New Seasons: Lessons Learned From the Retail World



This is not another post about how you need to design your library and library services after the bookstore world.  We are not bookstores.  Heck, most of our stuff is free!  But, we can learn from the retail sector.

If you are ever in Portland, go into New Seasons Market (grocery) wander around, ask for help, buy something.  I guarantee you that your shopping experience will be unlike most other grocery shopping experiences that you’ve had.  I think their tag line is something like “the friendliest store” and it really is true.  And it’s not the fake kind of friendly where they place underpaid, under insured worker at the front door to greet you.  These workers actually seems happy.  They are always willing to help you even if it is “outside” their area.  A deli worker will gladly take you to frozen food and point out all of their favorite dairy free ice cream flavors.  When you checkout, the cashiers are pleasant and chatty and it is not forced.  I think that they are not only treated well by the company; but, they are allowed to be themselves and it shows.  One of my coworkers at Powells went to New Seasons, filled up his cart, checked out and then realized he forgot his wallet at home.  Guess what the checker did.  She didn’t call management to ask for permission.  She didn’t make him run home to get his wallet.  She didn’t role her eyes and call someone to void his sale.  She told him to go home, with his groceries and to call in with the transaction number and his credit card.  Can you believe it?  They trust their customers and it pays off.  For every person that might stiff them in this scenario they create thousands of loyal, rabid fans.

One thing I’ve really decided on is my place in libraries.  It’s all about the patron and by that I don’t mean the patron is always right because there are numerous instances when they are not right.  What I mean is that I’m continually asking myself the question: is this providing better service?  How can I make this easier for patrons?  What are patrons most interested in? Do we have to say no?  It doesn’t really matter if your specialty is kids, technology, programming, reference.  We are all there to provide the best service possible.  Some of us, in addition to serving the public, serve our coworkers.

I just happen to work in a library with an outstanding IT department.  These are two of the most friendly, patient and helpful guys you could want on your team.  I have seen them sit with patrons and reconfigure their laptop so they could use our wifi.  They have come out to reference a million times to troubleshoot printing problems we should probably be able to fix ourselves.  If they kvetch about us, they do it privately and are always, always helpful and patient.  I’ve never, not once heard either one of them utter the words: that’s not my job.

I don’t live in Portland anymore and I truly miss the people that I befriended there.  And I miss New Seasons.  I miss the most pleasant grocery shopping experience I have ever encountered.  New Seasons is a place where you are never afraid to ask a question, always feel welcome approaching a worker and where 99.99999% of the time it is going to be a pleasant, positive experience.  I have never had a negative experience at New Seasons, though I did once (and only once) observe a worker get slightly grouchy with a customer; but, we all have off days.

I have heard that New Seasons puts all of their employees through an extensive customer service training program and they empower their frontline worker to make decisions so they are not calling managers (and making customers wait) to perform routine tasks such as voids, returns, etc.  These are excellent lessons for us to take back to our libraries.  Does your library have a statement or philosophy about service?  Are you training and being trained?  Are you empowered to make decisions?

Sometimes, I think I want to live in Portland just to be near the most extraordinary consumer staples: New Seasons and Powells (though, Powells leaves a lot to be desired in the customer service department).

5 Tips for Cultivating Good Work Relationships

telephone1 Painting: Betsy Boyle

1.  Communicate.  This one would seem like a no brainer; but, I’m always amazed at the lack of communication I find in the places I have worked.  Here is an example: Employee A organizes the adult programming for a library.  She has scheduled movies on a certain night of the week for a few years.  She logs onto the calendar to book the community room several months ahead and finds that Employee B, the person who does children’s programming has booked the same night for several months.  Employee A can move the movie night to another night; but, it will require training a generally elderly population into switching nights.  It will also require a rescheduling of personnel.  All of this is fine in the long run; after all, staff must share the facilities.  The problem exists because Employee B didn’t have the courtesy to just call up Employee A and have a discussion about booking the room and there by at least giving Employee A a heads up.  Now there are feelings of irritation and suspicion instead of one of teamwork.  Employee B missed an opportunity to bond with her colleague and build a relationship based on negotiation and support.  Do you think Employee A will jump at the chance to help out Employee B should she need it?  I doubt it.  Pick up the phone or wander down to your colleague’s desk and talk them.

2.  Set up your coworkers to succeed.  What I mean by that is if you are presented with an opportunity to make a situation smoother or give your coworker the information they need to successfully navigate a problem, DO IT!  A good example is when dealing with a customer complaint that needs to be handed off to the next person.  Take a moment, whether by phone or in person, to bring your coworker up to speed in an objective way.  You don’t have to bias your coworker’s opinion of the customer; but, you can give them all the facts and even suggestions for resolution if you have any.  If you need to forward a customer call to another person, take a moment to introduce them to the problem before allowing the call to transfer.  This is a win/win situation because not only are you building a trusting relationship with your colleague, you are also improving customer service.  There is nothing more annoying than calling a customer service line and getting handed off  a million times and having to tell each new person the whole story.

