Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What libraries could learn from Staples

I’d like to share a great customer service experience I had recently. I was trying to do approximately 16 errands in the half hour before my class and dashed into the Staples in Harvard Square for a couple of items. Hurrying down the stairs I was approached almost immediately by an employee asking if he could help me find something. I told him I was looking for staples and clear pockets for a 3-ring binder. He led me down an aisle and pointed out the shelves of staples and staplers. Then he led me to the next aisle where all the binder accessories were displayed and pointed to a few that seemed to fit what I was looking for.

I found what I needed and started walking towards the stairs. As I passed another employee, he asked "Did you find everything you were looking for?" I said yes and asked if I should pay upstairs. "Please," he replied.

The cashier smiled (smiled!) as I approached, asked if I found everything I needed, and complimented me on my shirt/earring combination which, he said, matched perfectly. He was relaxed, friendly, and acted as though he was happy to be helping me. "Have a nice day," he said as I was leaving. I left feeling much happier than when I first went in.

The thing is, I didn't need anything special and I certainly wasn't spending a lot of money. Nothing in the transaction was unusual, nor did any of the staff do anything particularly special or noteworthy for me. But the important thing is that they acted as though they would have. Each one of them gave me his full attention and appeared to sincerely want to make my experience better. They weren’t pushy in that commission-earning way of salespeople who follow you around the store like hunting dogs either. I don't remember the last time I experienced that level of customer service, and I emailed them and told them so.

In addition to making me feel much better on a day I felt harried, this was a great reminder of the difference friendliness makes to a customer. Librarians frequently talk about “problem patrons” but I think many of them would be less of a problem if we were nice to start with. It is not difficult to be polite and pleasant and it will go far towards improving a library’s image in the community. Just because they are not giving us money when we hand them a book doesn't mean that we don't owe it to our patrons to try our hardest to help them find what they are looking for. As the more entitled of patrons enjoy reminding us, their tax dollars pay our salaries.

Recently at my library we had a staff training day, but our customer service is like a disappointing relationship. We made lots of promises at that session, only to revert to our cranky scolding ways almost immediately. Many people at my library talk about customer service training as something that "we've already done" but clearly we need reminding, and frequently. I feel very strongly about being approachable and pleasant to everyone who comes into the library, yet I have to frequently remind myself to smile, make eye contact, and remember that my job is to serve the public so I sure better not act like I'm being inconvenienced by them. Having training every few years is not enough – the importance of providing good customer service must be emphasized in everything we do, it must be the foundation on which all our other services are built, and it must be discussed frequently so we do not forget about it.

I think Staples is ahead of us on this one. It would be wise for librarians to make note of businesses that they enjoy visiting and try to emulate those experiences in their own libraries. Just as a business can’t exist without its customers, a library can’t exist without its patrons and the support of the surrounding community. A smile is a small price to pay.


Filambulle said...

What a pleasant post!
Although I don't need this one: I am a natural smiler, and I love when I cant get useful.

I am not overwhelmed with work, and we rarely have a waiting line of impatient readers (patrons?), though. Maybe that helps?

I love your blog!

Kevin said...

I'm not much of a smiler, but I think I am polite and usually a "can-I-help-you?" and "did-you-find-what-you-need?" librarian. I'm appalled by how many of our colleagues ignore patrons.

3goodrats said...

Good point Kevin - a polite greeting is better than a forced smile!