Archives For Customer Service

It’s 2017 and the website of every single library in the country suffers from the same old, cruel, schizophrenic, UX nightmare dichotomy: the website and the catalog, the website versus the catalog. Two products, two experiences, two silos, two staff members behind them. Both are wannabees. The website is almost a catalog, and the catalog is almost a website. And together they are redundant, cluttered, confusing, and pointless to patrons.

The first library to figure out a true single user experience – that is to say, a real website – gets Library of the Year.

Scratch that.
Library of the Decade.

I truly believe that. We have come a long way, but we need to jump this hurdle. Our online presence – specifically the home page – is now more important than ever, more important than our physical space. With eBooks and eAudiobooks integrating into Search (sort of), with various providers like Overdrive, Hoopla, 3M, and Zinio – all of which are confusing to patrons; with online articles (if you can find them), online registration, online room booking, and online programs (and don’t get me started on online library cards which still don’t exist)….

Yeah, the website matters.

So who will be the first library to stop using the word ‘catalog’ – to eliminate the concept from our consciousness? I know the obstacles are huge, but who will be the first library to make the commitment and priority to fully integrate the search experience into the home page. Like this:

search_1

Who will be the first library to figure out a seamless “my account” feature of the website, where a patron doesn’t have to log in twice, where a patron is automatically logged in (like Facebook), and where a patron can see all their checkouts simply by hovering over the My Account icon, like this:

My account_1

Recently our library did a UX Study on our website and catalog. My interpretation is this: people go to the website to find books, place holds, check their account. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Let’s embrace that. Who will be the first library to transform the homepage into an Amazon experience? With gigantic book covers, curated lists, staff picks. Browse, click, hold – as few clicks as possible. Like this:

Home Page_1

How Do We Get There?

  1. Open Source ILS
    Currently, none of the ILS products, catalogs, or so called discovery layers allow for a real website. I’ve seen impressive library sites, but nothing close to modern. The ILS – the soul of the library – is probably the fundamental roadblock. We cannot make a product do something it can’t. Therefore, an open source ILS like Evergreen might be the only option – although I’ve heard very promising rumors and mockups at my library that we can do it with Sirsi’s ILS. Or, even more radically, I wonder if a library could build a completely original ILS from the ground up, designed specifically by a library for a library? Yikes: is that naive of me?
  2. Library Consortium or Collaborative Design
    Clearly building an ILS or Catalog from the ground up is a giant project, requiring several years and millions of dollars. One way to mitigate that is by joining up with other libraries, or state-wide collaboratives, or getting grants from the government. The best example of this is the amazing discovery layer created by a Colorado team called Pica, which looks similar to an Amazon experience (but it’s still just a catalog, not a website). Our library almost got it. The downfall with collaboration is that technology designed for many libraries tends to get watered down. They want to be everything for everyone and thereby become clunky to everyone.
  3. Budgets Reflect Priorities
    We’ve heard that phrase before, but it’s true. If libraries really want to do something, they will find a way. If libraries need to hire a team of web developers and designers, they will find a way to fund it. How important is this? That’s the question. And with all the other priorities we are committed to, it’s a healthy debate to have.
  4. We need Web Developers on Staff
    The number of third-party technology products that we buy is mind blowing. Most of them are crappy, a few years behind, and some don’t play nice with others, although there are exceptions. Wouldn’t that money be better spent by simply hiring one or two web developers, really smart in-house people that can build products to meet our specific needs? For example, our library has recently hired a very smart IT professional. In his first few weeks, as if by magic, he had already created a brilliant internal website for staff – on WordPress, for free. I think the time is past to have more IT professionals work at libraries. Maybe I’m being naive here (I probably am).

Could Kalamazoo Public Library have the first real website?
I wrote this article probably a year ago and I’m happy to say that Kalamazoo Public Library might be forging a new and innovative path to the age-old website/catalog conundrum. I won’t go into the details, but it involves bypassing the catalog altogether, grabbing the data from the catalog and displaying it exactly how we want on the….wait for it….on the website. The team – composed of the web guys, the ILS guy, and a design guy – is making incredibly promising progress so far.

Interpol-biometric-1The plastic library card is a dinosaur. It needs to go. It’s an embarrassing relic of what-we’ve-always-done. Nostalgia aside (that took me a second), I look forward to the day when libraries join the rest of the world, get rid of the card, and move towards a username/password system (or something better).

Let me go out on a limb here: nobody wants another plastic card in their wallet or purse or hanging from their keys: another thing to remember, another thing to lose, another thing to clutter our end tables. From a customer service perspective, the library card has no benefits whatsoever. But it does have an array of annoying features. First, it’s not important enough to remember. Let’s drink a tall glass of humility on this. People care about their Driver License, their credit cards, and that’s about it. I’ll speak for myself: all I want in my perfect minimalist wallet is one credit card, one debit card, a driver license, and some money. Even for someone on the inside, a librarian who goes to the library every single day, having a library card is not a priority that deserves real estate in my wallet (I memorized my number).

Working at a library, I see this all the time. People don’t remember their library card. When helping people over the phone, people don’t have their library card on hand (“Can I have your library card number please?” “Oh, shoot, let me go find it,” they say). Hint, hint: they don’t care. Second, it comes with a stupid, outdated, lengthy number on it – a 13 digit library card number. Mine is 120242015…oh, never mind. The number is so long it gets printed with spaces between it, so it’s easier to read!

But it gets worse. Not only is a 13-digit number holding us back from accessing our account, but a 4-digit “PIN” too. What? Are you serious? As in… “personal identification number?” Is this an ATM machine (pun intended)? Not surprising, we have to explain to grown adult people every single day what “PIN” means (turns out, it actually means ‘the last 4 digits of your phone number’….what? OMG. LOL).

Hypothesis: a lot of people use libraries when they need to, at certain points in their life, in stages, not all the time, like the local grocery store. Not everyone is a lifelong power user. The library card, therefore, is dispensable, disposable, and short lived. John needs to print something. He thinks: the library has computers! He goes to the library. The library puts him through the ceremony that is getting a library card (proof of address? ID? email? phone number? preferred way to contact you?). He’s getting annoyed. He prints his resume and visits the library in 5 years. Yet even if people consistently used the library for several years (which they might), the library card still has no place or relevance.

One Problem with My Argument – the Barcode

When I said the library card has “no benefits whatsoever,” I lied. It has one. Libraries like mine have self-checkout machines, which are tied to barcode scanners, which allows you to enter the 13 digit number by scanning the card itself. That saves time, assuming you have your stupid card with you to begin with. In fact, different library technologies are in bed with the barcode (we have a mobile app that saves your barcode, for example). With a username or email, on the other hand, we would need a different solution.

Finger Scan to Check Out Library Books? Yes, Please.

Call me naive, but I think biometric technology should seriously considered for checking out materials (and getting on a public computer). Scan your finger, check out, and go – fast, easy, convenient. The technology is here, cheap, and….creepy? Maybe.

Maybe not. A word about privacy. For some this brings to mind dystopian sci fi movies. Calm down. First, biometic technology doesn’t really scan your finger print, like the police would do. It’s not a scan. It takes certain measurements of your fingerprint and converts them into numbers, which distinguish you from another library member. Second, and most importantly, the library protects your privacy more than anyone. We are not some greedy corporation. Not only do libraries actually care about your privacy, we have to. According to the Library Privacy Act, we cannot give out patron information unless the police has a warrant for it (and I wonder if that ever happens). Third, this would be an optional service, patrons could opt-in. Do you want to check out items faster? Yes? Then give us your finger. No? Okay fine, use the old way weirdo.

47148088-love-picture

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.

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!