Convenience

In my last post on The Human Touch I discussed how a warm, caring human being trumped a crappy, highly inconvenient system. And now for something completely different…

A few weeks ago I went into Philly to meet an old friend for dinner. Mindy had just moved back to the Philly area after too long an absence. She was happy to be returning to the city life, and particularly happy to find that there was an organic food co-op a block from her new place. Over dinner she related the following story.

After getting moved in, Mindy grabbed her environmentally friendly canvas bag and headed down the block to the co-op to do some shopping. The co-op’s a fair-sized place, spread over two floors. Lots of veggies, fruits, meats, dairy, knickknacks, and a very active community bulletin board. There’s lot’s to see, so Mindy takes her time, browsing through the store, taking it all in, while slowly adding items to her canvas bag.

Little by little Mindy starts to feel a little weird. People are watching her. Giving her strange looks. Dirty looks? What’s going on? Maybe she’s been out in the sticks too long and is just not use to the unfriendly ways of east coast city life? No, people are definitely watching her. And following her. Like maybe she’s a thief…

After this goes on for about 1/2 an hour, the manager approaches her and says, “Is there some reason you’re putting items in that canvas bag?” Mindy replies, “Um, yes. Because I’m shopping.” The manager informs her in a none-too-friendly tone that all customers must use the little plastic baskets for shopping. Mindy says, “Oh, well, I didn’t know that.” So she grabs a plastic basket and transfers all of her items into it, wondering why no one told her sooner.

She finishes up her shopping, goes to the cashier, pays for her items and goes to the door. At the door she transfers her items from the basket to her canvas bag and walks out.

She’s about 1/2 way down the block when the manager comes running out of the store calling, “Miss!! Miss!!”. He chases her down, stops her, and says, “I’m sorry but I have to see what’s in your bag.” Mindy replies, “I’m sorry, are you accusing me of stealing? Here’s my receipt.” The manager insists he has to see what’s in the bag. Mindy says, “Fine” and dumps the contents onto the sidewalk. The manager inventories the purchase against the receipt, and then leaves.

There was no apology.

OK, so here’s the punchline. When Mindy told me this story I said, “So I guess you’re never going back.” Sheepishly she tells me she’s already been back. And she’s signed up to become a member. WHAAA??? Mindy says, “It’s just so convenient!”

The thing is, I understand. Convenience is something we all value. In Mindy’s case, she valued convenience so much it outweighed the crappy treatment she received. Of course, the co-op is not only convenient, it offers a niche service. You can’t go to the Acme and get the same goods, so the co-op can get away with lousy customer service. They’re not only the closest game in town, they’re the only game in town. Literally.

In my last post, I related how a human touch — truly exemplary service — helped make up for a decided lack of convenience. However Mindy’s story revealed how convenience can also trump bad service, especially if the service fills a specific need that is otherwise difficult to fill.

Ideally, of course, we want our libraries to be both convenient and customer-service oriented. We want well-designed systems AND the warmth of caring human contact. Unlike the organic food co-op, however, libraries no longer have the luxury of providing niche market services.

In the good old days (prior to 1994) many of our customers had to come to us. We were the only game in town. But I’m afraid that our prior near-monopoly on information services made some of us a bit too comfortable. We were able to get away with clunky systems, restrictive policies, and unfriendly staff. Customers didn’t have much of a choice. Well, those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. That doesn’t mean libraries don’t have a lot to offer, but it does mean we have to be much more aware of the value that our customers place on convenience and friendly service if we expect to remain relevant.

As some of you may know, I’m involved in the management of New Jersey’s 24/7 VR service, QandANJ.org. We celebrated our 6th anniversary in October, and in those six years we’ve collected thousands of customer comments. Two of the most frequent comments we receive are variations on, “Wow, it was great to have a live person helping me.” and “Wow, this was just so convenient.” I’m proud to be associated with QandANJ because we’re translating (or “operationalizing”) one of librarianship’s core values: removing the barriers between people and information. It’s personal service with anytime/anywhere convenience that our customers value.

I’m not suggesting that every library needs to be doing virtual reference (although I do think every library should at least be available through IM.) I am suggesting that if libraries are to thrive, it’s imperative that we audit our staff and services with a critical eye toward ramping up convenience and bringing a human touch to all of our services and all primary points of contact with our customers (our front doors, our phone systems, and our websites.)

The Human Touch

The Human Touch (in which a crazy-bad “system” is made less bad by a live, caring human being)


In November I’m going to be staffing a booth at New Jersey’s annual teacher’s convention to help promote our statewide virtual reference service QandANJ. A few months ago I filled out the necessary forms to reserve booth space on the exhibit floor in the Atlantic City Convention Center. Soon after, I was sent the “exhibitor’s manual” which included another myriad of forms to fill out. So many options! Do we want a table? How many? What size? A table drape? What color? Carpet? Plush? Regular? Color? Chairs? How many? Wastebasket? Do you want the booth vacuumed? How often? Do you want electricity? What kind? (yup, there’s different kinds.) Internet Access? Telephone? Help setting up the booth? Taking it down? Will you be sending boxes of stuff? To the warehouse? To the booth? Etc. Etc.

I suppose choice is good, but the quality of the forms that would (hopefully) reflect my choices were not so good. Small type. Poor design. Lot’s of repetition. Yesterday I spent the better part of the morning attempting to fill out these many poorly-designed forms, all written in 6 pt type. There were eleven different forms. Eleven. And they had to be faxed to three different places! Each form asked for the same information: Name, phone, email, fax, credit card. Name, phone, email, fax, credit card. Name, phone, email, fax, credit card. Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have gone to a single website, entered this information ONCE, then made my selections electronically? Hey, a boy can dream, can’t he?

