Brooklyn Public Library Update

On my way home yesterday, I swung by the Brooklyn Public Library which has been doing much better in the customer service department since my initial encounter while getting a library card.  I mostly just go there to pick up holds.  I picked up my book and went to the checkout and greeted the clerk who returned my greeting.  After swiping my card and checking out my material, she said, “Wait” and then looked at my pile.  “You have two other books on hold.  Let me check the back.”  This is excellent customer service.  I know that after checking me out she checked my record and saw the holds.  Some clerks do not do this and then you get home to an email saying your books are ready.  All in all the folks at BPL have been much friendlier and helpful and I now look forward to going in there.  Lesson:  Take the extra second (or longer) to provide thorough service.

I’m starting to think the mess over signing up for a card was just a fluke, though they still have my address wrong and I’m not about to correct it because it’s a hassle, which brings me to another lesson learned:  keep it simple.  The policy that I have to bring in proof of address AGAIN in order to correct the street number on my record, which I pointed out as an error is completely based on a system of distrust.  It’s no skin off my back if the number is right or wrong.  I don’t particularly want junk snail mail because I  subscribe electronically to the information I want to receive.  So, I’m not receiving any fund raising materials via snail mail, which would typically lie around my house before being tossed.  I’ve been known to give fundraising pleas a second chance after they have been hanging around the house for awhile.  Instead, because they won’t fix the address, they are only getting their pleas to my email inbox and I delete them immediately without reading.  Out of sight, out of mind.

As a customer of any business, when I sense policies and procedures set up because they don’t trust me and/or their own employees I can almost feel my loyalty to them fade away.  This happened with Whole Foods, where I do still shop from time to time but I really feel much less loyalty to them.

Brooklyn Public is a large system doing the best they can with a smaller budget (I’m guessing).  But their most valuable resource is sitting at the circulation and reference desks.  These are the folks that can build or break customer loyalty.  These are the folks that deliver first impressions good and bad.  How are you treating that resource?  Are you getting the best from staff?  Have you earned the best?

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You Don’t Need a Cape to Be a Superhero.

What is the recipe for success in any job?  I stumbled upon this great article by Chris Guillebeau, How to Stand Out in Any Job.   While I think his ideas have some obstacle in some situations, the spirit of these ideas and the practical applications are fantastic.  I encourage you to read his article and wander around his site.  There are some real gems there.

I want to bounce off his 8 principles for becoming a superhero in any job over the course of the next couple of weeks here on CCS.

“Never Turn Down a Project by saying, ‘that’s not in my job description’.”

This is huge.  I like that he put it first.  There are three ways to be at work:  open, closed and somewhere in between when it comes to being flexible in the workplace.  Guess which group gets the raises and promotions?  Guess which group has a better chance of getting positive responses to their requests?

In my varied work experiences in retail and the library world, I have hands down been happier when I have been open to being flexible about my job duties, etc.  This does not mean I take on jobs and responsibilities without asking for compensation for added work.  It does mean that when asked to handle something or do another task or take on some responsibility, I have almost always said yes, even if there is not added compensation.  I’m also not saying to take on TOO much responsibility so you lack balance in your life.  There is nothing wrong with answering a request to do something with an honest reply about workload and inquiry into your institution’s priorities.  Something along the lines of:

“I would love to help you.  I’m in the middle of projects X, Y, and Z; but, if you don’t mind Y and Z getting put on hold a bit; I think I can handle this new task with no problems.”

I have almost always been rewarded for pitching in when needed.  Sometimes the reward is monetary (raises and/or promotion), sometimes it’s a pat on the back and sometimes it has been support from others for my own pet projects.  Almost every time, I have been rewarded with the satisfaction of helping a coworker.

Happiness researchers (yes, there really are researchers who research happiness) have found a higher rate of happiness in people who are altruistic.  I think the same sort of satisfaction that you would get doing volunteer work or shoveling an elderly neighbor’s snow is available to you at work by being keeping an open mind about what your role is and how you should be spending your time.

