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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Stop Being So Helpful

In a previous post I wrote about appreciating getting personal attention in a retail setting, particularly when it was of the pre-emptive nature. Many retail stores are fine when it comes to good customer service, but too often I need to initiate the transaction by tracking down someone who can help me. It was quite a different experience to have a store employee go out of her way to help me get what I needed – without me asking for assistance – and to get me on my way quickly. I called this post “Greeters – NO; Pre-emptive Support – YES“.

Not everyone agreed. There are some folks who prefer to be left alone to figure out things on their own. They may actively avoid store employees – and they certainly hope there’s no door greeter. I can understand how that can be a turnoff for some folks, but I can support delivering a more pre-emptive support approach in a library. More than a few libraries have sent their staff out roaming the facility for that exact reason – to be visible and available to help and to be proactive in asking community members if they need assistance. It’s not uncommon to have student workers wear vests or other objects so that people will ask them for help.

But it could be that too much pre-emptive support is not necessarily better. At least that’s how Teppi Jacobsen sees it. In a post over at When You Put It That Way Jacobsen share a recent experience shopping at Target – and it wasn’t the good kind of experience. She’s a loyal Target customer, but her last visit has her thinking differently about their relationship. The problem in a nutshell – too much pre-emptive support. Everywhere she turned in the store another customer associate asked her if she needed help finding something or if she was doing all right. Eventually it put her over the edge:

I still love you Target. But if you don’t stop having your people hassle us with that ridiculous question over and over, I may have to shop somewhere else with awful customer service, just to be left alone.

It’s a good point and one we all need to keep in mind when it comes to experience design. Too much of a good thing is not so good for the community member. Perhaps the best way to avoid this type of attention overkill is to centralize the point of pre-emptive support. Perhaps it only happens at the entrance or at strategic points on other floors, such as near a stairwell that leads to a service zone. Staff could communicate about strategies for approaching community members, but doing so in a way that avoids the type of pushy, poor customer service that Jacobsen experienced.

It’s probably more so the case in our libraries that we pay too little attention to individuals who may be in need of help but won’t ask for help for any number of reasons. Being pre-emptive can also mean improving the design of signage to improve wayfinding or doing customer journey analysis to identify and eliminate barriers that cause patron confusion. A better designed library experience is quite likely to cut down on the need to constantly ask if help is needed – and if people are able to navigate the library on their own it won’t be.

Whichever strategies we employ to help the confused or lost community members to find what they do want, let’s bear in mind what may have annoyed Jacobsen the most. It was more than just the number of times she was asked if help was needed. It was the distinct impression that the store personnel who were asking the question really didn’t care whether or not she was finding what she needed, but were only doing so because they were told by managers to keep doing it or because they were bored. That’s a trap we want to avoid. When we do offer help it’s important to make a sincere effort. When we fail at it, they will know.

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