Staff Expertise Makes A Difference

If there was one thing you wish everyone in your community knew about the library that you believed they needed to know – and didn’t – what would that be?

That you had hundreds of thousands or even millions of books from which to choose? That you had private study rooms and seven different types of chairs and desks? That an interlibrary loan article can be had within 24 hours? All good things for community members to know, but I believe the answer would have little to do with those material resources and everything to do with your staff.

I want our students and faculty to know that our staff members have expertise to help them save time by reducing the effort spent searching for the content. Then they can better invest their time in study, analysis, writing and completing their knowledge products. Whether we are referring to a librarian subject matter and research expert or a staff member who can help find just the right video segment, the core of the library experience – the product we can deliver – is staff who make a difference with their expertise.

Where the experience is most apt to suffer is when staff members lack the appropriate skills and fail to adequately meet the information needs of the community member. This is a significant problem in the retail sector because if the store representative fails to answer the customer’s questions there is a loss of confidence.

In response the customer is likely to look elsewhere, mostly online, for the answers. If and when they are obtained, an online sale will likely follow. Thinking back to the Great Retail Shopping Experiences of North America, one of the most significant customer expectations was “executional excellence” which means:

Having product knowledge and the ability to patiently explain and advise while providing unexpected quality

So what are brick-and-mortar retailer’s doing to prevent the loss of sales to online competitors? Two words: staff training

That sounds like an old, time-tested concept. If staff are expected to gain the expertise needed to achieve executional excellence then the experiential leadership must develop and implement an effective staff training program.

This is critically important for those retailers owing to the showrooming behavior of consumers. According to research shared by Knowledge@Wharton in their post on “Want to Stop Retail Showrooming? Start Training Your Staff“, physical retailers need to offer sales expertise at a level that simply is beyond anything online sellers offer. Four things matter most:

* highly visible staff that are eager to help
* staff that are highly knowledgeable about the products
* staff are able to immediately deliver what the customer wants
* transactions that proceed smoothly with minimal wait time

Among these four things the hardest to control for consistent quality is highly knowledgeable staff. The post goes on to explain how even a limited amount of staff training can lead to increased productivity and improvements in the service experience.

The lead researcher, Marshall L. Fisher, professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton, believes the value of staff training goes beyond helping retailers challenge showroomers:

I think it’s broader than just retailers. I think it applies to lots of service industries, that if you have an associate who is dealing with one of your customers, you want that person to be talented and engaging. And you want that customer to have a good experience.

From his team’s extensive research on the impact of training to improve staff’s executional excellence Fisher concluded:

If your sales associates are well-trained and can answer customers’ questions knowledgeably, that’s one weapon in your arsenal against showrooming. I think customers often times don’t intend to showroom, but end up shopping online because they get better information online than they’re getting in the store. Retailers can defend against that through better training of their sales associates.

Many library staff find it off putting to think of themselves as selling anything and would hesitate to take away lessons learned from research on retail sales associates. But time and again I hear library workers gripe about community members who are unaware of all the services and support the library offers. Yet those same members are intimately familiar with ways to obtain information via online Internet resources. Perhaps we would do well to think of ourselves as sales associates with something much better to offer our community members.

Our problem is somewhat different. We need to get community members into our showroom so we can show them what we can do for them and all that we have to offer. What’s similar is that executional excellence can be the key to turning a community member into a passionate library user who has established an emotional connection with us.

Let’s not underestimate the value of providing the training needed to develop staff who are truly the information experts in the community. When we do encounter community members at any library touchpoint, we can’t afford to lose a single one because we failed to demonstrate the high level of knowledge about our products that community members expect to receive when they shop or receive a service.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell’s latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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