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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.

img_0366When it comes to book displays at the library, I find there to be two different philosophies or approaches. Most people lean towards one or the other, but not both. First, we have the “Save-a-Book” displays, where we highlight older, less popular books, usually from the regular stacks, usually based on a subject (Puppies, True Crime), a season (Beach Reads), or a heritage month (Black History). I would say the most extreme (and irrational) examples of these”Save-a-Book” displays are books that are about to get weeded (“Last Chance!”), or books that have blue or pink covers (please don’t do that…it really makes no sense).

Second, and less prevalent in libraries, are what I call popular displays (for lack of a better term). These are displays that highlight what people already want or probably want. I’m not talking about bestsellers or books that you automatically get 50 copies of, but popular midlist titles nonetheless. From a process standpoint, popular displays have a completely different workflow. Rather than gathered up after the fact on the back end, these are new books that get ordered to go on the display. They get selected, processed, and cataloged as display items. They can last for a few months to several years, and they require weekly upkeep to weed and keep tidy. They are like a fire, constantly being stocked and fed. They are new, clean, popular, and waiting for the patron when they walk in. And they do incredibly well.

You can probably already tell which one I prefer. I find that subject based displays are hit
or miss at best. They tend to be a lot of work for a little payoff in circulation. While I think most displays should be popular, I also think some displays have an important place in libraries. For example, we do displays for all the heritage months – Black History Month, American Indian Month. That’s important. Or displays that support social justice initiatives (e.g., “Libraries Stand Tall,” a display supporting immigrants). Whether popular or not, those have social value and should be highlighted. Although, as a side note, we should make an effort to represent all people in our popular dimg_0367isplays as well, not just relegated to special months. Let’s integrate displays the best we can. For example, I’m considering a popular “Heard on NPR” book display. Not only will it be popular, it will be relatively diverse as well.

Last thought: in my experience, Staff Picks displays are a slam dunk. Not only are they the best form of readers’ advisory, not only are they fun for staff, not only do patrons appreciate our selections, but they circulate well.

book and skull with title The Almost Dead Experiment

What’s a rational weeding philosophy? When is a book really dead? 6 months? 2 years? 4 years? More importantly: how do we know? Progressive, cool libraries stick to a 180 day weeding target, while old, stodgy libraries pile books to the rafters (’cause hey . . . we got the space). And some libraries (ahem, East Lake County) hate weeding so much and so blindly that they create a fake patron account to “save” books. All of these beg the same question: what data are these decisions based on?

In my new position managing the adult collection at KPL, I’m in a complex situation. While we tend to have a more conservative weeding target (4 years at main downtown library), I personally found myself leaning towards the more aggressive end of the spectrum – I just assumed that if a book sits on the shelf for 2 or 3 years, it’s probably not getting checked out.

Until now.

CollectionHQ, an evidence-based collection management tool designed for libraries (recently acquired by Baker and Taylor), is normally used for weeding and selecting. But my favorite tool, called “experimental placement,” allows you to track particular books or collections and see how they perform over time. I ran an experiment 7 months ago, the results of which completely blow my mind. It turns out that, at my library, books that haven’t been checked out in three years – three years! – are still not dead yet.

Looking at the Dewey ranges 000-550, I was able to find 907 books that hadn’t checked out in three years (our weeding target is currently set at four years). I put those 907 Almost Dead Books into a CollectionHQ experiment, and I waited.

Out of 907 books in the experiment, a whopping 232 (25%) were subsequently checked out by patrons. That is to say, 1 in every 4 Almost Dead Books were checked out. And of those 232 that were checked out, many were renewed multiple times and/or checked out again by someone else – making a net total of 469 circulations from Almost Dead Books.

Before the experiment, my prediction was that 1-5% of the Almost Dead Books would circulate again. I had to double check the numbers. I even checked the ILS at most of these titles, just to be sure actual real physical people were checking them out. Indeed.

I predict the second half of the Dewey ranges would do markedly better (550-999: diet, workout, cooking, business, crafts, travel).

This data sort of justifies our “conservative” target – clearly people still want some of these books. You could argue that weeding Almost Dead Books would actually lead to more total circulation by freeing up space for newer books.