3.  Avoid office gossip.  This is hard.  There is always one person in any workplace that others like to complain about.  Try to avoid this kind of chit chat.  Although it may feeling like a bit of coworker bonding at the moment, it is actually planting the seeds of distrust in everyone involved.  If your coworkers talk about your other coworker behind their back, who’s to say they don’t talk about you when you’re not there?  And there lies the rub.  By not participating in these conversations, you coworkers quickly learn to curb these types of bitch fests while you are around.  They also begin to realize that you are a person that can be trusted to treat others fairly.  This is an excellent role to have in an organization because it puts you in a position of being able to help create a cohesive team and change a distrustful atmosphere.

4. Give when you can.  There are times in every organization when you are less busy than someone else.  If you see your coworker stressed from overwork and you have time, offer to help.  If you have an answer needed to help a customer, offer it.  In my library I’m seen as one of the techie people around here and reference staff have been known to interrupt my offdesk time to get me to help a customer with a computer question.  When I was younger, this would sometimes irritate me because I felt that the other staff should know these things.  But, now that I’m older and just more experienced I realize that we all have our strengths and roles.  Mine is to help people with computer issues that are beyond basic troubleshoots.  I’ve had coworkers whose strengths were in business resources, government documents and geneology and I was happy to pass the customer to them.  That’s teamwork and when the team is working together, the customer always wins.

5. Show respect to others at all times, even when someone drives you crazy.  This can sometimes be hard; but, it is really not negotiable if you want good working relationships with coworkers.  Deliver criticism gently and receive it maturely.  I’ve seen coworkers snap at each other, treat each other rudely and disrespect each other in a whole gamut of ways I had never thought of before.  I’ve had a boss who yelled and kicked file cabinets and liked to make people cry.  I’ve had a boss who never came out of her office even if the library was crazy and we needed her help.  I’ve seen coworkers treat nonprofessional staff as if they were idiots.  All of this behavior leads to a workplace in chaos which is always bad for the customer.  And it may be a cliche; but, seriously, a little respect goes a long way.

This is a good start.  I’m sure there are many other ways to build good rapport with the folks you work with day in and day out.  Some of us spend as much time with our coworkers as we do with our families.    We should take some care tending to these relationships.

Tax Season Hell: How to Survive

Photo: Paul Keleher

Photo: Paul Keleher

The dreaded tax season is upon us.  Tax season brings a particular type of hell to libraries and even the most calm and courteous of library staff is stressed and has their patience tested on a daily basis.

There are many reasons for the added stress of providing an area for form and booklet distribution and/or a space for AARP volunteers that provide free tax preparation services.

1.  The tax season brings people to the library who don’t ordinarily use the library.  They may have never been to your particular branch of the library.  They wander around aimlessly or they zero in on you immediately and ask you where something is located.  Frequently the forms or volunteers they seek are under a giant sign and the person just failed to actually look for signs directing them.  They generally require special attention and added energy.

2.  Library staff answer the same questions over and over and over and over again.  We put up a million directional signs and yet we answer the Where is question so many times a day it becomes taxing (Ha!).

3. People ask us for tax advice which we are not qualified to give.  Many of us, myself included, don’t feel qualified enough to fill out the standard form for our own taxes!

4.  Our phone rings off the hook with the same questions: Do you have this particular form?  Where and when do you do taxes?

These factors add up to stress.  I’m not really sure why answering the same question a million times is stressful; but, I’m pretty sure that most people find it stressful, especially if it is not ordinary to one’s job.

This is a dangerous recipe if our library leaders wish us to continue to provide excellent customer service.  Oddly, in the past 15 years I’ve worked at quite a few public libraries and not once has leadership prepared staff for the added stress.  The Saint Paul Public Library’s main branch had a nice setup because they funneled people onto an elevator that took them right up to the fourth floor meeting room.  The folks that planned tried to limit the impact on staff as much as possible and most cases succeeded though I’m sure the occasional person wandered into the administrative offices seeking tax help.

I have been feeling short tempered this week.  Not only am I answering the same questions over and over and over; but, when I’m staffing the reference desk I’m also required to shush the folks waiting to have their taxes done.  Contrary to stereotype, we actually don’t like to ask people to be quiet.  Just this morning,  a patron asked me to get the tax people to be quiet and I’ve had to ask them a half dozen times in 2 hours.  That is not only not fun, it’s stressful.  It’s so stressful in fact, if this was a regular thing, I would switch careers.

I’ve been thinking about ways I could have better prepared myself for this stressful time and came up with two tips that probably would have helped me.

1.  Sleep.  I’ve been staying up too late.  At this time, I actually need more sleep not less.  More sleep would give me a little extra reserve in the patience department.

2.  Exercise.  I needed to ramp up the morning and afternoon dog walks, which Henry would appreciate anyway.

These are two things I should have done leading up to this time; but, ultimately, I should address right now to help the next 6 weeks go smoother.

