Practical tips on creating a positive customer experience

For the next month or so I’m going to do a series of posts offering practical tips for creating a positive customer experience. Many of the tips will be ideas that can be immediately implemented, while a few will require a little bit of planning. I offer these tips as a smorgasbord, not a laundry list. They are born out of my own experiences as a library customer, from the experiences of friends and family, as well as from ideas generated at a recent organizational planning day I participated in.

Before I get into the tips, a caveat: Everything I suggest hereafter will specifically address the customer experience, but the uber-tip is that employees must be treated well, and with a basic level of trust. I don’t just mean that management must treat employees well. I mean employees must also treat management well, and co-workers must treat co-workers well. I’m talking 360 degrees. There should also be some shared sense, organizationally, of being on the same team, united for the same general purpose. I believe that a strong commitment to the customer experience in no way conflicts with a strong commitment to employees, and in my experience the two commitments correlate highly with each other.

One other point before getting into the tips: I am consciously using the term ‘customer experience’ rather than ‘customer service’. For me this not just a semantic difference but a reflection of how I’m beginning to think about these issues. ‘Customer service’ focuses on our behavior and offerings and looks at service from our perspective. (i.e. did we say “thank you”, do we offer a decent phone menu system, do we have convenient hours, etc.)

‘Customer experience’ focuses on the customer’s perception, and looks at service from the customer’s perspective (i.e. were they able to use the catalog, was the library open when they needed it, did they receive help from someone who treated them kindly.) I am finding it more useful to look at and think about the customer experience, and then “reverse engineer” to craft the organization’s services, offerings, and policies with an eye on improving the customer’s experience.

So…

Practical tip #1: Start thinking about your customers’ experience. What do they experience when they walk in the door? When they visit your webpage? When they call your phone? When they email you? Ask these questions and encourage co-workers to do the same. Get some pizzas for lunch and brainstorm in the lunch room. Make a list, pick one negative customer experience, and find a way to improve it.

Continuing Education: What We Want v. What We Need

In my day job, one of my core responsibilities is to provide continuing education opportunities to the staff of all 630 libraries (of all types) in South Jersey. My goal is to provide a slate of classes and workshops that will help library staff develop the skills they need to provide excellent library service to their customers. But what skills do they need? There’s the rub.

One of trickiest parts of my job is doing needs assessment. I use the basic tools: evaluation forms, online surveys, etc., but I’ve found that what people tell me they want/need is not always what they sign up for. And more interestingly, I’ve found that classes/workshops that NO ONE asked for are often the ones that fill up immediately and demand repeated encores for the next year or two.

That’s where the fun comes in! The Dylan lyric, “Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want” comes to mind, but in my case it’s the reverse: Library staff tell me what they want (and I schedule it), but sometimes I also give them what they need (even though no one asked for it.)

A perfect example of this is a recent class I scheduled on Web 2.0. I hadn’t heard Web 2.0 mentioned in any of many interactions with library staff, nor on any of the hundreds of workshop evaluation forms I’ve collected where I ask students for future class suggestions. But I had seen Web 2.0 (and Library 2.0) being discussed in many blogs, and the principles seemed highly relevant to the current and future health of library services. So I found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor (oops, Dylan on the brain) a super competent instructor (Sophie Brookover, PopMeister and recent LJ Mover and Shaker) and scheduled a class. It immediately filled up, and we’ve just about filled the encore class scheduled for June from the waiting list alone. Score!

I’ve seen this phenomena before, generally with semi cutting-edge topics. No one asked for blogging classes, but they filled immediately. No one asked for RSS classes. Again, filled. The same with classes on wireless a year or two back. What’s next? (um, that’s not a rhetorical question… someone please tell me what’s next.)

Blog reading, and the ability to track headlines through RSS has given me a keener eye for what’s coming down the pike, and helped me to broaden the scope of classes that I offer. Ever since I started following a few blogs through RSS (Firefox toolbar did it for me) I’ve been better informed and my knowledge and awareness of trends, tools, and timely tips is broader and deeper than ever before. I love the way RSS has made it simple, simple, simple to stay on top of an immense amount of information, not to mention the exponential serendipity of finding one great blog and being led (through blogroll or post) to other great blogs.

Getting back to the question, “What’s next?” I’d like to put that out there to you. What classes or workshops do you want? What do you need? What cutting-edge trend or tool do we need to know about today to give great service to our customers the day after tomorrow? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dump the rules

Maybe it was the new moon on the 29th, but at the same time I was writing about Nordstrom’s one-rule employee handbook, Sophie Brookover was eloquently expressing her frustration with all the rules and red tape that libraries inflict on their customers. (see: Pop Goes the Library: Red Tape = Patron Kryptonite)

In Robert Spector’s book “Lessons from the Nordstrom Way” he devotes a whole chapter to “dumping the rules”. Spector suggests, rightly so methinks, that every rule — EVERY rule — is a barrier between the library and the customer. If you feel resistance to this idea and start thinking about all of the reasons you need the rules, I ask you to ponder: Do the rules make things easier/better for your customer?

