Extreme Customer Service: Hospitality in the Library

Earlier this month, I got to attend a presentation called “Re-energizing Your Customer Service Skills,” presented by Sally Ijams of Darien Library (CT), at the Newton Free Library (MA). Darien is well known in the library world for its customer service, technology, and programs, and Ijams’ (pronounced “imes,” rhymes with “limes”) presentation was the staff training that all new employees at Darien receive.

What does good customer service look like?

When developing their training, they had to look outside the library world for guidance: they looked to brands and companies like Disney, Zappos, Nordstrom, Shake Shack (Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table is required reading for all new staff in Darien), and even Ritz-Carlton. One might think that public libraries don’t have much in common with the Ritz, but libraries are like these businesses in four ways:

  1. We have customers
  2. We have products we believe in
  3. We want repeat business
  4. We know our customers have other options

From these examples, Darien aimed to provide an extraordinary level of customer service by hiring for attitude (“You can train people to do just about anything but you can’t train them to be nice”) and focusing on consistent delivery of excellent service: greeting each library guest when they arrive and thanking them when they leave, saying yes whenever possible (only safety issues are a firm no), and anticipating and fulfilling library visitors’ needs.

WELCOME text made in Canva

The Welcome

What do people see when they first enter the library or first approach a service desk? Library staff should be approachable. Smile and make eye contact (this works in Darien, but may not work everywhere depending on people’s cultures and backgrounds). Stand up to greet people, then be on the same level (both sitting or both standing). Determine your “resting face” – is it welcoming? Don’t watch the clock – people will notice you looking. Be “relentlessly positive…fake it till you make it.”

Words and gestures are important. Instead of pointing, use the “Disney wave” (gesturing with the whole arm and hand); instead of saying “no problem” or “no worries,” say “you’re welcome” or “it was my pleasure.”

Nametags: they work! If nothing else, they show that you work at the library, so visitors can identify staff.

Smile when you answer the phone; people can hear it in your voice. But prioritize people who are physically in the building; reward them for coming. If you are on the phone with another patron, wrap up the call and call them back. Meanwhile, acknowledge the person in front of you (eye contact, “I will be right with you”).

Don’t talk about patrons in a public area. If there is information you need to convey to a colleague to bring them up to speed, do it in a private place.

The Handoff

Often, a person will need to go from one service desk to another desk or another area of the library. Rather than pointing or offering directions, escort them to where they need to go. If this “warm transfer” isn’t possible (you have a long line of people waiting), do a “lukewarm transfer” – call a colleague in the part of the building where the person is going to let them know who to expect and what they need.

As you’re walking through the library, use the “bartender’s trick”: clean as you go. Pick up trash, tidy books, push in chairs. “You are inviting people into your home. Make it look as nice as you can.”

Patron Behavior

Know your patron behavior policy! Every library should have one. (Darien’s is on their website.) Enforce this policy with compassion; staff should be empowered to make exceptions as they see fit. Remind patrons that “Our policies were written to benefit everyone in the library.” Other useful tips:

  • Remain calm
  • Defuse the situation (is there anything that will make them happy at this moment?)
  • Have difficult conversations out of the public eye
  • Bring in a backup staff person
  • Never touch or restrain a patron
  • If patron is “stuck in a loop,” change your body language or move to another location
  • Say you will follow up if necessary, then follow up!

Ijams cited a recent piece in American Libraries that has a useful sidebar called “What to say when things get inappropriate.” When staff is faced with verbal abuse or harassment, simple, firm scripts like these are helpful (“I’m sorry, we don’t tolerate language like that in the library”). If you have a bad interaction, try to take a break to reset afterward; likewise, if you see a co-worker have a bad interaction, give them a chance to take a break and recover.

“Extreme customer service” / hospitality: making everyone feel welcome at the library

How are we perceived by our patrons? Here are some of the things Darien does to earn its “extreme customer service” reputation:

  • Treat every person like a VIP. Make them feel special; greet them by name
  • When you have to say no, say it with yes options (some libraries call this “getting to yes”)
  • If you direct someone to another library or organization, make the initial contact for them (phone call, introduction, etc.)
  • Notary service: Darien has eleven notaries on staff, so a notary is always available. They do not charge patrons for this service. The library pays the cost for staff members to become notaries.
  • Library hours: Staff are paid to arrive early and leave together after closing time, so though the library opens at 9am, doors usually open at 8:50. At the end of the day, technology does not shut down before closing time. Five minutes before the library closes, they play music over the PA system.
  • No fines for senior residents. Fines are a barrier to access; Darien would like to get rid of all fines, but there is a budget crisis in Connecticut right now.
  • “We trust our patrons.” This is “the easiest thing and the hardest thing.” (Sometimes you know someone is lying to you and you just have to accept it.)

That was the bulk of Ijams’ presentation. During the Q&A, I asked what they did at Darien to make signage welcoming. Ijams said that in the old building, there was so much signage it was visual clutter; in the new building, they started with minimalist signage, but added more for wayfinding purposes. The only guideline is no negative signs – phrase it as a yes option. The only exception is inside a staff stairwell, where the public shouldn’t be in the first place. Instead of out-of-order signs, they use one that says “Taking a vacation day, be back at work tomorrow”! (Speaking of time off, Ijams also recommended, “If you’re sick, stay home! Colleagues will appreciate not being infected.” Of course, this presumes an adequate amount of paid sick leave.)

Ijams’ presentation was professional and gave the three of us from our library who attended much to consider. For customer service to be consistent, though, everyone must be on the same page, so our own staff training would be necessary, and while Darien’s philosophy is admirable, we wouldn’t likely adopt every detail. Still, there is always room for improvement, and some improvements can be made easily right away: escorting rather than pointing, performing more warm transfers, saying “you’re welcome” instead of “no worries,” employing the “bartender’s trick.” Other changes, such as prioritizing in-person visitors over people who contact the library via phone or chat, using nametags, or changing closing time procedures, would need to be made at a higher level.

Do you work at a public library? What do you do to make visiting the library a great experience for patrons?

 

 

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One thought on “Extreme Customer Service: Hospitality in the Library

  1. This is something I have thought about a lot, but I had never heard the suggestion to say “you’re welcome” instead of “no problem”! I tend to use some combination of “no worries” and “my pleasure.” Maybe I’ll try “you’re welcome” next week, as an experiment.

    I once took a Lynda.com course on customer service and found it extremely helpful. One of my takeaways was giving regular customers a clean slate each time they come in (not so clean that you can’t prepare or be informed by prior experience, but clean enough to be fair and keep an open mind). This can be a challenge with some of our daily visitors, but I do try. The simple advice to take a break (or offer one to a coworker) after a difficult interaction is also helpful for me.

    Are you going to make cute, conversational out of order signs for your tech at Robbins? Part of me thinks our patrons would just be even more annoyed by them…

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