Services vs. Service: What Keeps Patrons Coming Back for More?

by Amanda Viana, Head Editor, INALJ Massachusetts

Services vs. Service: What Keeps Patrons Coming Back for More?

AmandaVianaI recently had the pleasure of attending a customer service workshop hosted by the wonderful Sarah Sogigian and Deb Hoadley of the Massachusetts Library System. “Services, Smiles, and Support: How the Experience You Provide Creates Support for the Future” focused on the cornerstones of exceptional customer service, and how that service can translate to increased community support. The workshop had a lot to offer; not the least of which was the opportunity to discuss common problems and struggles with other librarians. Sarah and Deb not only gave us the space to vent; they gave us tools and strategies to provide great customer service even during challenging encounters.

It won’t be a surprise to anyone reading that one of the topics we talked about was the problem of dwindling budgets and the resultant lack of staffing. I am so grateful to the libraries and library systems that provide innovative and groundbreaking services on a large scale. Those services garner attention, assist patrons in brand new ways, and inspire others to be creative in our own communities. But for a library in a bustling college town of over 19,000 residents with only 5 full time employees, innovative isn’t a word we throw around a lot.

Services are crucial, and they’re often what draw patrons to the library in the first place. But I found myself wondering, what keeps them coming back: services or service? There’s no doubt that there are patrons who are strictly drawn by services, including those services that may make it less necessary for them to interact with librarians. But many others who enter the library are looking for friendliness, competence, connection, and community: great customer service. One thing that hinders great customer service is an increasing sense of busyness on the part of library staff. Trying to provide more services with fewer staff, often in fewer hours, means that each of us has more duties, greater responsibility, and less patience. Big ideas get moved to the back burner; staff members are “hiding” in offices in order to get critical projects finished. Opportunities for great customer service are missed.

I identified with these challenges. With so many responsibilities it’s sometimes difficult to prioritize and I find myself scheduling time off the floor just to get the most important duties done. But I didn’t leave the workshop feeling deflated: my perspective had changed. We may never be equipped to provide the most innovative services; we may never be ahead of the creativity curve; but we will always be capable of providing great customer service. Some duties simply have to be done, but from now on, when a patron approaches me in the middle of a project I’ll ask myself: will it matter more to that patron if I finish this newsletter or if I spend an extra 15 minutes helping them download ebooks? Can the book order wait so I can give a few minutes and a kind ear to someone struggling to find a job? Will my director understand if my monthly statistics are a day late, because I was helping someone start a genealogy project? No longer can I spare the time, but can I afford not to?

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