Using Library Assessment Data Against the Customer

Joe Matthews (San Jose State U.), Larry White (East Carolina U.) and I just completed a workshop at PLA’s 2009 Spring Symposium in Nashville.  My main role was to present on the LJ Index. But I want to focus here on a different topic–customer satisfaction.

Joe led a segment on this topic, noting that there is a definite halo effect when customers report satisfaction levels.  For some reason suggestionbox90public library users report they are very highly satisfied irrespective of the actual quality of services or details of their service interactions.  They have low expectations, in other words.

While in library school in 2005 I began using the branch of a library here in the Cleveland area (that will remain unnamed).  As an Ohioan, I realize I am literally spoiled by the availability of materials and services.  Nevertheless, I have found–again something Joe spoke about–customer service skills of service/reference desk librarians are, shall we say, not highly developed. After a few months using this branch, I found the librarians to be, at best, unenthusiastic about serving customers, or at worst, irritated by the interruptions involved. Yet, at the branch’s circulation desk staff smile, make eye contact, and are pleasant, conversational, and engaging. Interested!  That’s the word, they seem interested!

One day I approached the reference desk for help finding a book by a Pulitzer prize winner. I recalled only the first letter of the author’s name. The librarian, barely looking up, typed for a minute and then pronounced no such book/author combination existed. So, I browsed the online catalog myself and did locate the title. pulitzer130I returned to the desk for help with my patron pin-number needed for requesting the item.  Finding no one there, I noticed the same librarian behind a nearby desk and approached him.  Before I could even state my request he rudely announced, “I am working on another patron’s problem right now.”  No begging my pardon. No information about when he could get to my “case,” if ever.

When I returned home I decided to call the branch manager and complain, since my library-student status permitted me to be indignant! The manager’s response: “Our librarians are trained in customer service.  And our customer satisfaction ratings are consistently above 90%.”  I said, “I am trying to explain to you that I am not part of that 90%, and you have service problems.”  He apologized sincerely but indicated that he was still quite proud of the branch’s satisfaction scores. He did not offer me any encouragement or incentive to want to re-visit the reference desk.

There you have it.  Assessment data used against the customer!  Customers are overwhelmingly delighted with the branch’s services.  Customers with complaints must, therefore, be anomalies.  Making extra efforts to satisfy expectations of a small minority of customers is not a particularly high priority for library management.

Of course, the real problem at this branch is training and management followup.  Joe Matthews described the same situation when he was hired as a mystery shopper for a large multi-branch system. Customer service training for librarians, alone, does not seem to do the job. Joe noted that librarians believe they apply good customer service practices when, in fact, they do not. referencedesk240Worse, public library managers fail to require that staff behavior meets minimum customer service standards.  Libraries continue obliviously, happy with their high satisfaction scores.  Maybe this is why Joe Matthews preaches that libraries should just “blow up the reference desk!”  They are archaic modes of service delivery that reinforce bad behavior on the part of librarians.  Yep, I say demolish them!

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