It amazes me that Nordstrom is still one of the few stores out there to have a true no-questions-asked return policy. Most stores think that a return policy that liberal is a recipe for customer abuse. And you know what, some customers DO abuse it. But Nordstrom’s philosophy is to focus their attention and energy on giving great service to their great customers–the ones who never abuse the policy and greatly appreciate being able to return something 3 months later without getting a dirty look. What Nordstrom gets in return (seriously, no pun intended) is an extremely loyal and vocal customer base. Do they lose a little money when they take returns on items that other retailers wouldn’t even give store credit for? Sure, they lose a little. But they gain so much more. Do they “reward bad behavior” when they take a return on a leather jacket with the elbows worn away? Nordstrom (wisely) doesn’t look at it that way.

So are your rules designed to prevent the worst customers from taking advantage? Does someone on your staff suggest that dumping a rule is equivalent to “rewarding bad behavior?” Have you considered the price you are paying by punishing the majority of your good customers to deal with a few of the bad?

Suffice to say, I empathize with Sophie B’s frustration, and agree that we need to seriously evaluate the rules in our rule books and question the value of every one of them – from the customer’s perspective.

Use your good judgment in all situations…

In Janie’s first post she mentions that the quip, “sharing is the new black” has been rattling around her brain for a few days. One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog is because it’s beginning to feel like there’s no room left in my brain for anything to rattle. It feels more like that closet upstairs that’s already full, but every time I find some new interesting tchotske at a garage sale I bring it home and stick it in the closet. So now the closet’s full of cool stuff, but I don’t often stop to look at any of it, I just keep finding a little open space to shove in some more.

Library Garden is my place to take some of those ideas I’ve been accumulating and revisit them. Pay them some attention. Show them to my friends and colleagues. Talk about them. And in turn I hope to get turned on to some new ideas and develop a deeper understanding and a broader perspective on my own.

In no particular order here are some ideas/questions that have been stuck up in the old attic:

Customer Service
If you glanced at my bio you know I used to work for Nordstrom. It was one of my first “real” jobs (no funny hat, no dyno labelmaker nametag ), so I didn’t have the perspective to appreciate what a wonderful organization it is. On my first day of work I was handed the “Employee Handbook”. The Handbook is a 5 x 8 inch card that says “welcome to Nordstrom” and then moves on the rules: “Rule #1. Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.”

An employee handbook with one rule? “Use your good judgment in all situations.”? That’s it??? Then the store manager — an actual Nordstrom boy, who worked his way up to Store Manager; like every upper level employee, he had to start at the bottom — tells us we will NEVER get in any trouble for doing ANYTHING as long as we can demonstrate that we were doing it to deliver good service to the customer. OK, now here’s the thing: He really meant it.

Think about that for a minute. One rule, “use your good judgment” (note, they don’t say “best judgment”; they give employees credit for having good judgment right from day one.) One rule, followed by the encouragement to do anything that the low-level, inexperienced employee deems appropriate to give good customer service. That’s employee empowerment, and it’s that foundation of trust that naturally gives rise to the famous Nordstrom culture of customer service.

Now think about the experience of library customers. What is the experience of the customer that walks through your doors (real or virtual.) How different would their experience be if libraries told staff to “go out and give great service”, and meant it, and supported it, and rewarded it. How different? How different would the customer’s experience be if we ditched the rules?

You can guess my answer. My little plea is this: Think like a customer. Try to experience your library from the customer’s point of view. Ask them what you do right and what you could do better, but remember that many of them think your “nice” and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Also their expectations may be rather low… So in addition to talking to them put yourself in their footwear and walk a few laps around your library in their shoes. Ditto for your website. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? Try calling your phone system, does it work well? Try renewing a book on that self-checkout machine over in the corner (yes the one with community newspapers piled on top – – and oh yeah, don’t forget to plug it in.) Does it work? Is it optimally placed and signed for customer usage?

I’ll be posting more in the future about library walk-throughs and some of things we’ve been doing in New Jersey to help libraries think about “Library as Place“. In the meantime I welcome you to take a peak at some of the material we generated in 2004 when NJLA chose “Lessons From the Nordstrom Way” as our first “Leading Through Reading” selection (think “What if every library staff member in NJ read the same book?”)

Well, this was going to be a laundry list of ideas (Library 2.0 is next on the list) but time she has run out. Talk to yuz soon.