Librarians can learn from reflecting on their own experiences as users – both the good and the bad. Taking time to pay attention to our personal experiences encourages us to think about the experience provided in our own libraries. During a few of my own recent service encounters I observed a practice that makes good sense, and could work in our library environment. My experience demonstrates that delivering some extra attention can make a difference – and that there are some alternatives to the widely questioned retail practice of placing greeters at the entrance.
Suggesting that we improve the library user experience by stationing someone at the front door of the library to offer a friendly presence and direction, almost always leads to references to a Wal-Mart greeter. They stand at the door, smile, say hello and do little else. We know from the retail front lines that initial acknowledgement of customers, making eye contact or demonstrating caring, can make a great impression and influence that person’s experience. They might not find what they want or believe the price is wrong, but that eye contact and recognition might still help to create a memorable and favorable experience.
One problem with greeters is that most people get accustomed to it and just ignore it wherever they go. The greeting becomes as much the norm of the shopping experience as checking out at the cash register – certainly not memorable. Recognizing the weaknesses of greeters, even Wal-Mart came to the realization that front door greeters could be put to better use elsewhere in the store.
So perhaps greeters are passe, but that only means we can do better. Take the friendliness and welcoming atmosphere a greeter should create and combine it with the act of saving consumers time and effort – and you have the “preemptive support” approach. I experienced this recently with Southwest and Bed, Bath and Beyond. At Philadelphia International Airport, the Southwest counter is quite chaotic and the space is poorly designed for high volume transactions. To alleviate the confusion, Southwest places an employee close to the door of the terminal. It’s not about greeting – it’s all business – and it’s designed to get customers into the right place quickly and before they get into a situation where they’ll have problems. This Southwest staffer is also on the lookout for potential problems that could create delays at the counter. Think preemptive.
There’s little to complain about at Bed, Bath and Beyond(BBB) when it comes to customer service. Staff are spread out throughout the store, working but roaming the floor looking for people to help. BBB does a fairly good job, but it can be inconsistent. Combine that with a big box layout with loads of merchandise, and it can be difficult to locate something specific. When I last visited I was barely through the door when an employee came over to ask me what I needed – not so much for delivering a greeting as trying to ease my entry into the store and to get me on my way. Even though the crowd in the checkout zone was a small one, I spotted a manager doing traffic control to keep each line as short and flowing as possible. When I got to the register I realized I forgot something. I mentioned it to the manager who was ushering me to a checkout line. Rather than have me go looking for it, I was placed in the line while the manager called another employee to retrieve what I forgot. This was great support that made things simple and convenient. It was a good experience, and I doubt a greeter by the door could have made it happen.
Having good experiences like these make bad experiences seem even worse by comparison. A visit to Macy’s to get help with a billing error demonstrated the difference between preemptive support and no support. After being told by the online support that any local store could help with this problem, I ran into a brick wall at the customer service office at the store in my area. Two employees insisted there was nothing they could do to help me. They didn’t even try, and seemed more interested in getting back to their computer entertainment. It turns out – after shaming one of them into calling the online billing folks – that they could indeed help with the situation. Just think how different my experience would have been if Macy’s configured their stores for preemptive support.
Our libraries, to the community members who use them, can be just as confusing as a big box store or just as chaotic as a busy airport terminal. We can choose to let our community members figure out the navigation and problem solving on their own or we can create preemptive support mechanisms to reach out to individuals before they get themselves into problem situations. It is often said that we cannot design experiences for other people. Each individual is unique and experiences the environment in a highly personal way. What we can do is design a library environment that facilitates the best possible experience for each individual. Consider the difference between an experience facilitated by preemptive support and one that offers just greeting – or no support at all. Is the experience we facilitate one where the community member becomes so confused, frustrated or angry, that he or she is compelled to go ask for support – unless the decision is to just give up and leave? How we design the environment and the staff we deploy to facilitate a better library experience can make all the difference.