan Pallotta’s “I Don’t Understand What Anyone is Saying Anymore” took issue with the phrase “Let’s exceed the customer’s expecations” which he referred to as another meaningless piece of business jargon:

Another term that has lost its meaning is “Let’s exceed the customer’s expectations.” Employees who hear it just leave the pep rally, inhabit some kind of temporary dazed intensity, and then go back to doing things exactly the way they did before the speech. Customers almost universally never experience their expectations being met, much less exceeded. How can you exceed the customer’s expectations if you have no idea what those expectations are? I was at a Hilton a few weeks ago. They had taken this absurdity to its logical end. There was a huge sign in the lobby that said, “Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation.” The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do. My expectation is not to have signs around that tell me you want to exceed my expectations.

If you’ve spent anytime interacting with your community members, if you’ve conducted surveys or focus groups, or made any effort to learn more about what they want from the library, then you may indeed know something about their expectations. Even if you haven’t done any of these things, or there are far more community members than you could personally engage, the research about library users, be it the OCLC surveys, the PIL research or user study research discussed in the literature, does provide a fairly consistent message about user expectations when it comes to libraries. In general, they have low expectations. They tend to perceive the library as a place to get books and not much else. Little is said about expectations for great service and personalized attention from library staff.

Even worse, college students, in particular, when faced with a research project perceive the library as an unpleasant place that’s sure to be a bad experience. According to the first report from PIL, when faced with a project that requires library research students report they experience anxiety, sadness, other negative emotions and even physical symptoms such as nausea. That may explain, in part, why they’ll do almost anything to avoid interacting with the library, even if it means settling for inferior resources and no help at all. With expectations so low, how can we fail to exceed them? Knowing the expectations are low doesn’t automatically suggest we can always exceed them. It still requires us to design an experience that will make it possible. Our goal should be to raise these expectations from something community members dread to something they desire. Creating the opportunities to raise, and then exceed, those expectations is part of the user experience challenge.

Another thing we should be mindful of, when it comes to gauging our community members’ expectations, is that in economic downturns expectations generally are lower than normal. According to Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, one of the positives of the recession is that it lowers expectations. In a recent essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education Schwartz wrote that “By lowering expectations and keeping expectations modest, the downturn may actually enable people to derive satisfaction from activities and possessions that would previously have been disappointing.” Of college students in particular he writes, “Lowered expectations may also lead college students to feel less entitled than they have in recent years. They may seek what is good about their institution, and be grateful for it, instead of noticing the ways their institution falls short, and resenting it.”

With students having already low expectations for their library experience, it’s hard to imagine they could get even lower – if what Schwartz has to say is true. If it’s likely that students will lower their expectations in these difficult economic times that may bode well for library facilities that are showing their age. Now may be the perfect time, when expectations are generally lower, to make an all out effort in the library to give community members much more than what they expected when they walked through our doors. I believe that librarians should always seek to exceed expectations – whatever that means in your community – in order to achieve the best user experience. It would be easy enough to take the position that because the expectations of library community members are low there’s not much point in bothering to work at exceeding them. Heck, any minimal level of service might be appreciated. To my way of thinking that’s not an acceptable attitude. It’s up to us to gauge what the level of expectations is in our community, to raise it and to keep improving on it. That’s how you create a better library experience.

One thought on “Exceeding Expectations Depends On What They Are”

  1. OK, so the “exceeding” can be the enemy of the “meeting,” just as the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    Remember Deming? The American that helped reshape Japanese industry and developed the paradigm of continuous improvement and customer-centered measures of quality? His approach to performance reviews was to dispense with them. He was not interested in finding the workers that “exceeded” expectations–he wanted to develop ways to help all the workers “meet” standards and then find ways to raise the standards.

    It’s simple math in a way: Having more extreme outliers may affect the average, but doesn’t change the experience of most of the population. Moving the average though–that’s real change.

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