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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Library design ideas

I like organization. I fell hook, line, and sinker for that unlikely de-cluttering bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. At home and at work, I appreciate clever storage solutions and neat display ideas. One of the perks of having a library be your workplace is that you can go and look into other workplaces: What sort of shelves do they have? What kinds of signs and wayfinding tools? What do their websites look like, and how well do they work? What services and tools do they highlight – programs, readers’ advisory, e-books? Is there a lot of natural light? Does the artificial light make sense? How many back issues of magazines do they keep, and how do they store them? The questions go on, and most have observable answers. Even better, libraries are a sharing culture: you like how we do X? Go ahead and borrow it!

The Flexibility in Library Design session at MLA this year was one of my favorite sessions at that or any conference. (Presentation slides can be found in the MBLC Resource Guides Collection.) Some ideas in that presentation required rebuilding from the ground up, or major renovations, or otherwise big expenses which, in the world of public libraries, require much advance planning and advocacy. Other ideas are so simple, easy, and low-cost that they could be done in a day.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, building facadeThis presentation was still relatively fresh in my mind when I took a trip to Pittsburgh and visited the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (the main library) and the Squirrel Hill branch library. I admired both libraries’ welcoming atmosphere, and how they had incorporated their history into their new designs (the Squirrel Hill branch was renovated in 2005). An "ask a librarian" sign hanging over a reference desk at the Squirrel Hill branch library

I noticed that the signage was consistent across libraries (I assume this is also the case at the rest of the branch libraries); for example, red oval signs that read “ask a librarian” hang over reference desks, and red oval “customer services” signs are posted above or hanging over circulation desks. This consistency means that any patron of any branch library can walk into any other branch and be greeted by something familiar. The language, too, is friendly: “ask a librarian” instead of “reference,” and “customer services” instead of “circulation.” Reference and circulation are familiar terms for library staff, but not necessarily for those who use libraries, especially first-time visitors.

An easel whiteboard with CLP events written on it in different colorsSpeaking of walking into a new library, one of the first things I saw at both libraries was a simple whiteboard on an easel with that day’s events written on it. This is a low-cost idea that raises awareness of what’s going on at the library; even if you didn’t enter the library to attend a program, you’ll still see that interesting things are happening there. At my library, we’ve been debating an electronic screen that would show that day’s events as well as upcoming ones, but have been stalled because of the expense and the logistics (we can’t mount things on our old stone walls, and we don’t want cords running across the floor). But a whiteboard easel? That I think we could do.

As for more expensive ideas, I admired a few design decisions they’d made. At the Squirrel Hill branch, overhead lighting is positioned parallel to the stacks, and between them, shining light directly where it’s needed so that people browsing can see the books.

Comfy brown leather chairs and standing lampsAt the main library in the reference area, overhead lighting is supplemented by lamps on the tables, which people can turn on or off as desired. In a comfy seating area at the main library, standing lamps can be positioned as needed, in addition to overhead lighting and natural light from the windows. With the chairs, the lamps, and the travel guides along one wall, this section has the feel of a nice airport lounge.

Chalkboard with "your favorite things" promptAn easy interactive idea in the new books section of the main library: chalkboards. Library staff (presumably) writes a prompt, and patrons respond. This makes for a friendly atmosphere (though, as Jane Austen would say, I am not insensible to the potential for rude language to appear on public chalkboards), and reminds me of the opinion polls common now to coffee shop tip jars (“Which is the cooler superpower, invisibility or flight?” “Which are you more afraid of, failure or spiders?” etc.). It adds a little personality and sense of humor to the space, and encourages participation. Interactive elements have proven popular when we incorporate them into library displays at my library, and this one doesn’t involve covering tables with butcher paper or cutting up little slips of paper: definitely a win.

Lastly, the teen areas: in both libraries, the teen area was clearly marked by bright green overhead signs (“TEEN”), and the entrance to the area had a sign on an easel or stand that declared the space for teen use only, with a caveat in smaller print: “Everyone is welcome to browse materials in this space anytime.” This sets a clear boundary, while not being too forbidding to kids moving out of the children’s collection into YA, or to adults who like to read teen books.

Overall, I was impressed by the big and little things the two CLP libraries I saw had done to make their spaces useful and welcoming. There are more pictures on Flickr.

What are your favorite library design ideas? Please share in the comments.