or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Innovation In Queueing

   March 26th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I was shopping with a friend in the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, and ended up in a check-out line.

It was a nice Saturday afternoon, the store was crowded, and the lines at the registers were long. But L.L. Bean is one of those companies that is totally focused on customer service, and they were doing something I've never seen before (granted, I don't get out much, and I avoid shopping whenever possible, but still, this was cool).

In addition to the cashiers at the registers, there was also another employee walking up and down the check-out line with a portable scanner and barcode printer. He scanned each item a customer had, and then printed out a receipt with a barcode. When the customer got to the cash register, the cashier just scanned that one barcode, instead of fiddling around scanning each item's barcode.

It was amazing how much faster the line moved, and I got to wondering if something like this could be employed in libraries.

Of course, many staff and patrons enjoy the informal small talk while the books are being checked out, and this would all but eliminate that. And self-check machines are there for patrons who are in a hurry. But still, I was impressed with the way L.L. Bean identified and launched such a simple service that had such a large and positive impact on the shopping experience.

Maybe we could at least get the moms with the foot-tall stack of picture books to pre-scan their items before they get to the Circulation Desk.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/5/08

   October 11th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Lowe's logoThis week's question is actually one with me as the patron (well, in this case, customer). I was so impressed with the person who helped me, and how she helped me, that I thought I'd share. However, to keep her from getting into trouble, I'm going to change a few facts to protect her identity.

On the weekends lately I've been working on a project building boardwalks through a swampy park in Chelmsford (hey, librarians need fresh air too). I needed to rent a cordless circular saw, and in the process of calling around to local places that rent tools, I called a Lowe's Home Improvement store. After I explained what I needed, the customer service associate I spoke with said:

I'm sorry, but that is not a tool we rent. Furthermore, it is against Lowe's store policy for associates to suggest places like Taylor Rental at 555-555-5555, so I'm very sorry I can't help you.

I was laughing so hard I could barely say thank you and good-bye, and I think she appreciated it. I know I did - no rules were broken, and the customer service was friendly, informative, useful, and very memorable.

Because of this good experience, I'll definitely be shopping at that Lowe's in the future, despite their unhelpful official store policy. Just an example of why good customer service, and caring and helpful employees, is so important.

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Customer Service and “Reverse Justification”

   July 29th, 2008 Brian Herzog

sign: If it bothers you, it bothers usAt the Simmons Tech Summit, we talked about more than just tech stuff - we had a good discussion on customer service in libraries, too.

A few of the attendees visit lots of libraries, and so witness different levels of customer service in action. Since good customer service is absolutely fundamental to libraries, we talked about a new trend that is a bit alarming.

We dubbed it "reverse justification," but what it boiled down to was libraries claiming "customer service" as the reason for continuing to do something "the way it's always been done" - regardless of whether or not patrons benefit from it. Examples:

  • We only allow patrons to use the internet for 30 minutes a day ... because it's good customer service
  • Bathroom doors are always to remain locked ... because it's good customer service
  • Patrons cannot use flash drives, only floppy disks ... because it's good customer service

I'm not saying there aren't legitimate reasons for rules like these - technological limitations, staff shortages, etc. - but "customer service" is not it. Customer service is very important, so some serious critical thinking should always be applied when customer service is cited as a justification for something. Are the patrons really being served, or it is that policy/rule/situation just easiest for the library?

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Yes-Based Library Policy

   April 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Unshelved Comic StripThis is a long story, so I'm going to try to summarize as much as possible. It's a good story, though, so stick with me.

A few months ago, an incident at my library finally brought a long-smoldering issue to the surface. My library doesn't charge overdue fines, and we rely on patron integrity to get things back on time. So far, this policy works very well, and I know the staff enjoys not dealing with fines.

That being said, our system is abused from time to time. The culture in this library is to put customer service first, to give patrons a good library experience, with "getting to yes" as our unwritten rule. But since we had no written policy to that affect, and what rules we do have are considerably flexible, different staff would enforce overdue items in different ways (some would allow patrons to check out new items, some wouldn't).

But worst of all, this situation allowed some patrons to "shop around" amongst desk staff until they got the answer they wanted, and this is what finally caused a blow up.

We (the department heads) decided we needed to ensure that patrons received consistent service, no matter who helped them. We rewrote a portion of our circulation policy, with the goal of making it clear and fair, while making sure it allowed for the highest degree of service but still punished those who flagrantly abused the system.

It took some time, and as Reference Librarian I was only marginally involved. But I was so impressed with what our Circulation and Childrens Librarians came up with that I wanted to share. The beginning of the new policy contains this preamble:

This library makes certain assumptions when dealing with the public:

  • The staff of this library works to “get to yes” with patrons
  • The vast majority of patrons are honest; therefore, we take patrons at their word
  • Patrons appreciate courtesy and understanding. Gentle reminders, along with compassion toward extenuating circumstances, are used to prompt people to return overdue items

    It goes on from there into the technical nitty-gritty for enforcing the policy, and in general staff was very satisfied with the result. The goal is still serving patrons, but the more black-and-white desk staff now have an up-to-date policy in writing to guide them.

    And since this policy has been in place, the number of abuses and difficult situations seems to have gone down.

    I'm generally a rules-based person, but serving patrons as well as possible should always come first. It's a fine line between completely meeting one patron's needs and also serving the next patron in line equally and fully, but having a written yes-based policy goes a long way towards making everyone happy.

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    Roving Reference 2.0

       January 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

    I believe this sign was seen hanging in an antique store:

    Need Help? Call our front desk

    Wouldn't this be a good way for libraries to both allow cell phone use in the library and encourage patrons to interact with librarians (in a way that is convenient for the patron)?

    Or we could go the supermarkets route and install "help phones" in the stacks, so patrons who can't find their items don't have to go looking for staff, too. Hmm.

    cell phones, customer service, libraries, library, phone support, public, reference 2.0, roving reference

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    Customer Service Reminders

       April 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

    photo of L.A.S.T. sign taped to cash registerThe photo here is a little sign taped to the cash register at a Dunkin Donuts in Chelmsford, MA. It is positioned so that the cashier will see it and remember those simple rules to good customer service.

    As I waited for my bacon-and-egg on a plain bagel (no cheese), I pondered these customer service guidelines. They seemed to fit the library world, too - "Listen" and "Solve," definitely, and "Thank" should be part of every interaction.

    But "Apologize;" this one struck me as odd. I mean, yes, quite a few of my daily patron interactions involve apologizing - "I'm sorry, the book you want it check out," "I'm sorry, all of the computers are being used right now," "I'm sorry, I don't know why our catalog does that," etc...

    Should it be an indicator that something is wrong when you prepare to apologize or compensate for shortcomings of your work environment? If these are known problems, doesn't it make more sense to look for solutions? In the case of unavailable books, of course I always ask if the patron would like to request it from another library.

    But when it comes to the catalog, I am sick of apologizing for it. That soapbox is so crowded that there's little new I can add - except to say that people in my library have started looking very seriously at Evergreen. And best of all, rather than being skeptical about open source, they're excited about the possibilities.

    It'll be a long process before we switch to a different catalog search interface, but the day I can stop apologizing for our catalog will be a happy day. And if the interface is user-friendly enough and patrons can easily request checked-out books themselves, then maybe we can cross "Apologize" off of the little "L.A.S.T." lists entirely.
    apologizing, customer service, evergreen, libraries, library, public libraries, public library

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