Episode 210 Customer Service

Customer service photo
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Contents of this page:
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • The Basics
  • A Few Stories from the Front Lines!
  • Books We are Reading
  • Conclusion



Hi, and welcome back to Linking Our Libraries!

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This week we are talking customer service in your library: the good, the bad! Patrons, customers, or whatever you call those people who use your services, are the heart of it all – the reason our jobs exist. At our very foundation, we only exist in our jobs to serve these people. Some of them will absolutely be the best part of your job; they will make you happy to come to work, they will fill you with that positive glow of happiness in doing a good job, and will general be a delight! There may even be homemade snacks involved!

Other patrons will make you question your job, your reason for being in a library, and your very will to get out of bed in the mornings! When, not if, that happens to you, try to focus on taking a deep breath and remembering that this too shall pass. Go back and listen to our episode #206 on Conflict Management, and look through our material on handling stress in the workplace.

But don’t let the few lousy patrons be too big a part of your job! Actively keep your perspective focused on the great things you are doing to build community, and to enjoy the customer service aspects of your job! We are not going to overlook the tough parts of this skill, but we do not want to dwell on it and overshadow the good stuff too. So sit back, relax, and let’s talk about some good customer service procedures you can implement in your organization to make things flow better. And we will share a few stores from the real-life side of working with patrons all day!


The Basics

It’s important to decide what you want to do for customer service, to define “good” for the service your library is going to be able to provide to patrons. Ideally, this is a perfect time for a group of your staff to get together to talk about library work, or if you are working alone to gather some of your stakeholders to help define what ‘good” means to you.



Libraries should be focusing on providing good customer service, more than any other issue. You can be forgiven for not having enough books, or up to date databases, or the same program you had two years ago. But patrons will not forgive or forget that they were ignored, received the dreaded snort, sigh, and eye-roll when they asked a question, or were otherwise treated badly.

I (Mary) conducted a research project called the Friendliness Factor to assess the general state of customer service in public libraries around the country. This was prompted by doing a lot of traveling all over the country, and receiving some great but also some really lousy customer service.

It is sometimes easy for libraries to assume they are doing a good job with customer service because they do not get any complaints. However, silence alone is not a firm enough basis on which to make a good assumption. One of the starting points for this project was getting a library card at a new library, which shall remain nameless. This library had a nice building and collection, and was in a moderately wealthy community. There I encountered some of the most patron-unfriendly service I have ever experienced.

I once tried to check out about fifteen Nancy Drew books; but was told at the Circ Desk that only three books in a series could be checked out, and only three in any subject area. When I asked about this policy, the staffer told me “Well, little children kept trying to check out all these books!” I was both flabbergasted and completely speechless. She grabbed three of my books, checked them out, and took the rest of them away. When I complained about this policy later, it transpired this was not a real policy – just something some of the circ staff were arbitrarily enforcing. ­

I’ve been ignored at Reference desks, treated terribly by staff when trying to get a new library card, and shuffled between departments when asking basic questions such as “where are your online catalogs located?”


So I built the Friendliness Factor – a series of evaluation worksheets to use in a library to measure the customer service I encountered both online and in person in public libraries around the country. The results of the research are in an article “What is Your Library’s Friendliness Factor?” in Public Library Quarterly. (I can send you a copy if you cannot access it – send us an email) While this is not the one and only system to use, it may give you some basic ideas about getting started on developing your own measurement of customer service in your organization

For one part, I called each library and asked about their hours the next day.  The responses from the people who answered were correct, but varied in qualitative “goodness” – some were good, most didn’t ask if I needed anything else (one asked “okay?” and hung up), many were clearly bored with this question and rattled off the answer in a fast monotone. Automated phone systems ranged from helpful and gave me options to return to the main menu or to repeat the information, to unhelpfully hanging up on me without warning.

Other questions looked at reference work, where I asked a few standard questions of each library. Going through an online reference system was sometimes utterly frustrating, as it required a library card number to get to a person. Maybe these libraries are indeed so swamped in questions that they cannot possibly work with anyone who does not have a card before knowing they need reference work; but I would suggest they evaluate that before putting restrictions up between themselves and their community members – or even random nosy researchers. Too often, even when I made it through the online form, I never got an answer. When I did chat sessions, sometimes it worked wonderfully and I was immediately helped; sometimes I was ignored, disconnected, or was told there was no answer.

