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airport check-in kiosks and supermarket self-checkout stations, a library that offers no self-service would seem outdated and out of touch with consumer trends.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.

Expanding Our Touchpoints To Self-Service

Outside of references to societal trends pointing to the consumer interest in self-service and how libraries need to respond to that, we librarians rarely talk about the ways in which we offer or could offer self service – and what that would mean for ourselves, our libraries and our community members. Nor have I seen much in our literature or conference discussions about evaluating the quality of our self service (if you’ve seen or written about such research please let us know).

I got to thinking about this after reading a post over at Joseph Michelli’s blog “Joseph’s Blog” on “How to Execute Easy“. In discussing a new research study that examines customer use of self-service kiosks, Michelli points to a dilemma faced by organizations that use ATM-like machines to deliver service:

At the heart of the dilemma that prompted this research is a desire by business leaders to maximize technology – speeding-up service, delivering cost efficient service solutions, and even opening-up their business to new tech-savvy customer segments. At the same time these leaders don’t want to automate service to the point that it becomes impersonal and essentially decreases the emotional connections between the consumer and their brand. That outcome would fundamentally lead to commoditization and that defeats all benefits of the technology in the first place.

Libraries already offer self-service checkout, some are exploring vending machines for self-service book delivery, and we offer patron-mediated interlibrary loan – where community members essentially manage their own ILL transactions. But quite possibly the most vast application of self-service is our electronic information delivery. We give our user community access to a rich set of resources that they can mine anytime, at their convenience, with no need whatsoever to interact with a member of the library staff. But here’s the important point according to Michelli: are we making it easy? He writes:

The mixed finding indicates that if you attempt to make the experience easier and it really turns out to be easier – satisfaction increases and you make more money. If you attempt to make it easier and it turns out to more complicated, you lose customer loyalty and decrease the depth of your existing customers’ spend.

So we’re not trying to make money – that’s not the point. We do need to build community member loyalty so we keep them coming back to the library for more. The challenge is that our “self-service” databases often fail the “easy” test, and that may be the case as well for some of our other self-service solutions (have you tried your library’s self-service checkout?). One improvement that may help is the ability to integrate chat widgets into the databases. So far only one major vendor is making it possible (correct me if I’m wrong). That capability speaks to the importance of offering a good balance between speeding things up for the community member and providing the opportunity for a personal connection. Access to live help is likely to increasingly become a part of the online service experience. Michelli shares that “in the next 12 months, retail eBusiness professionals are planning to expand their online customer service touchpoints, with significant increases in live help, social, and mobile customer service.”

As libraries move more of their services into the online and mobile worlds, we will no doubt expand the opportunities for self-service – which is a good thing. But as we do so we will also need to pay attention to expanding our touchpoints in those environments.