by Kristen Jaques, Head Editor, INALJ Maine
A Customer Service Cheat Sheet
If you’ve been browsing job postings lately, you’ve probably observed that for many library positions, excellent customer service skills are expected, if not required. The ability to work well with the public can be developed with experience, but for some of us, it can be daunting to immerse ourselves in patron-driven environments while those skills are still in bloom. As a socially awkward introvert, I am very fortunate to have had more than a decade to expand my comfort zone and grow more competent in customer service positions. I feel like I’m in my groove lately, with only the rare interaction that throws me for a loop. Here are some guidelines I use to help maintain a solid, service-oriented mentality:
Be attentive. As pretty much any article on customer service will tell you, no matter how many tasks you have, and no matter how many patrons you are juggling, you need to welcome customers immediately and let them know that you are there to help them. Try to ensure that the customer never feels like they have to “interrupt” you in order to get you to wait on them.
Bring the most affable version of yourself to the table. This will, of course, vary from person to person. I work with one library worker who greets everyone who walks in the door like they are her long-lost favorite relative or best friend, or at least, a remarkably intriguing stranger. Not every library worker can comfortably and realistically convey that level of friendliness. As envious as I am of this coworker’s sparkling demeanor, I know my own strengths, and none of them involve my ability to make excited exclamations to people. I have instead settled upon a tried and true (if slightly bland) approach of saying hello, engaging in a little small talk where I see the opportunity, making the occasional well-received joke, and offering a sincere “Have a great day” as the customer leaves.
Be helpful and go above and beyond. Throughout your interaction with the customer, in addition to helping the patron do whatever they came in to do, try to determine what they will want or need once you’ve helped them with their original inquiry. Patrons benefit most, and are more satisfied with the service they received, when the library staff is truly invested in helping them get the most out of their visit to the library.
Keep calm and keep up. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, libraries, even smaller libraries, have their “rushes.” As often happens when any establishment is short-staffed, there will be times when the library is bustling with a challenging mix of patrons, some of whom want to get what they want and get out the door quickly, while several other patrons prefer to remain planted in the library for hours, in the hopes that a librarian can provide them with various forms of extensive support. If you plan for bursts of activity like these, they will not overwhelm you as much. Work quickly and efficiently, and keep circling around and checking in with patrons and coworkers to make sure everyone’s needs are somewhere in the process of being met. In this day and age, libraries can’t complain about having too much business.
Be patient and polite. I’ve observed that many of us who work in customer service, often unbeknownst to us, have a special “I desperately long for the floor to swallow me” facial expression, body language, or tone of voice. These subtle expressions can emerge during moments when we are trying to help those customers who, for whatever reason, cannot (or do not want to) keep up with our preferred pace. In order to avoid unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, or making them feel like we don’t consider their needs to be valid, it’s important to be mindful of how you may appear or sound from the customer’s perspective. Avoid being cynical, and err on the side of assuming that you are dealing with a reasonably observant and sensitive person.
Know your patrons. With regular patrons, we have unique opportunities to provide service that is rooted in our knowledge of who the patron is, what they like, and what their goals are. If I know in advance that a particular patron likes to keep tabs on every Amish romance selection in the library, or book by James Patterson, I can plan ahead for when they come in looking for titles they haven’t read yet. When you encounter a patron frequently, you will often develop a rapport with them, and this creates an environment in which the patron feels an increased sense of belonging as a member of the library community.
Take responsibility. One final unavoidable aspect of being a librarian who works with the public is that you should accept the fact that you will probably to some extent be responsible for the conduct of patrons in your library. There will be stranded teenagers who require frequent redirection, families with $50 in overdue fees, adults who engage in loud cell phone conversations while sitting at their computers, and people who want to sit on the front steps while smoking. While it may be initially uncomfortable, librarians need to have the confidence to inform and remind patrons of the library’s rules and policies, and to ask people to follow the rules of the library. I’ve found that a kind, factual, and respectful tone of voice goes a long way, and you may have to be persistent and keep an eye out for some patrons who will go right back to doing something you’ve asked them not to do once they think you have moved on. In any case, as long as you are pleasant and consistent, the more comfortable you are with speaking up, the better atmosphere you will see over time.