Retail Customer Service Skills in the Library

by Erin Kinney, Senior Assistant, INALJ Wyoming

Retail Customer Service Skills in the Library

ErinKinneyI recently took a seasonal job at a national retailer. This retailer prides itself on exemplary customer service. This got me thinking of how such customer service skills could be applied to a library setting.


This retailer has cashiers that look for people in line and direct them to a less crowded line. Not only does this provide an additional point of contact, but it lets their customers know that they and their time are valued. Do the same thing at the library. When you have a long checkout line, direct someone to the self-checkout machine, or to another service desk. Treating patrons with respect creates a great experience. Give them your undivided attention, and do your best to prevent long lines.

Make them Feel Welcome

This retailer has sales associates on the floor at all times. This creates an opportunity for the sales staff to interact with the customers. By being able to quickly answer their questions and direct them to the item they are looking for, one can drive sales by educating customers on deals and promotions, while helping them find a few extra items.

Library patrons are often intimidated to ask for help at the reference desk, especially if the library staff appears busy or unapproachable. Smile, make eye contact, say hello, and engage with the patron. Be warm, friendly, and enthusiastic. Address the person before you address your screen. Approachability is more than just being physically available for patrons. It is speaking to patrons in a tone that invites questions, rather than sounding so busy or distracted that patrons feel put off. It is asking open-ended questions, such as, “how can I help you?” rather than “do you need help?” It is making eye contact and engaging with a patron, rather than ducking into another area when a patron appears to need assistance. Being seen in the stacks, where patrons are often found, allows them to locate help quickly when they are trying to locate an item.

Turn that Contact into an Marvelous Moment

This retailer wants to create an amazing service culture. This is done by creating an honest, courteous, and comfortable environment. It starts with how the employees engage, educate, and drive sales by creating remarkable moments that make everyone feel welcomed.

Know your library and its services, and be able to answer questions on the fly. Be able to provide succinct explanations of services the library offers. Offer great service at every opportunity. Does the patron want a David Baldacci book for their mom? Escort them to where that book is located, and tell them about other authors that they might find similarly interesting. Use reference interview techniques (approachability, interest, listening/inquiring, searching, and follow up) to engage with the patron. Make that short contact a fantastic experience, and maybe they will become a steady patron, too. Get familiar with your frequent patrons and their information needs. Yes, we all have those quirky patrons; treat them with respect, too.

Don’t be Adverse to Change

One of my jobs is to straighten and restock items on the sales floor. Not only does this assist with the ordering of goods, but it makes the store look neat, organized, and well stocked. The same thing goes at a library. Shelf reading and keeping the library tidy helps with the findability of items. Other times I create new endcap displays, highlighting sales or new products. You can do the same in the library, with table top displays, or at the end of shelves. Rearrange displays and keep them fresh. Mix it up and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That cookbook display didn’t circulate? Switch it out with some seasonal or topical books. Move high volume items like DVDs to the front of the library to make it easier for someone to pop in and grab a movie on their way home from work. Rearrange stacks to make things easier for the patrons. Simple things like sorting fiction by genre, and regular weeding make it easier to locate items in the stacks.

These are just a few things that one can take from the world of retail and apply it to libraries. What other suggestions do you have?

Erin Kinney graduated from Florida State University with her MLIS. Erin is a past president and webmaster of the Wyoming Library Association. Her professional interests include digitization and providing access to rare materials. Erin’s hobbies include photography, knitting, and gardening. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.