I don’t want to oversimplify things. Weeding isn’t a simple 6 months vs. 4 years decision. Every Dewey range and every genre of fiction should  be treated differently, and there are myriad other considerations. I just wanted to repeat the buzzword because it matters so much in our profession: data-driven decision making. Whatever you do at your library, try to get data to inform the decision. You might be surprised.

Questions about how to do these experiments in CollectionHQ? matts@kpl.gov

images-2Talking crap about patrons, as I’ve said before, might be the number one barrier to customer service in libraries. And when we talk about customer service we don’t just mean personal interactions at the public service desk – that’s the tip of the iceberg. We mean policies, procedures, services: from design to implementation. And sadly, a culture of patron negativity melts the iceberg (and prevents innovation).

Some examples (write yours in the comments):

Public service desks that look like military forts
I’m sure there’s some historical reason for gigantic public service desks – like we didn’t have computers back then or whatever – but c’mon. My library has an AV desk (“AV”, by the way, stands for “audiovisual”…that’s another discussion). Anyway, the AV desk is so large that helping a patron involves taking a short jog around the block. Showing the patron where a movie is – a hallmark of good customer service – is a chore, and leads to missing phone calls. The desk is high, making the patron feel small and submissive. To make the barrier worse, the desk is littered with signage, usually negative. Reduced visibility reduces eye contact, one of the most important customer service interactions. It’s passive aggressive and we unconsciously do it, but people are smart and get the message. And that’s the most harmful part: we don’t trust you, this is my space, I’m busy. As I sit at my public service desk this morning (a Law Library), I measure the desk to be six feet across. That could be a good thing; that’s a lot of space for the patron to see me, approach me, ask me a question. However, with all the stuff – let’s call them unconscious barricades – we are left with a small window of 13 inches! I sit behind a wall of unconscious barricades. It’s time for small, personal, flexible, inviting, open public services points.

Having a “Scissor Policy”
When people need to use scissors at the library, we tell them our policy. Immediately grown men and women become five years old. We tell them to only play with the scissors at the desk so we can watch them. This is actually very funny to me – and the comedic value almost outweighs the harm to the customer – but the message is clear: we don’t trust you. Perhaps they could stab someone in the throat or worse: go on a book-cutting rampage!  Probably this happened 10 years ago (the cutting, not the stabbing) and we designed a policy to stop it from happening 10 years from now (some of our materials, you know, are irreplaceable). Designing for the exception, rather than the rule, as my colleague Kevin King would say.

That’s worth repeating. How many of our policies or services are designed based on exceptions, based on what might happen, based on what a patron might do, based on a philosophy of the lowest common denominator and an intense love and ownership of our materials!

Littering the Building with “No” Signs
I’ve yet to see any evidence that people read these signs, care about these signs and, more importantly, follow these signs. Experiment: try several months without the signs and compare to several months with them. Signs are the ultimate passive aggressive librarian response to not engaging with people or talking to them on a human level. How many meetings have you been in that went like this: (1) complaint about particular patron (2) someone suggests: maybe we should have…a sign? If libraries absolutely need a sign that attempts to control behavior in the building, then a positive sign is a much nicer and more effective. Again, treating people like children is a classic symptom of patron bashing, of a negative culture, of a particular mindset towards the people we serve. The Marketing Team, with a strong customer service bent, should have complete control of signage at the library.

Having Items or Services Behind the Desk
Anytime we make it harder for a patron to access a service, we should think hard and ask questions. I’m currently working on a project to lend Urban Fiction Kindles to patrons. Should they be displayed in the public space, away from staff, with the books, checked out by patrons themselves? Our immediate knee-jerk reaction is no, that they’re too precious, that people will steal them. Where is the stapler located? By the printer or behind a desk? Are there magazines or books people have to ‘check out’? Does the cost of replacing that Consumer Reports ($4) outweigh the cost of treating people like kids? (and wasting staff time). Do some Branches have special services that other Branches do not? Years ago, because of theft, we transferred our video games to a different Branch. That’s potentially problematic. Stealing happens, and we assume it will, and these are hard decisions to make, but everything has a cost. Security is part of the design phase of any service – not a reaction after-the-fact.