I have encountered people who’s knee jerk reaction to being asked to do work outside of their job description is “no.”  You’ll win no friends and allies with this attitude.  That attitude benefits no one.  Most of you have experienced workplaces where there are some people who barely hold up their end and there are others who are continuously asked to work on new projects.  Some people see this as unfair, especially in a union environment when you might be making the same amount of money as the person who does less and is unwilling to help out.  But, even in these situations you win by stepping up because come promotion time or when an interesting position opens up you will be in a better spot to succeed in getting it.  You will also just have more opportunities at work:  more opportunities to learn, more opportunities to build your resume with varying experiences, more opportunities to network with colleagues and more opportunities to be challenged with interesting and fulfilling projects.

“That’s not my job.”  Don’t be that guy.  The guy who says that dreads getting out of bed and going to work every day.  The guy who says that only dreams of retirement.  The guy who says that is just putting in his time.  Our lives are way too precious for that kind of thinking.

Take this moment to ponder a line from Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?

The Used Car Lot

via Flickr Commons

I can already hear the groans.  I know very few people who enjoy going to a dealership or a used car lot to buy a car.  It seems so much more civilized to purchase from a private party.  But, if you need financing or want to test drive multiple cars at once or just appreciate how a car sales place will guide you through the insurance and registration part, you will have to deal with one of the most notoriously tainted negotiation processes you are likely to encounter in your life.  Even buying a house is more civilized than the gauntlet many car salespeople will put you through.

My car was past its prime.  I didn’t have the time or patience to drive all over the place looking at cars being sold by people; so, off to the dealerships I went.

I contacted them in two different ways:  either I stopped by after viewing inventory online or I used a virtual method (chat/email/form) after viewing online inventory.  Let me preface this by giving you some background: I used my librarian skills to do research on the various vehicles that fit my needs and narrowed it to looking at small, used, economical hatchbacks and then narrowed it further by excluding some manufacturers based on reliability reports.  Also, I’m a car person raised in a car loving family.  I spent my childhood in garages handing my father wrenches and getting lectures on the proper way to adjust a carburetor.  I’m familiar with the lingo, the sales tactics and generally feel at home in any kind of vehicle related place.

I went in wondering if I could learn anything about customer service that could be applied to the library world and wondering if anything had changed since I last bought a car from a dealership.

This is what I found:

Even after being very open and specific about my needs and exactly what I was looking for in my next vehicle, every single person except for the salesmen I eventually bought from tried to steer me to a sedan because even if they had a hatchback it didn’t satisfy other requirements like price or mileage.  I spent 5 minutes explaining to one salesman why I was unwilling to purchase a higher mile car.  He still didn’t get it and just continued to argue my reasoning.  I found myself actually arguing with salespeople over the reasons I wanted a hatch.  What I learned:  Listen, listen, listen.  What we offer our customers is free so we naturally tend to offer them alternatives to what they asked for but perhaps we should preface this with a statement like the following:  I understand you are looking for a specific book on subject X which we don’t have ;but, perhaps while you are waiting for your ILL to arrive you’d be interested in these other books which might include coverage of your topic.

They lie.  I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that; but, they really do lie.  They tell you one thing knowing another thing is true.  Or they tell you a song and dance about their manager which is really just part of the dance.  Learned:  We like to think we don’t lie to our customers; but, I can think of some specific times we evade the truth about policies or procedures.  There is a discomfort with telling a customer we discard books or we do something for our own convenience rather than theirs (a whole other post!).  Question:  If we have policies or procedures that embarrass staff or otherwise put them in the position of feeling like they have to evade answering, are we providing good customer service with these policies and procedures and are we setting our staff up to fail?

They tend to treat you like you don’t know anything.  Learned:  ask the right questions so you don’t have to assume what the customer knows or doesn’t know.

I was surprised that little had changed.  I got the run around.  I was made to wait.  Two places held my car keys hostage under the guise they were going to assess it for its trade in value.  I told the one guy, “Please don’t assume I haven’t noticed you still have my keys.”  His face turned red and he replied, “Let me go get them for you.”  At which time, the manager came out to talk to me.  I had to ask for my keys.   This sort of behavior is infuriating.  Are we infuriating our customers?  At my current library, we tend to avoid this result of a customer interaction.  I have worked at libraries that had fury inducing policies.

Finally, I landed in the hands of Al who answered my questions and was generally a pleasant guy to spend a couple of hours with while we test drove cars and filled out paperwork.  He returned my keys as soon as the mechanic was done assessing it.  He listened to me and worked within my constraints (I too can be a pain in the butt.).  I was honest with him and I felt that he was honest with me.  The only car salesmany thing he did was to open the windows of the first car which had a distinct mold smell. 

