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.