The 100 Other Services that were Never Considered
Patron Bashing stifles creativity and innovation, so my point is not to talk about a silly stapler behind a desk (my red stapler). I care about the services that weren’t thought of. We’ve all been in meetings like this: (1) good idea that serves a need (2) patron negativity (3) idea dies. A culture that lifts up our patrons, that cares and respects them as people, that designs services for the 99% rather than the 1% – that is a progressive library.

photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

photo credit: BRICK 101 Facial animation cycle via photopin (license)

Patron Bashing – a.k.a. venting, ruminating, letting off steam, gossiping – is a huge problem in the library profession. To me, it’s nothing short of the number one barrier to providing excellent customer service. Front line staff, librarians, managers, directors – we all are do it. And we do it a lot. Every single day.

And I’m not here to shame anyone. I used to do it as much as anyone else, probably more so (my first library job was a security guard, after all). I’m here to understand it, to make an attempt at explaining it.

The first step is admitting we have a problem, individually and collectively. I think that’s the easy part.

The second step is understanding why we do it. This is how we move beyond it. The simple and naive answer would be this: we talk badly about patrons because patrons really are bad, or difficult, or [insert generalization here]. In other words, I’m not making this stuff up! Unfortunately that’s false. I would confidently estimate that 99 percent of our everyday patron interactions are either (a) positive or (b) neutral and unmemorable. That leaves 1% of patrons who are difficult, or break the Rules of Conduct, or give you a hard time, or puke on the floor. As a fun experiment, urge your staff members to make a tally sheet, to measure objectively their patron interactions for a particular day. They will be surprised.

Moreover, I have yet to come across any data to suggest that patrons are different than any other people, demographic or otherwise. If you come across such data, let me know. Patrons are people, just like us – people who walk into the library and use it. Yet we constantly get subliminal messages from library staff, library blogs, books about libraries, and even staff training that patrons are mentally unstable, or homeless, or dirty, or criminal, or rude, or liars, or stupid.

Let’s think deeply about why Patron Bashing exists.

  1. Negativity Bias

    Psychology tells us that our memories are hard-wired to remember negative experiences rather than positive ones. And we sure as heck don’t remember neutral experiences. Negativity bias, an evolutionary gift, has survival value – that’s why we have it. It’s far better to remember that our cousin was killed by a lion than to remember he wasn’t killed by a gazelle. We need to recognize this defect and move beyond it.

  2. Confirmation Bias

    Another well studied defect in human thinking, confirmation bias starts with an assumption, or narrative, or thesis: patrons are crazy, for example. Then, we only select those experiences and observations that conform to that worldview. We stockpile crazy patron stories while ignoring the rest. We do this all the time, in various aspects of our life.

  3. Group Think

    Sociology tells us that, when we get into groups, we tend to go with the flow. We go along with things, agree to things, engage in things we would never dream of doing. Patron Bashing spreads like wildfire because of this. It only takes one or two people to get the ball rolling. Pretty soon, the entire work environment is a patron bashing factory. Nobody wants to be the person to stand up and say: this isn’t right. And I don’t blame them; it’s hard.

  4. Racism and Classism

    Patron Bashing reminds me of racism in two ways. First, they are both based on false stereotypes about a group of people. “Black men are dangerous” is like “Patrons are crazy.” Both are false, and both perpetuate and fuel the oppression. Second, patron bashing reminds me of racism when it frankly is racism. Sometimes patron bashing is nothing more than a disguised way to talk negatively about people of color. Don’t believe me? If you were google the phrase “crazy library patrons,” you would immediately find the blog “Crazy Library Shit,” in which is a young pretty white librarian loathes her job and makes fun of black folks, using coded and harmful words like crackheads, Madea, in da Hood, gang wars, etc. Similar to racism but different, there’s also a socio-economic sort of snobbery going on, too. Privileged librarians with jobs tend to look down on “the public,” which is a kind of classism.

A humble look at our flaws as human beings makes us better people. The psychologist Carl Jung said this was the hardest thing for people to do. But when it comes to patron bashing, I believe this is the first step to ending the practice. I won’t go into alternative strategies here or positive ways to deal with difficult patrons – that’s another article, another Staff Day talk – but I will suggest the best way to stop talking crap about patrons is to stop talking crap about patrons!