One of my job responsibilities at the Temple University Libraries is to serve as the official complaint department. That’s right. The complaints and suggestions are funneled to me. I investigate each one personally or will assign a staff member to look into it. We explore what went wrong and then work to resolve the problem or at least acknowledge it and explain the issues – and when appropriate acknowledge where we failed and what we will do to improve.
Of course, at one time or another most every library worker who connects with members of the user community will hear complaints. It may just be about the lack of paper towel in the bathroom, an improperly imposed fine or the lack of open computers. Many of these complaints are resolved on the spot, or staff will do their best to avoid having a minor problem become a major issue. I always encourage my front line colleagues to refer any one with a complaint to me. I enjoy the challenge of turning a community member from someone who is angry at us into someone who becomes an advocate for us.
By advocate I mean a person who will actually promote the library in the community. We can do all the marketing and promotion we desire, but there’s nothing quite like building a base of loyal advocates who will be energized enough to tell their friends, colleagues and others how great the library is and what it has to offer that can’t be had elsewhere. How about when the library experience we deliver is mostly negative? What do we create when we fail to deal effectively with complaints? Badvocates – that’s the opposite of an advocate. A badvocate may be a chronic complainer who has nothing good to say about the library, but more likely the badvocate is a community member who just had a bad library experience that’s going unresolved. The problem is that the badvocate goes out of their way to spread negativity about the library to the rest of the community or beyond. We all know that members of the user community are much more likely to complain than praise, so it demands extra effort to avoid bad experiences – and we must respond quickly because the word can be spread rapidly via social media.
I first encountered the term “badvocate” in this Mashable post titled “Deal with Negative Online Sentiment About Your Brand” and it immediately resonated with me. The author, Maria Ogneva is the Head of Community at Yammer, where she is in charge of social media and community programs. She spends a fair amount of time dealing with badvocates and trying to prevent them from rising up. She provides three main causes of badvocacy, and you know they happen in your library:
* Inconsistency across channels and touchpoints – this happens when library users have a great experience with one part of the operation but a far worse one at another service point. For example, receiving great service at the desk, but then getting lost in the stacks and finding no one who can help. Or a staff member confirms by phone that a book is available but when the patron arrives the book is impossible to locate.
* Inconsistency with expectations – you know the feeling; you get information off the library website or from a staff member, and then the reality falls far below what was expected. That leaves community members feeling bitter and hostile.
* A negative relationship with library staff – all it takes is one low-morale, uncaring or angry staff member to create that negative relationship. I recently stayed at a hotel and every single employee went out of their way to build the positive experience. It was refreshing to receive such attention, but I was quite sure it was the result of extensive staff development and designing a consistently great experience that helps to avoid negative relationships.
You probably know who some of your chronic complainers are, and you also monitor various social networks to see what’s being said about your library. What can you do when someone is trashing your library and its brand? Sometimes the immediate reaction in the library is to dump the complainer into a bin we call “difficult patron”, “problem patron” or what a co-worker once call her “MOP File” for “most obnoxious patron”. This always bothered me because even though there are some individuals who you can’t please no matter what you do, the odds are that whatever is causing the complaint is something that’s broken in our operation.
That is why the first response or action, according to Ogneva, is to “understand who your badvocates are, what they are saying and where they are saying it. The process is about listening, much like finding anything using social media”. That’s the first step in the IDEO design thinking process. Before you attempt to solve any problem, first identify what the problem is – and that often happens when you listen to the person complaining about your library. Beyond properly understanding your badvocates and the root causes for their issues, here are some other strategies recommended by Ogneva:
Reach out – Reach out and acknowledge their pain. Most problems get resolved quickly because the person just wanted someone to talk to.
Respect privacy – Know when to take the conversation private. After the initial public tweet, you should reach out in a private channel to really dig in and see if you can make a difference.
Offer an individualized solution – In customer service, there’s no “one size fits all,” because each case is different. Offer an individualized solution, which may require you to work with the right people within your own organization.
Don’t let it stew – Address sources of conflict quickly. Because most people just want to be heard, cared for and helped, the faster you can reach out, the more likely you will prevent the situation from festering.
Never make it personal -If and when conflict escalates, never make it personal. Never attack the person, even if he or she attacks you personally. Keep the conversation focused on the issues.
Take action, close the loop – Communicate back to the customer what has been done, or how soon to expect something to be done.
Never lose your cool – Just like you shouldn’t make things personal, you should never lose your cool. Choose your words wisely.
Watch advocates come to your rescue – If you have done your job cultivating advocacy, in an online conflict, your advocates will come to your rescue.
Treat them equally – Make sure you don’t just help badvocates with high influence scores. Every distressed customer is a potential badvocate.
But why get to the point where you need to utilize these strategies to turn your badvocates into your advocates. The best defense against badovacy is a great library user experience. As Ogneva says, “Just as badvocacy is caused by bad user experience, advocacy is caused by excellent experience.” She goes on to say that “Advocates are created when there is a two-way dialogue around their need, and users have a direct input into the future of the product.” Her final piece of advice for creating advocates is to “humanize the brand.”
This makes excellent sense and reinforces what I’ve said previously about making the library about the people who work there and their relationships with the community. If the public only sees the library as a building with books and a website with links to databases, what’s the harm in telling your network how much you hate it and how badly it sucks; it’s not like anyone is being hurt. If members of the user community have experienced the library as engagement with humans they are less likely to be critical and are more likely to see the library as a place where they can take up their problems with people like themselves.
If you have a story to share about turning one of your badvocates in to an advocate – or other ideas for dealing with badvocates – please share it with a comment.