So, lets recap.  Lessons learned on the used car lot.

  1. Listen. Listen. Listen.  Let the customer know they have been heard.  This not only helps the customer get the resources they need; but, it’s also effective in defusing the angry customer.
  2. Avoid policies and procedures that put your staff in the position of feeling they can’t be honest.
  3. Ask the right questions before assuming what your customer does or doesn’t know whether its about resources, library policies and practices or anything else.
  4. Do you have policies that you know are irritating when they don’t have to be?  Do you have policies that could be changed but are in place for staff convenience at the detriment of customer service?  Change them.

Reality Checking Failure

If you’ve been reading CCS for awhile, you know I’m not big on blame.  I’m big on the seeing there is a problem and coming up with solutions part of assessing failure.

I am part of a listserv for my town.  Mostly I skulk, keeping up on local news and happenings from a homeowner’s perspective.  Recently there was an interesting discussion that was born out of a comment from a regular poster who informed the group that a local, boardwalk coffee/bakery shop had closed up.  He made an offhanded comment about commercial rents going up on the boardwalk and mostly talked about the importance of supporting small local business in our fledgling little seaside community.

After reading his post, I quickly had the following thought:  Dude, rent had nothing to do with the failure of that business and everything to do with the horrible customer service and pissy attitude of the owner. I decided to reply to his post with a couple of anecdotes of my own experience as a customer at this shop, which sparked a fascinating discussion and saw a flood of very civil posts about customer service and just how much people were willing to take in order to keep small business flourishing and when it became just not worth it.

This bakery by far had some of the best baked goods in NJ and probably one of the most divine macaroons I have ever eaten.  His coffee was mediocre; but, there is no great coffee in Asbury Park; so, that was not surprising.  But, this man, who owned the shop and worked behind the counter was just unpleasant, abrupt and on occasion, rude.  The last time I had been in there was early this summer when I had a guest visiting from Oregon and she said, “ooh a bakery.”  So, we went in.  There were two people ahead of us in line and one of them asked for iced coffee which he began to retrieve from a refrigerator.  As he held the door open he turned and said:  Does anyone else want an iced coffee while i’m over here?  He asked this question as if he was totally being put out.  When the shop fell silent, he said: I guess that’s what they mean when they call me the coffee nazi; but, it just makes sense if i’m over here anyway. My friend looked at me and I shrugged. We got our treats, which were delivered brusquely with no thank you and walked out.  My friend said, That was weird.  I replied: I know.  He’s always like that.  I almost never go in there.

Further down the boardwalk is a seasonal business called the Sandwitch.  The owner is funny, warm and kind and this is all delivered while under pressure because her business is thriving and there were always lines and 2 or 3 more workers crammed into her little hut making sandwiches and smoothies and coffee drinks.  I probably went there almost a dozen times until she closed for the season in October.

I want to support small business in my community.  I’d rather give my $$ to a person taking a risk on my town, contributing to it’s renaissance and what we in Asbury Park call, Buying In.  But, you gotta give me something.  Even a robotic thank you would have helped me support this guy.

And now I’m back to the concept of blame.  Apparently this owner believes that his business didn’t survive the economy, or at least that was what he said on the listserv.  But, that is just not true.  Here in Asbury Park we broke beach attendance records by something like 40% and my neighbor said she hadn’t seen the boardwalk as packed as it was on July 4th since the 6os, before AP’s decline.  And to top it off, his product was excellent.   New Jersey has a small but loyal foodie base that will get in their cars and travel for good food and their word on chowhound.com alone has probably saved more than one small business that didn’t get enough traffic the old fashioned way.  This is a case where blame really does lie at the feet of the proprietor and  if he can’t see where he went wrong I suggest he not try any more entrepreneurial pursuits.

It is important when there is failure to swallow pride and really SEE the failure.  Maybe it was just a bad idea.  Maybe the key people were just not in roles they can succeed in.  (The owner of the bakeshop put himself in the number one customer service role: counterman; but, he couldn’t meet the challenge.  He should have hired someone with better skills.)  Maybe you assumed too much about your customers.  Failure is the time when tough questions should be asked; but, it is also when the slate gets cleaned in a way that really innovative ideas can come out of the rubble.