One of the questions I asked in person was a Reader’s Advisory (check our Season One episode nine for more information on this topic). I said I had read the latest Sue Grafton, and really liked Janet Evanovich, and wanted some suggestions. These are New York Times bestselling authors, and have been for years – so I’d expect people to know about them, or to easily find them. I was actually startled by the number of people who were not able to answer what I thought would be a very simple question. The funniest – or saddest, depending on your perspective – situation was in a library with a young, inexperienced staffer who could not figure out how to use Novelist online. Her colleague was an unfortunate collection of every negative library stereotype: crabby, snappy, and mean to her younger colleague. She made a big show of telling me online resources were not very good, and escorted me over to the Novelist paper books. She spent the trip complaining about online services, change, and other totally inappropriate topics. When we got there, I was again flabbergasted to see that she completely missed the very large, very nice, display titled Women in Mystery. This was exactly what I wanted, but she was so busy being unprofessional that she completely missed it!

If you want to set up some version of the Friendliness Factor in your library, tailored to your individual library’s needs and community, contact us! At our website, you can click on our link “Can We Help You?” and give us some quick information about your needs. We can help you to set up a set of guidelines that make sense for your library, and help to connect you with any training to make your customer service expectations a reality!


A Few Stories from the Front Lines!

Of course, as with so many of our topics it is easy to talk about it in a theoretical way about customer service; and it is different when you are the one responsible for actually providing that great customer service.

We asked library people on several listserves to share customer service stories with us, and found a few more online. When you get a bunch of library people together, you get all kinds of stories about the patrons they cherish, the patrons who baffled them, and the patrons they called the police to get rid of.  We are sharing a few here!

  • I have had a few deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons, both in my public library career and now in my government service who cannot speak, or prefer not to speak. The sign for “I’m deaf” is very subtle, but I look for it and can then use my rudimentary sign to assist these customers. A deaf colleague recently came into the EPA library. I signed, “Do you need help?” and he replied, “No, just looking.” My supervisor was in the room with us and said to him, very loudly in English, “DO YOU NEED HELP?” I had to let her know that I had already talked to him. She was right in front of me and did not notice that I had been conversing with the customer.
    • All public servants from librarians to police officers should ideally learn some basic sign words and phrases. There are numerous free resources online that teach ASL grammar and provide illustrations and videos of ASL words and phrases.
    • The most important words/phrases are probably:
  1. The sign for “I’m deaf” and “I’m hard-of-hearing,” so that you can notice when a deaf person is telling you they cannot hear.
  2. “Do you need/want help?”
  3. “Can you read lips?”
  4. “Please, write it down.”

Knowing these has been invaluable to treating hard-of-hearing customers with dignity and being able to assist them successfully.


  • We had a homeless man walk into the public library. The first few staff he met did not treat him the same way they would have treated a clean, nicely dressed person. He felt disrespected and was beginning to get upset. When I noticed the trouble, I walked up to him with a big smile and said, “Welcome to the Library. How can I help you, sir?” He replied with a smile and said, “’Sir’, I really like that!” The offer of respect and happy service was all he needed to calm down and feel welcome. He explained that the drawings of his “inventions” would save the world and he wanted to put them on the internet so that everyone could see them and use them. I helped him open a free website account, I think on Tumblr, scanned his drawings and posted them to the site. There was no outburst or conflict necessary. He only wanted to be treated like a normal person and have help.


The classic, frustrating, Reference question is “I can’t remember the title; but the book was blue/red/green.” Everyone has had this frustration! BUT: We now have an answer! Well, a partial answer! The New England Law Library has cataloged books by color, so you can actually search for all the blue books! Searching for books by color


Books We Are Reading


Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin “Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.”




Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami “Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all.

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.”



Customer service is the foundation of anything else we do in any type of library. You can have a shortage of money, of staff, of materials – anything by this. Having some standards, written down so it is clear to all staff and to customers what the library can do and can not, makes everyone’s lives easier. Our job is to serve the needs of our community members, and being very clear on what it means to make that “good” is important, and is necessarily individual for organizations and communities. Keep living up to the expectations of our profession’s stereotype of being nice, and you are already making a good start!


Next Week:  we talk about technology training in your library, with Guest Host Angie Kaltoff!

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