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.

Librarians Still Matter In a Self-Serve World

Let’s face it. Community members can manage their research and a host of other library chores pretty well in the library web environment without the need of intervention from library personnel.

I’m a fan of promoting self-service in libraries. Many, not all, community members prefer self-service options. In a world of ATM machines, airport check-in kiosks and supermarket self-checkout stations, a library that offers no self-service would seem outdated and out of touch with consumer trends.

While we should be looking for any and all opportunities where self-service could replace basic transactional interactions, we also need to be mindful about which of our services should continue to be conducted through human intervention and interaction. By all means, we should offer self-checkout, self-renewal, self-hold shelf pick-up, self-study room reservation and similar types of self-transacted tasks.

Then there are the services librarians offer that could potentially be transacted via self-service but probably would be better delivered through an intermediary. Database selection is one example that comes to mind. Database lists and recommender software could be a good start in the absence of human guidance, but it rarely works as well as we’d like.

And as much as we might think that there’s a widespread consumer preference for self-service, many people still appreciate and seek out human-mediated services. According to a New York Times article, there is a start-up segment fueled by such service, despite the growth of Expedia, Angie’s List, Priceline and other DIY websites, there is still a desire for personal attention:

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.”

Self-service is the right option for certain kinds of routine transactions, but there are several reasons, all applicable to libraries, why human-mediated service is still prized:

* saving time – you could figure out how to navigate the library website, identify
the appropriate resource, learn to use it, etc,. but having a personal guide to
lead the way, help avoid mistakes and leverage the features is worth any minor
inconvenience in arranging for an appointment.

* navigating complexity – self-service often fails for a particularly challenging
problem, so this is when you need help from an expert who can figure out what
went wrong, how to fix it or how to avoid frustrating problems in the first place.

* personal relationships – there was a commercial a few years ago for Priceline that
suggested they got the best deals because they “know a guy” (or gal) that helped
them get the best price – and that’s all about having a special relationship
where you can get help when you need it; so who doesn’t like having a special
librarian – that’s their guy/gal – who provides personalized, attentive help
when and where it’s needed

None of this is to suggest that human-mediated services are incompatible with technology. Rather it’s about using technology managed by humans to deliver a unique experience for the community member. There are times when self-service is the right user experience. We much prefer community members to use their online account to renew their books from home – and not bring them back in bags for us to process. That saves both of us time so we can take care of more important matters.

Personalized research services delivered by knowledgeable experts is what librarians can use to promote how what they do is different from self-serve web search. One of the keys to our successful future is giving community members a reason to believe the library is better – and not just better – but a powerful combination of people and resources that demonstrates we have designed a user experience the community can’t get anywhere else.

Convenience Trumps Qual..Wait…Library Experiences Should Transcend Fast Food

When Ranganathan stated his fourth law of library science, “Save the Time of the Reader” he probably did not intend for us to create a library experience that operates under the same principles as a fast food restaurant – whose fourth law just happens to be “Save the Time of the Eater”.

What Ranganathan most likely intended was for us to be efficient and knowledgeable so as to avoid squandering the time of our community members, yet not be so overly hurried that we deliver a rushed and impersonalized interaction – one that might seem more at home at a fast food restaurant.

Ranganathan lived in a rather different world than our own. In 1931, when he developed his theory of the five laws, the world moved at a much slower pace. “Save the time of the reader” was an encouragement to be well organized and efficient so the reader would be able to efficiently access needed resources. We live in a world where people expect instant gratification, instant access and instant support. Their lack of tolerance for waiting almost demands that libraries are designed to save time.

Perhaps we ought to give this some thought. Maybe the library should look for exceptions to the fourth law. Quite possibly there are times when we should break the fourth law and do things to encourage users to expend and not save time.Libraries could offer a different experience that encourages slowing down, being leisurely – forgetting to check the clock for a while.

Researchers at the University of Toronto found that the presence (and patronage) of fast food restaurants can contribute to a heightened impatience and a lowered tolerance for waiting. Their experiments, which prompted participants just to think about or see reminders of fast food chains, revealed that these stimuli cause people to rush through their reading, express a desire for timesaving products and express less happiness from certain types of slow music. While acknowledging there are multiple factors in our lives that contribute to our impatience and need for speed, they believe we can take steps to improve our patience and appreciation for taking more time to savor life – such as avoiding stimuli like fast food joints or intentionally seeking out spaces or experiences that reward slowing down the pace.

It’s been said that convenience trumps quality every time. That may explain why fast food restaurants stay in business. I’m not suggesting we can improve the library experience by making it inconvenient. I do believe there might be something of value in being the place in our communities where people can get that counter-stimulus, the one that contributes to an appreciation that it takes time and some effort to achieve high quality outcomes.

The library as the place that invites you to slow down and enjoy some browsing. Come in and talk to a librarian about your reading or research interests. Sit in on a lecture or book club discussion. Get absorbed in a new idea and immerse yourself in the literature. There will no doubt be times when efficiency and saving the time of the reader takes priority. I think we can aspire to be the place where there’s more to life than getting the fast food treatment.

How about a library law for that? Give the reader quality time.

Recent User Experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES

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.

Punishing Everyone For A Single Transgression

Does something like this ever happen in your library? A single-parent student has no choice but to bring a toddler son or daughter to the library. It’s a weekend, and the student has an assignment due on Monday. College libraries can be a little boring for the young, so the child does a bit of acting out or the parent lets the child use a computer. Another student complains about the noise or inability to get on a computer. It’s an isolated incident. The vast majority of the community members who bring their children to the library cause no problems for others. Despite this single transgression, because of a complaint, the library administration overreacts. Something must be done. A response is required. So the answer is to punish everyone who needs to bring a child to the library even though the vast majority conform to the existing policies. The existing access policy is quickly revised to restrict toddlers from coming into the building, or they are perhaps limited to a single area of the building. Whatever the response, it was likely too much too quickly – without really thinking through the impact of the change on the majority of the user community.

This is just one scenario. It could be anything that involves a single incident in which a community member violates a policy. Perhaps a laptop was broken. It could involve a special collection item that was damaged. Whatever the case, does the “this means we have to change the policy” response make any sense? It’s good to respond to a complaint, but is there really a need to change the policy over a single incident? In these situations the outcome is to punish every person who follows the existing policy and causes no trouble at all. You may have seen a previous presentation by Derek Sivers. He’s done a few memorable turns at TED. I enjoyed his short video presentation about this problem, “Don’t Punish Everyone For One Person’s Mistake”.

Sivers makes the point that people are going to break the rules, screw up or otherwise act out in some way that will create a problem. It’s going to happen. You can’t prevent every problem. You can only do your best to create an environment that facilitates the best possible library experience for community members. When that doesn’t happen because of the actions of a single individual or perhaps a rowdy group, Sivers says that we need to resist the urge to change the policy to prevent everyone from possibly making the same transgression. I think it’s a good idea to keep things in perspective and ask yourself and others if this single incident really is causing a problem that needs a strong response. Why not do the damage control, then lay back and wait to see if it happens again?

There’s always an opportunity to change a policy. If we change it too rapidly, for the wrong reasons and without contemplating the cascading consequences of our action, we may ultimately alienate far more of our user community members than would have happened as a result of the original problem.