Archives For library patrons

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!

bookshelves with title 4 Ways to See Your Library

As a librarian who interacts daily with other library staff, it’s easy to forget how our users may view the library. Our patrons may not know where to locate items in our collection or how many items to check out. They’re unsure if they can reserve items or rooms, or the difference between the reference and circulation desks. We have a unique lingo that can be confusing to anyone not living in the same world.

We all need to occasionally view the library with a set of fresh eyes, and I have a few suggestions on how to help patrons navigate your library space:

1) Walk through the library as a visitor.

Use the front entrance and take note of signs posted around the building. Is it obvious where to find the catalogue computer and how to access the Internet? Where are the restrooms? Who could you ask for help finding an item? Where are the library policies listed?

Not knowing where to find and locate answers can be overwhelming to first time visitors. Some people are more prone to ask for help than others. You may be encountering frustrated patrons who ask you for help after they have wasted time looking for items on their own, or leave discouraged without asking anyone.

2) Divide and conquer.

Instead of all staff trying to pay attention to all details everywhere, each employee focuses on the details in a vicinity.

It’s important for the safety of your staff and patrons that you are always aware of what is happening in your library. Assign people to walk through particular sections once or twice a day. This shouldn’t add a huge amount of time or responsibility to their schedule. It can be as simple as checking that there are no big problems and everything is in order, then they can continue on their way.

3) Ask for feedback.

Don’t wait for someone to fill out a comment card, because cards are usually completed when an uncommon positive or negative event occurs. Hold an open house one evening and prop up large signs that promote programs you have held or regularly book. Place a few tables around the room with suggestion forms and have your staff engage in conversation with attendees. As your staff talks and hears about their experience, encourage them to write down notes on suggestion forms, too. An important aspect of an open house is inviting people who are not regulars. Meet with business owners in your community to promote the event, talk to your partner’s coworkers, or pass out flyers at a nearby coffee shop or school.

4) Go beyond what was asked.

No one tells their friends and family about experiences that met the minimum of what they needed.

Florida’s virtual reference service, Ask a Librarian, has a logo that quickly became one of my favorite slogans: “We are librarians. And we know the answer to questions you didn’t even know to ask.” A new patron knows only what they have been told about library policy and usage. You know the rules on how many books and DVDs patrons can check out at once, but what’s known to you may not be known to them. A great customer service experience goes above what was asked to deliver additional information.

Remind yourself and your library staff that it is alright to say: “I don’t know, but let me find out” when you are faced with a question you don’t know how to answer. Write down those questions and share them with your staff. Sometimes a patron will notice something that was right in front of you.


What other ideas have you found to be effective in maintaining an outsider’s perspective for your library?

Found on a Listserv

Kevin King —  July 28, 2016 — 2 Comments

Posted recently on a listserv:

I’m looking for any resources that help library staff deal with disengaging from patron conversations or finding an appropriate exit point when a conversation is difficult to end.

My response:

How about simply stating, “I would really love to chat with you some more, but I need to get back to work.” In my experience, staff are reluctant to disengage from needy patrons for fear of looking rude. Devoting too much time to one patron at the risk of not attending to another patron’s needs or work that helps all the community is actually rude.

Most of the time this comes down to discussing best tactics with staff and trusting that the staff can manage a difficult customer service interaction. Also remember that each interaction will be different, so it is best to devise plans that will work for different interactions.

Finally, if your staff is reluctant to being proactive then remind them that a key component to working at a public library is the PUBLIC. If you are uncomfortable working with ALL members of the public, then look for another job.

Any other wisdom to share?