If you roll out a new service in your library and it doesn’t get used or fails to meet projections, do you chalk it up as something the public just didn’t want or do you really assess the failure to find out exactly where you missed the target?  Just maybe, you learned something in that failure that will help you better serve your community.  Don’t assume, just because it’s a great service that they will come.  In my library, we are talking about ways to promote the Playaway collection (self contained audio books) because we just aren’t getting the circulation statistics we want.  We could just shut it down and reduce or eliminate the budget for them; but, maybe the failure is in our marketing  or education of the public.   Clearly we need to try a few things before giving up.  Shine the light on your process before blaming the public.  Bakery man might feel better about his failure if he blames the public:  they just didn’t come regularly enough to sustain this business; but, he might have learned more if he listened to his customers and read the online reviews of his business, which were almost all praising his product and slamming his service.

Get feedback from staff, from your customers, from anyone with an opinion and open your mind to it.  It’s okay to fail; but, get something out of it or it truly is just failure.

Turn It Upside Down: Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket Project

Baltimore, MD

When I was a kid, I remember a lesson in school where we were taught about optical illusions. Pictures that at first appear to be one thing; but, when you look deeper are also something else. The old lady / young woman drawing is probably one of the most commonly viewed.

I was awed by that lesson. I suspect that it, although such a small lesson, helped nourish a seed in me to always be looking for hidden depths, alternative views and just different ways of seeing something. It helped me know that sometimes what we are seeing is not the only way to see something.

There is such value in looking at the world this way.  It opens your heart and it fosters good ideas.

I ran across a story about a program to bring groceries to people who live in areas of Baltimore that are not served by a grocery store. The Health Department and the Enoch Pratt Free Library have teamed up to help residents gain access to affordable, healthier groceries.  They are using the library as a place where people can order the groceries online and then the next day they return to pick up their groceries.  Health Department workers are on hand to help residents navigate the grocery store’s website.

This is brilliant. It is such a ridiculously awesome idea for so many reasons. On the library side of things, it reinforces the library as community center. It gets people to the library that might not have been familiar with all the library’s resources and services. It also reinforces the relationship between the library and the folks it serves. The program gets the library in the news in a positive way. And it’s just a feel good story all the way around. On the community side people who live in these grocery deserts now have options beyond the mini mart and corner store. The folks using the program will have access to healthier, less expensive food and won’t have to pay delivery costs.

Baltimore had a problem: areas of the city where the residents did not have access to regular groceries stores, which basically means they didn’t have access to good, fresh, healthy food.

Someone or a group of someones turned that problem upside down and inside out, looking at all the ways the problem could be solved. I’ve lived in cities where access to grocery stores was limited (Kansas City, KS and Pittsburgh) and most of the problem solving efforts were focused on trying to get someone to open a store in the neighborhoods lacking grocery stores. This, of course, is a good idea and solves the problem; but, in the couple years I spent in each place they were unsuccessful in accomplishing that goal. I’m sure Baltimore is also trying to get someone to open a grocery store in these areas.

But they didn’t stop there.  That is a long range goal.  It could take years and years to accomplish that goal; but, the people need to eat now.

I’ve always been a fan of turning a problem over and over and all around to see it from every angle and every side and think out every solution, even the absurd ones because maybe they aren’t THAT absurd.

The phone’s have been ringing off the hook from other cities that are thinking about copying the idea.

I applaud the thinking outside the box and the teamwork involved to get this program up and running.  Kudos to you Baltimore.

Recital Nice

Lauren listens good naturedly through my pointers during a non-recital related jam session.

A few weeks ago, I went to my niece’s violin recital.  Lauren is a willowy mellow musical 17, but her teacher takes students from ages 5 on up, so the program would feature many skill levels.  Our family arrived early and so we spent quite a few minutes waiting for it to start.

I looked around and eavesdropped (I’m an introvert and eavesdropping is the carrot that brings me out in public). No matter what they were talking about, people were looking to the door where the performers would come out to the stage.

Finally the door opened and the audience drew in a collective, calming breath. The first student was a little girl. She carried her half-size violin (Ever seen one? Cute as a kitten) awkwardly.  Little coos, sounds you make to a kitten, came from all over the audience.  Either her family had planted itself apart for some reason or many people were charmed by her.