I wonder what leadership could do to help staff through stressful times.  At times when there are organizational layoffs, the surviving staff is stressed and overworked.  Holidays bring added stress to retail workers, package delivery people, restaurants and numerous other businesses.  I worked at Powell’s Books last year and actually served on a small team that was in charge of Christmas season store atmosphere.  Basically, we were in charge of scheduling a seemingly never ending stream of treats and meals to get everyone through the holidays.  Store managers also were acutely aware of the added stress because they also worked the floor and made it quite clear that if we were overwhelmed or over stressed that we just needed to speak up.

What can libraries be doing to help staff through the stress of tax season?  How are we preparing for the stress of the summer reading programs?  Budget cuts?  Stress brings bad customer service and we can’t afford to have that.

Ultimately we are responsible for our own stress levels and our own committment to good customer service.  We are responsible for our cheerfullness and our grouchiness.  What are you doing to relieve job stress?

Coffee in the Library


photo: hawkinsTheil

I recently had a meeting with my boss about many things, mostly having to do with technology because I’m the emerging technology/web 2.0 librarian.  We talked for quite awhile and as we were wrapping up she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to discuss.  I looked down at my notes where I had scribbled:  Coffee Cop.    I took a deep breath.

Every library I’ve ever worked in has struggled with the idea of food and beverages in the library.  Traditional thought follows the line that such items would be banned to protect the books, carpet, furniture and computers.

I know that my current library has been very strict about enforcing the no beverages/no food in the library except for one small area of the library we call the cafe area.  The cafe area has easy chairs, the magazines, a fireplace, some small tables and chairs, a counter top with stools and even has a small pod coffee pot that dispenses a cup of coffee for $1.

By not allowing anything other than bottled water in the rest of the library, we have essentially been put in the role of Coffee Cop.  People wander in with their Dunkin Donuts cup and their laptop and we pounce on them and tell them they need to drink their coffee in the cafe area.

The problem with our current set of rules is that it creates an adversarial relationship immediately upon our customer entering the library. “Hey, you can’t have that in here.”    This is a problem.  There are so many folks bringing in coffee that it is a daily occurrence, sometimes several times a day.  Is this how we want to greet our customers?

What are we worried about?  The carpet?  It can be cleaned or a square replaced.  The keyboards?  They are relatively inexpensive.  Books?  We allow books out of the library …in fact, we encourage it and god knows what people do with the books at home.  I myself have eaten meals while reading, read in the bathtub, taken books to the beach and propped a cookbook up on the counter for reference as I cooked.  There just isn’t a compelling enough argument to justify creating an unwelcoming atmosphere.

I stated my case and my boss said she’d think about it and that we should talk about it as a group.

In an atmosphere where we fear decreased funding and we are looking to our customers to be our voice.  I say, welcome them into the library with open arms, coffee and all.

Kindness in Action

Today my coworker was at the reference desk and a woman slowly approached the desk. She asked if we had a certain video. My coworker looked it up, informed her that it was a children’s video and located in the children’s department.

Facts: The customer was slow moving and seemingly having difficulty moving. She was a larger woman; but, did not have a cane or any other implements.

Facts: Standard practice is to direct customers to the children’s department where there is another librarian who could serve her.

Reality: My coworker informed her that the video was in the kid’s department, offered to fetch it for her and when the customer accepted her offer, my coworker went around the reference desk and pulled a chair out from a study table, so the customer could sit down.

This was not just excellent customer service. This was service delivered with kindness and from the heart. How many people would have responded the way this librarian did?

Desperation Brings Decency



There is an article in the New York Times today about the restaurant industry and how horribly it is struggling during these economic hard times.  This is not a new topic of discussion.  I’ve probably read a half dozen other articles about the same topic, whether the journalist is taking the angle of all the bargain meals to be had or they are reporting about the restaurants disappearing one by one.  This article is different because peppered throughout the article is commentary about how now the waitstaff at some of the highest end NYC restaurants are all of a sudden happy to see you.  Gone (apparently) is the snobbish, sometimes rude reception a diner might get on any given night or over the phone when attempting to make a reservation.  One restaurant owner of two failed restaurants advised his colleagues, “You need to hug your customers.”

I’m assuming most of these places that were wildly successful despite their less than pleasant attitudes toward their diners are now scrambling to figure out just what “nice” even means.  Can you retrain your staff to be pleasant and helpful?  What if these establishments had been “hugging” their customers from the very beginning?  At this point, I imagine that customers will continue to go to these restaurants, especially if they are offering deals; but, the customers are not invested, just bargain seeking.

What if you have a store, a restaurant, a department, a library full of pleasant and helpful staff winning the customer’s heart over and over and over again no matter what the economic climate.  Won’t those customers be more invested in the health of your organization?  Not just looking for a fire sale?  In the library world, these questions need to be asked as government leaders turn to us to cut budgets and tighten belts.  Are our customers invested enough to fight for us?