service with(out) a smile

When you think about good customer service, what do you think of? Do you remember an especially helpful salesperson from a department store that helped you once? Do you think about the friendly baristas at your local coffee shop who are cheerful even at 5am? Do you think about librarians? I don’t! Even though service is a key component to libraries our “customer service”, the face-to-face interactions we have with patrons, that seem to be seriously underrated among librarians.  I know that there are some librarians who are providing excellent customer service, who are friendly and outgoing and available.  But why are there so many unfriendly-seeming librarians? At one particular large public library system where I happen to know quite a few people it is even joked about – the introverted “roving” librarians who hide behind bookshelves rather than talk to patrons.

I have had two unfortunate encounters recently that have got me thinking about customer service in libraries. The first was related to me by the person who sold me my iphone two weeks ago.  When she found out that I was an academic librarian she had all kinds of interesting things to say, one of which being that she never uses the library. In fact, she has only been inside the library at her university one time in her three years studying there. She is now a senior and not planning on using the library anytime soon. When I asked why she avoids the library I was expecting to hear about how much easier it is to just do your research online, that you can search for articles without even having to get dressed, etc. Instead I learned that she avoids the library because one time, as a freshman, she tried to get assistance from a reference librarian who seemed to clearly feel that she was not worth helping. One time walking up to the desk and being ignored and then dismissed was all it took for her to become a library UN-user.

The second encounter is really two encounters with the same librarian and happened to me person. Twice now I found myself dealing with a certain person in circulation at my local public library who seems quite determined to make it difficult to check books out. I find myself feeling the same way that the college student feels – I do not want to use the public library anymore (and since I work in a library, this wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish). On the other hand, I want to support the library because I value libraries that serve the public so much. We need them. So I will probably go back…

All this to say that customer service skills matter. They do not necessarily come naturally to people (in all seriousness, there are lots of introverts in the library world) but they can certainly be learned. Businesses (especially those hiring a big percentage of young, uneducated folks like fast food) know this and train their employees accordingly. Workers know what to say when they answer the phone, they know how long they can wait before greeting an incoming customer, they understand the value of a smile and an apology. Are there any libraries doing this training? We need to be, and not just for the front-line librarians. As an ER librarian, how can I provide good service? How will I interact with the public services librarians, the faculty, the students who take part in usability testing or who email for assistance with online resources? It matters, certainly to our users but not always as much as it should to us.



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