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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?

Comments

Comment from Jim Nichols
Posted: December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Two points–how do we categorize? and how do special focused services benefit everyone?

There are a variety of ways to categorize our patrons, but a lot of those ways are not pertinent to their needs. The best way to categorize needs is by focusing on the situations or gaps that patrons face. Distance learners remote from campus are in a specific situation, for instance, independent of any other categories we normally try to put them in. So categorizing by situation can lead much more directly and creatively to needs and solutions. (Brenda Dervin clued me in on this.)

Second, in my work with distance learners I have noticed that solutions for them often spread easily to the benefit of others. I’ve seen the same happen for first-generation college students, international students, disabled students, etc. Learning to teach a blind student, for instance, made me a better teacher for all my students.

Comment from anonymouse
Posted: December 21, 2011 at 10:50 pm

At my public library, we claim to treat all reference questions & information needs equally, but we really don’t.

We extend internet sessions for people filling out applications but not people playing games; we give additional attention to teachers, pulling a large number of books for them that we wouldn’t for others; and I’ve seen librarians stop offering as much help to people who are rude, simply for being unpleasant to work with (for instance, mentioning ILLs and purchase requests to people who are friendly).

Comment from StevenB
Posted: December 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Good point Jim. Looking at users by category could be an interesting way to be advance customer centricity. But I think it is more than just providing a different service to a unique population. Based on my understanding of the concept, you want to focus on the customer who returns something back to the library that is high value. You can create special services for distance learners to fill those gaps, but do they return something of value to the library – in the same way that a unique service for a leading faculty member in the distance learning program. I’m not sure that’s something we want to do, I’m just saying that’s my interpretation of Fader’s principles for centricity. Are we talking about segmentation by category of patron (e.g., international student, disabled student, etc.) or by who returns the most value as a customer?

And in response to Anonymouse – what you’re describing, to my way of thinking, isn’t customer centricity. It’s just bad customer service defined by “well, do i feel like really helping this person today?” type thinking. Not a whole lot more to say about this.

Pingback from Library Inspiration from an IT Vision | From the Bell Tower
Posted: February 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm

[...] and flows seamlessly through the network. I previously stated that academic libraries needed to become a solutions provider, not just an ingredients supplier. I think Gonick is looking in the same direction: The challenge for IT leaders is to cede a modicum [...]

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