As it was, my morning was eaten up, my eyes were crossing, but there was a single saving grace: The exhibitor hotline. I had called the exhibitor hotline months ago when I first ordered the booth. In fact, I called it five times in one day (the initial forms I used to order the booth were no less confusing.) Each time I called, the phone was answered on the first ring by Kris. Kris was pleasant. Kris was helpful. Kris was friendly. When I called, I was feeling equal parts stressed, frustrated, and stupid. Kris talked to me like I wasn’t stupid. She comforted me and made it clear that I could call as often as I needed to. So I did.

Yesterday morning I renewed my contact with Kris. She was still there, picking up the phone after one ring with a friendly greeting, helping me figure out the forms and understand the ramifications of my choices. She even made a few phone calls to assure that I’d get the early-bird rate even though I was a few days past the deadline (“Oh, since this is your first time exhibiting…”)

So yes, the “system” sucked, and yes my eyes hurt, but in the end, to be honest, I felt fairly positive about the whole thing. Sure, I would have preferred a system that didn’t require me to interact with another human being (and I’m an extrovert). And I certainly would have preferred a system that didn’t take 3 hours of my time to communicate some relatively simple choices. But having a live person–a warm, caring, informed live person–available to help me gave a HUGE boost to my overall level of satisfaction.

So I ask: What happens when our customers need help? Whether it’s a reference question, a query about branch hours, or someone trying to find out what time storytime starts. Do they get a live person? Do they get an informed, warm, caring live person? Is the phone answered after one ring? Two rings? Five rings?

Kris was my escape valve. Ultimately it’s better to design our systems so we don’t need an escape valve. After all, what happens when Kris retires, or takes another job? Without her on the other end of the exhibitor hotline I would have been in hell. But even the best systems can only benefit from having an escape valve. A Kris who picks up after one ring. A human touch.

If asked to evaluate my experience as a prospective exhibitor at NJEA I’d give failing grades for convenience, but an A plus for the customer service I received from Kris. Overall, a solid B.

In my next post (on convenience) I’m going to describe a very different experience…

Customer Loyalty? It don’t enter into it.

Maria Palma over at “Customers are Always” recently posed the question, “What would make you stay loyal to a supermarket?” The question struck me as a bit odd, and my first reaction was to think, “Loyalty? It don’t enter into it.”

I regularly grocery shop at Wegmans, Superfresh, Target, and Costco, and where I lay my green depends on a number of factors. Each store offers me something different.

I get better service at Wegmans, but it’s a longer drive. I love the self-service at Superfresh, and the fact that it’s close to my home. Also, they are one of only a handful of stores that sell Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews   – the most perfect food on the planet.  I love the prices at Target and Costco, as well as the opportunity to browse lots of non-grocery items and spend more money on stuff I don’t need. Why just last week I went into Target to get a box of cereal and a birthday card and wound up with a new IPOD shuffle.

But loyalty? I’m “loyal” to these establishments to the extent that they meet my needs, and not one whit more. Which is to say I’m not at all loyal. I want them, quite simply, to meet my needs. Just give me some combination of:

  • what I want
  • when I want it
  • where I want it
  • how I want it
  • at a cost I find acceptable (Cost includes price, but is not limited to it.)

Making no overt attempt to tie this post to library services. Arf!

Broken signage

I’ve been away from the blog for what feels like a while–but for a good reason! My wife and I met up with some friends that came from the west coast and we did a seven day cruise to the western Caribbean. Lots of rain, no sun, but a good time was still had by all. We swam with dolphins, played with monkeys, ate, slept, read. Who needs the sun anyway?

I never had any desire to vacation on a cruise ship, and while the service and food was generally excellent (with a few notable exceptions), the cruise ship experience is probably just not my bag.

Anyhoo, I’ll get around to getting the monkey and dolphin pics up on flickr, but in the meantime I thought this picture was worth sharing. Yup, that’s the emergency exit door on deck 1 of the Carnival Valor. What message does this sign send to the passengers? I think it should be subtitled, “In case of emergency, good luck!” Hey Carnival, let’s barter: You give me a free seven day cruise and I’ll give you a kick-ass signage audit. 🙂

Tip #4: Keep a "No" log. (aka Steal this post)

Practical Tip #4: Keep a “No” log. (Steal this post)

OK, I’ve been meaning to post this idea for over a week, so it serves me right that I got beaten to the proverbial punch by Stephen Abram, who appropriately titled his post, “an idea worth stealing.”

The idea? Keep a log at every service desk and note every time a customer is told “no”, or “we can’t do X”, or any other variation on the theme of denying the customer what they want or need.

Look at the logs on a regular basis and evaluate whether those ‘nos’ can be turned to ‘yesses’. I recommend reviewing the nos while keeping in mind Michael Stephens’ “Five Factors for User Centered Services

  1. Does it place a barrier between the user and the service?
  2. Is it librarian-centered or user-centered in conception, i.e. is it born from complaints from librarians about users?
  3. Does it add more rules to your bulging book of library rules, procedures and guidelines? The more rules you make the more quickly library users will turn you off.
  4. Does it make more work for the user or the librarian?
  5. Does it involve having to damage control before you even begin the service?

I’m not suggesting that every no be turned to a yes. But I am suggesting that your customer service will improve if you every ‘no’ is critically evaluated.