Tag Archives: customer_service

Be A Solutions Provider Not Just An Ingredients Supplier

Recommending that librarians should provide different levels of service to community members is right up there with advocating for the end of reference desks or a future dominated by bookless libraries. It can be volatile subject matter for discussion. The library is a commons that is owned by each community member, and each of those members is equally eligible to receive all the benefits and services and access all the resources to which he or she is entitled. In an age of heightened customer expectations, does the “everyone is equal” approach still work or should librarians be more customer centric.

What does it mean to be customer centric? That is the subject of a new book by Peter Fader, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In this new book titled Customer Centricity, Fader promotes the idea that successful organizations will wisely segment their customers, and create special services for the most valued customers – services that might be unavailable to other customers. Being customer centric means more than just giving community members everything they want. As he explains in an interview:

Too many people think that being customer centric means doing everything that your customers want, and that’s not the case. Being friendly and offering good service are a part of customer centricity, but they are not the whole thing. Customer centricity means that you’re going to be friendly, provide good service and develop new products and services for the special focal customers — the ones who provide a lot of value for you — but not necessarily for the other ones. You need to pick and choose. Some customers deserve the special treatment, and if others want to buy from you, that’s great, but they are not going to be treated the same.

While the goal of customer centricity may be unthinkable to some librarians, when we honestly assess how we treat community members, we already make distinctions between them and offer special treatment to some and not others. In academic libraries we certainly treat faculty members differently than students. We may offer faculty a book delivery service while everyone else has to come to the library. A faculty member’s research question is typically prioritized. Not fair perhaps, but it’s critical to build a good relationship with the faculty. It’s part of what we do to keep them satisfied; our funding might depend on it.

It’s the same thing with the Provost or President. They’ll receive a level of service above other community members. The quality of the work is no less for everyone else, but the provost or president will get much more personalized attention and faster service – and the amount of attention and effort may even exceed what others would get from a librarian. Those types of inequities aside, what about students. Do we make distinctions among the student body, especially among undergrads? We might have some special service, perhaps private study carrels, for honors students. I’m sure this happens in public libraries as well. Consider the advantages of developing some targeted and personalized research services for customers who can provide the most value, such as city councilpersons or the municipal finance office. Perhaps we are more customer centric than we think.

If we choose to formally recognize the importance of customer centricity then we should make it a part of the design of the library user experience. To put this into perspective I want to share one segment of the interview with Fader that resonated more strongly with me. That’s because I want to advocate that we should always seek to emphasize who we are as library professionals and what we can do for our community members by delivering expert services. Content is important, but the community could easily access the content without librarians. Here’s the passage:

Instead of pushing back and complaining, companies have to realize that instead of just putting products out there, they really need to be a solutions provider. That’s kind of a corny phrase these days, but I think there is some validity to it. Companies need to help consumers figure out how their products and services are going to fit into their lives and offer solutions, and not just ingredients.

Solutions versus ingredients. I really like to think of it that way. All the library content, that’s the ingredients. We can offer plenty of unique material that community members will find nowhere else. What we can’t do, given the number of community members and the limited staff, is provide everyone with the same level of service. Consider a more specialized library experience focusing on provided solutions where customer centricity is appropriate. After all, that’s what design is largely about – finding solutions. That’s what librarians do. Community members bring us their information problems. There’s a gap between what they know and they want they need to learn. There’s a point trying to be made and the data’s missing. The challenge is doing the “picking and choosing” that’s required by customer centricity. How do you make those decisions? Are you already being customer centric, either intentionally or unconsciously? If not, are you thinking about it?

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.

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.

Customer Service vs User Experience

When talking to other librarians about user experience, the question/observation that invariably comes up is “but isn’t that just another way of saying we all need to give great customer service”. I admit it’s a good question. I don’t doubt that organizations that have mastered the user experience all incorporate great customer service into the process. A talk I attended recently got me thinking about the difference between great customer service and great library user experiences. I would say there is a difference and that it can be explained.

Good customer service is important to any service organization, and that includes libraries. To my way of thinking, good customer service must be a given. It’s not added value. We might even describe good customer service, for library organizations, as a core value service. Without it we fail to fulfill our mission. But if every library provided great customer service there is nothing about great customer service that differentiates an individual library. Most library users would then (and I would argue should) have the expectation to get good customer service in any library they visit.

User experience, on the other hand, is all about creating a difference. As was explained in the talk I attended, so many competitors can now offer exactly the same products, at exactly the same price, with exactly the same customer service. Differentiation is a critical strategy in any highly competitive environment. For many businesses and services the only way to now achieve differentiation is to create a unique experience for their customers. And that experience can’t be random. It should be the result of a carefully constructed design.

I’m not saying that consistently delivering good customer experience is easy. But I do think our staff working in those areas of the library operation that are expected to offer good customer service know what they need to do and some basic ways in which it can be accomplished. Designing a good library user experience, on the other hand, is going to take a more strategic effort to determine how and in what ways the library can differentiate itself through a variety of customer interactions. It’s not going to necessarily be the same for every library. At one library the experience might be designed around total simplicity – making the library and its systems as easy to use at every possible touch point. At another library it might designed around academic success – always communicating the message that the library helps students and faculty achieve success on their terms – and delivering on it at every touch point. Why will those library experiences be different? Because, as our speaker told us, all user experience design eminates from an organization’s core value system. Each library, as it develops its design for the user experience, must first grasp and be able to articulate what its core value propositions are.

Fortunately, quite a few of my library colleagues attended this talk. I’m glad they heard these messages about designing a user experience for a library, why it’s important in our competitive information landscape, and why it’s about more than good customer service. Together I think we can begin to discuss what our core values are, and then use that knowledge to design our library user experience.