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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/14/10

   March 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Hours SignDue to the nice weather this week, the library has been extremely slow. I'm glad people are outside enjoying the weather, but because of that, this week's reference question is one left over from Christmastime.

So, cast your mind back to the holiday season, below-freezing temperatures, a foot of snow on the ground, and the stress of finding gifts for all the people on your list in time for the big day. That's the spirit in which the following email was sent to the reference desk:

> Date: January 11, 2010
> Subject: Researching Rip-Off Company
> This is a wild shot at trying to correct the errors of a company in
> your city. Six weeks before December 25, I ordered two gifts from the
> company called Young Explorers. They have a P. O. number, not a street
> address. They failed to deliver. January 9, I received a note to that
> effect.
> Kinda late for a Christmas gift.
> A second person I talked with had the same problem.
> Is there a Better Business Bureau?
> Any help you can give to stop the scoundrels will be appreciated.

This wasn't the first time I've gotten a question like this. In all cases, the resources I forward to the patron are pretty much the same.

Starting off with a simple search for "young explorers" chelmsford usually verifies the address and provides some good leads. More often than not, if someone has a complaint about a company, other people do to, so they will show up on various company review websites. For this company, there were a few complaints listed on RipoffReport.com.

But despite the power of Web 2.0, the resource I still like the most when it comes to company complaints is the Better Business Bureau. It may not be perfect, but at the very least it lists accurate contact information for the company. In this case, "Young Explorers" is one business under a parent company which has an A+ rating, despite having complaints lodged against them. I think means the company addresses and rectifies customer complaints, which, short of the problem not happening in the first place, is the best that can be hoped for.

Two good overviews of the complaint process are The Wall Street Journal's How to Complain About a Company and eHow's How to Complain To A Company If Your Initial Complaint Goes Unanswered, and I point patrons to these to put things in context. They contain lots of links, including government consumer protection resources.

But along with those, I also forward them a few other websites related to reviews and complaints:

Finally, depending on the patron and the company, I will also include links to the Chelmsford Police Department, the Chelmsford Business Association, and Middlesex Community College Law Center, which provides free mediation services to local consumers and businesses.

I never heard back after I replied to the patron's message, but I hope he contacted the company and worked something out. An unsatisfactory transaction is bad enough, but much worse when it's a gift. Customer service doesn't end after the transaction is complete - user experience starts with the first impression and continues through every time the customer (or patron) uses the product.

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My Visit to ReferenceUSA

   October 23rd, 2007 Brian Herzog

ReferenceUSA's phone book libraryLast week I was in Omaha, NE, at the headquarters of InfoUSA (which produces the ReferenceUSA database) to participate with other public librarians in a "customer conference."

Their goal was to get feedback from us on how we (and our patrons) use ReferenceUSA, and what we felt could be changed or added to improve the database. They also gave us a sneak peak at a bunch of new product offerings, as well as a tour of their facility and an overview of how they actually construct their database (and other products - they also produce the Polk City Directories).

I felt a bit out of place in the group of librarians they assembled. Here I am, representing Chelmsford, MA (pop. 32,000), and the other librarians are from places like Dallas, Denver, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Annapolis - all bigger library systems by far. Most of them were also business specialists, and if it weren't for my undergraduate marketing degree, I would have been lost somewhere between the "SWOT analysis" and "B2C channel positioning." But we all had experiences and viewpoints to share, so it worked out.

The Process for Data Integrity
Upon the conclusion of the conference, my overall opinion was that I was very impressed. I had always trusted their data, in the same way I more or less trust the data and articles in the other databases the library subscribes to. But after the tour of their work area, their claim of "99% accuracy" really means something.

They subscribe to over 6,000 phone books from across the country (which they have in a resource library - see photo above), and then, using a variety of processes, move that information into their database. A lot of it is automated, with most of their software being proprietary and home-grown. But the emphasis was clearly on using actual people to review the data make intelligent decisions to ensure accuracy. And then those peoples' work was checked, and the checker's work was checked. Which all makes for a high degree of accuracy.

Some notes about the data:

  • Data for their consumer database comes almost entirely from white pages. Since there is no reliable source for cell phone numbers, those are not in ReferenceUSA
  • All consumer data is scoured against national and state "do not call" lists, as well as the DMA's "do not mail" lists (so, even if a person is listed in the phone book, they won't be in ReferenceUSA if they've properly registered to protect their information)
  • ReferenceUSA is easily reached to add/remove/change records, either business or consumer
  • It is difficult to remove people who have died - their main sources are death benefit check records, but since these are often sent to next of kin at different addresses, it is hard to reconcile that back to the deceased's home address and social security number
  • They've been adding "store front images" of businesses in the database. There are over 3 million so far (each business has one close up shot and one wide shot)
  • Address changes (people who move) are identified via the Post Office's National Change of Address system, magazine subscription lists, credit card billing lists, and prison rolls
  • In the case of moves, they keep previous address records for at least five years, but this information is not in the database or otherwise available to the public
  • The competitor report in the business module is compiled based on SIC and geography. So, if you want to see all the competitors of a local pet store, it's great; but if you want to see a bigger or national company's competitors, it's not much help at all

New features in the business module:

  • New data points include the number of PCs per location, square footage per location, and the gender of the executives
  • Annual reports are now included in the database, as are the last three years historical financial data
  • More powerful custom field selection/sorting for downloading records (hard to explain, but it's pretty slick)
  • They added all public libraries and branches into the database, based on ALA's library directory (neat)

Up-and-coming things for the next 6-8 months:

  • section 508 compliance (mostly ALT tags)
  • Adding US territories (Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands) to the business file
  • Adding a search for brands and products, so you can find out which parent company manufacturers and sells them
  • Enhanced mapping, which will allow searching by map, plotting data points and drawing corridor grids (as in, "let me see all business of this type between point A and point B")
  • A historical module, with last 10 years worth of business financial data
  • An analytical module, with industry reports, size of business, etc (this is what my notes say, but I forget what it actually means)
  • Increased data points in the financial section (such as auditors, cash flow, etc)
  • Executive biographies
  • A guided search, which prompts you to design a properly-formed search (only available on some modules initially)

New Products coming out soon:

  • New Movers module (people who have moved recently)
  • New Homeowners module (people who have recently purchased a house)
  • Business to Consumer Research module (for business to identify customers based on "lifestyle choices," such as hunters, skiiers, pet owners, etc)
  • New Business module (which pulls data from city, county, utility and tax records, which business have to file before they open - which means that these new businesses will be in the database before they even open their doors. This is great for insurers or other business-to-business companies, but also can answer "what restaurants are coming to town?" 50,000 business are added weekly, and they stay in this database for two years
  • EmployersUSA (a rebranded version of ReferenceUSA, specially geared for job seekers

I have some photos from the visit, most of which were provided by ReferenceUSA, as their facility and processes are industry secrets.

The trip to Omaha was also fun because I stayed in the Embassy Suites, and got to visit the Omaha Library and the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

I don't want this to sound like a sales pitch for them, but I will say this: contact your sales rep and ask about being included in the next customer conference. It's worth it.

business, consumer, dataabse, infousa, libraries, library, ne, nebraska, omaha, public libraries, public library, referenceusa

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