Customer Service is Loving People

Matt Smith —  February 15, 2017 — 4 Comments


I’ll never forget creating a Staff Day presentation titled “Customer Service is Loving People,” filled with all sorts of ideas about empathy, love, MLK quotes, and references to historical and philosophical figures. Before clicking ‘save’ on the PowerPoint presentation, I thought: am I really going to do this? Could this be the corniest presentation of all time? (the corniest LL&F post of all time?!) Am I one of those weirdos at Staff Day that we all make fun of later on? Alas, I felt compelled. I literally opened my talk with this: “I was going to talk about Customer Service, but I cannot…”

After thinking about it for several years, and after serving on our Customer Service Committee at KPL, I truly believe empathy is the holy grail of customer service and, being a simple person, I prefer to focus on that alone. All of us who serve people – whether that be students, library patrons, or middle aged women getting skinny vanilla lattes – we all need to consider how we treat them, how we think about them; and, ultimately, how and if we love them.

  • Do you care about the members of your library? All of them?

  • Do you find yourself thinking about patrons most of the time (positively, not negatively)?

  • Do you treat users as you would treat yourself, your family, your friends?

If so, you are giving good customer service, probably great. And you are probably a good person to boot. Similarly, leaders should be judged in proportion to how much they inspire others to care for patrons. I find a direct correlation between moral virtues and professional ones – and here is a good example. Empathy crosses the boundaries.

Customer service is empathy. And empathy is morality, and morality is life. Some things in life have simple answers, and this might be one of them. Maybe it’s not about eye contact, and smiling, and body position, and the reference interview, and re-stating the question, and following up, and saying the proper things. Maybe those are peripheral. Maybe those are symptoms of customer service; they flow from it and cannot be forced, cannot come from nothing. As Rene Descartes would say, let’s get to first principles. Customer service is a genuine concern. You can’t fake it. People are smart. They know if you care about them or not. And if you care, you will make eye contact, you will smile, you will follow up. I’ve seen it so many times. Caring for customers is the worldview that creates excellent customer service experiences, both on the front end and the back end, both in person and when designing service, spaces, policies, procedures. Everything that psychology has to say about a healthy relationship – empathy, trust, communication, love – applies equally to patrons, customers, users, members, and co-workers.

Well, okay, maybe love isn’t the whole story. Loving alone sometimes isn’t enough. We can have the best of intentions and still design a terrible service for library users. For example, it’s great to care about people who prefer large print books, and those people exist no doubt. But should you double the size of your Large Print collection? Probably not (in fact, it might be too big). Without knowledge, love can be blind. We have to know what patrons – specifically and collectively – actually want. We have to look at data, crunch numbers and interpret statistics on occasion. We have to get to know people, ask questions, think critically, do focus groups. Martin Luther King Jr. once said (oh great, now he’s quoting MLK?) that in order for the heart to be in the right place, the head must be in the right place. I agree. Perfect customer service is when the heart meets the head on an organizational level.

If you work at a library, you need to figure out which side you’re on. If you don’t love patrons, you are getting in the way of progress. If you love patrons, let’s roll up our sleeves, learn, and create amazing services and spaces for the people we care about.

Matt Smith


home brewing, reading, philosophy, religion, exercise. Husband and father.

4 responses to Customer Service is Loving People


    Thank you so much for this post! At my last staff training day, we sort of accidentally veered into a discussion of whether sympathizing with patrons was part of our jobs. I believe it started with a conversation about chatty patrons who want to talk to staff even when it isn’t part of a transaction or an exchange of library-related information, and how staff should respond. I felt strongly that those kinds of conversations are very much part of librarians’ jobs, although I had never put it into words before. I was alarmed that some of my coworkers disagreed but I couldn’t put my finger on why their disagreement bothered me so much until I read this article. I’d say you pretty much argue here that to be a good library worker you have to care about (it is hard to say the l-word!) the people you serve AS PEOPLE, rather than just caring about being good at providing a set of services, and I really agree with that. Thank you for articulating this viewpoint in a way that might make sense to those coworkers I was disagreeing with.


      Thanks Emma. Well put. I think many people fall into the “work” vs “real life” dichotomy that is an illusion we hide behind. It’s a distancing tactic. We cannot switch ourselves on and off like that. If we are good, caring, empathic people in “real life,” that carries over to work – and the other way around. We are at work for so much of our lives! We spend so much time with patrons! We might as well be sympathetic while we’re at it and just embrace it. When we see patrons on the street, we should not only say hi but call them by their name.


    It’s also important to find ways to support staff in doing this work. It can take a real emotional tole to offer this kind of empathy and understanding. In my current role, where I only work directly with the public about 15% of the time, I’m able to offer really high-quality, caring customer service. When I worked front-line service more like 75% of the time, I found it much more difficult to sustain. What tools do we need to recharge ourselves after these sometimes draining interactions? I think that has to be part of the discussion, too.


      Very valid point. I couldn’t agree more. I work only 15% of the time with the public nowadays, so I’m in the same boat. We also need to recognize that not all public desks are the same. The desk that deals with fines/overdue fees will be different from the Reference desk which is different from Childrens room.

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