The teacher, who hadn’t looked like King Kong until that moment, took the half-size violin and put it on her shoulder to check the tuning.  People checked their programs, whispered, pointed and I was enveloped in a cloud of positive anticipation.

Of course she played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Of course she did.  Of course it was squeaky and somewhat scratchy.  Then she burst into a huge grin. And I knew with absolute certainty who her people were, and not just because of the familial eyebrows.

But we were all her fans.  Her family clapped the loudest, but we all clapped hard. And the cloud was now one of positive relief.  She had done it. And think of how much we, the audience, helped.  I wasn’t just being polite, clapping for this little girl, hoping her family would clap at least as hard for my niece.  No, I was Recital Nice.

I assumed the best intentions of each violinist.  They weren’t going to step out on stage and try to sound terrible.  They may have flowed to this evening  on various currents of willingness, but now that they were here in front of me, I could help them and I hope I did.

I wish I could be recital nice without thinking about it.  I wish I could always, on the most basic level, assume best intentions.  We are all here, jostling into each other on the planet.   But too often, I’m just in my bubble, worrying about if I have the right change for the bus or remembered my  lunch.

When I get to work and the phone rings, am I automatically ready to help whoever is on the line?  Am I willing to assume their best intentions?  Do I assume my own best intentions?  I will try.  The next time I know I’m losing perspective. I will close my eyes and conjure up Twinkle Twinkle Little Star played very badly and very sincerely.

Simplicity in Action

mean librarian2

If someone wants help finding articles on a topic and I help them, but make them feel bad about it, they won’t feel like they got help. It won’t matter if they leave with a stack of articles and an armload of books that are perfect for them. If I’m a jerk, that’s all they’ll remember. Kate Sheehan in the preceding post.

This is one of the points in my interview with Kate Sheehan that particularly struck me.  It really is that simple.  It works the opposite way too.  If you’ve been nice and were helpful, even if you don’t have exactly what they need or the answer they were looking for, they still leave having a positive experience.

It’s not just important to appear helpful.  It’s important to BE helpful.  Sometimes, it’s easy to just say, “No, we don’t have it.” And be done.  But, it is the next step that can win the hearts of customers.  “No, we don’t have it; but, I can see if it is available through ILL.”  or “No, we don’t have that particular item; but, could I suggest something else along similar lines?”  This is the type of question that builds rapport because it takes the interaction from “do you have?” / “no we don’t” to a conversation and hopefully the patron leaves the library with something that interests them.

There is something about brief human interactions with strangers that is just an ingredient in the happiness soup and I don’t think it’s just me and my high level of social behavior.  I think most people would enjoy a few sentences between themselves and the folks they interact with during the day.  When I shop at Whole Foods, I always look for this one particular cashier because he will generally strike up a conversation about anything.  Once, we had a quite lengthy discussion about kid’s breakfast cereals.  And I loved that.  It is less drudgery to spin through his aisle with my groceries, have a pleasant and brief chat and then head home.  And I must admit that this adds to my Whole Foods loyalty.  I am a frugal person; but, will spend a bit more for quality food and pleasant experience because it adds to my quality of life.

When I lived in the Twin Cities, I frequented two grocery stores: a co-op and a small independent, local chain called Kowalski’s.  Both were pricier than the two big box grocers; but, I went to them partly for their product selection but mostly for the experience.  If you’ve been reading my blog then you know about my big dramatic accident.  While still in a wheelchair, I went to Kowalski’s and the front end manager came running up to me to chat with me about what happened.  I did not know this person other than to exchange some pleasantries as she checked me out.  Yet, here she was showing concern, letting me know that she cared and offering to help me if I needed it.

In Saint Paul, before I worked for the library system, I was a regular patron and the check out staff got to know me for my many holds and regular visits.  My partner used to tease me that it was like Cheers because I would walk in and one of the clerks would catch me, “Ann, you have some holds!”  Or they would ask me about something we had chatted about previously.  “How’s the scarf coming along?” after I picked up a hold on knitting and exchanged project tales with one of the clerks.  But, I liked that.  I liked that I had a relationship with these folks and this little branch library.

It really does not take much to build this rapport: a few extra seconds or a couple of minutes.  Sometimes I know we are rushed and crazy; but, slow down a wee bit, acknowledge the person, make sure you have HELPED them.  It makes all the difference in the world.