Author: Cherry-Ann Smart
Special Collections Librarian
University of the West Indies, Mona Campus
Purpose – This paper explores issues surrounding customer service in libraries. It encourages the development of hybrid models for customer service standards based on institutional and local culture, technology, and the involvement of staff and stakeholders.
Design/methodology/approach – Posits that technology in library operations emphasizes the human element which is important for service delivery and good customer relations. Suggests if clear parameters about policies are not established and communicated to both parties prior to administration of service polls, library staff may become disenfranchised by negative results. Further suggests that if this baseline is not first established survey responses may be flawed and caution should be applied when benchmarking. By reviewing the literature and polling professional and para-professional staff of one academic library in Jamaica, the author recommends the creation of hybrid models of customer service standards, especially for developing countries.
Findings – The paper supports libraries’ development of their own hybrid models to improve the customer service encounter.
Research limitations/implications – The paper demonstrates that imbalance in the manager-patron-staff triage as a result of historical, socio-economical, and cultural factors may be a possible barrier to excellent customer service in academic libraries and needs to be further explored.
Practical implications – The paper provides a practical guide for libraries interested in developing hybrid customer service standards.
Originality/value – This conceptual paper reviews customer service delivery from a developing country viewpoint and deliberates the implications of importing alien practices, while ignoring existing constructive practices which may be integrated to offer more effective service.
Libraries are people-oriented facilities, so academic libraries increasingly invest scarce resources into improving their patrons’ access to quality services. This focus on the customer is an extension of their concern to help students and faculty achieve their academic and lifelong goals. Libraries have also worked towards improving the patron’s experience and so customer service practices in libraries have improved significantly through the creation of customer service charters and the adaption of models used in other industries, such as Extreme Customer Service (Darien Library) and Retail Customer Service (University of New South Wales).
The implementation of these paradigms has not completely eliminated the barriers to customer service delivery, attributed to management bureaucracy, under-worked or over-worked staff, untrained personnel, adverse reaction to unruly patrons, lack of fiscal or other incentives, poorly functioning systems, and institutional or local culture, resulting in an unjustifiable impediment to, or denial of, good customer service (Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, 2008; Vane, 1993).
In an attempt to add another dimension to the discourse, it is submitted that improvement in the quality of customer service can be further extended by libraries creating their own hybrid models for customer service standards. To test this hypothesis, a brief survey was conducted at an academic library in Jamaica, West Indies. This library was selected for two reasons: 1) the culture was distinct from that of North America, which is often used as the benchmark for services; and 2) the high level of complaints by staff members who believed themselves beleaguered by incivility from students and faculty. The intensity was informally measured against staff complaints at another university on island.
Discourteous behavior over the years at the library ranged from returns being thrown down on desks to verbal and physical altercations. Students also had complaints, citing rudeness, unhelpful behavior and poor facilities management among some of their challenges. Management’s response was the creation of a customer service team to address students’ complaints and to train front line staff in customer service techniques.
One consequence of the initiative by this team was the production of a customer service standard which dealt primarily with the manner in which the customer was to be treated. Most staff members felt the document was one-sided, as it failed to address patrons’ behavior towards staff, and short-sighted with respect to deliverables. All agreed that the end objective of the exercise was not clearly defined especially as the expectations were measured to international or industry standards of which some practices were alien to the organization (see appendix for sample questions).
Instead of facilitating good customer service, adoption of standards that disregard organizational and cultural factors could actually pose barriers to quality service; resulting in bland or just unpleasant customer experiences.
At the risk of overgeneralization, there are facets of culture which are peculiar to different groups. While the word “culture” sometimes creates more problems than it resolves, it is used here in its anthropological sense, that is, the “customs, worldview, language, kinship system, social organization, and other taken-for-granted day-to-day practices of a people which set that group apart as a distinctive group” (Scollon & Wong Scollon, 2001, p. 139).
Individuals who truly know the Caribbean region, for instance, would concur that it is a place of a multiplicity of local cultures and different communities, with local accents, resources, games, natural sights, stories, meeting places, and cuisines (Premdass, 2000, p. 171). It is not unusual for persons to code-switch during exchanges. Salutations are representative of “good breeding” and can be quite effusive, while non-responsiveness to questions regardless of their triviality is regarded as rudeness. Conversations are animated with the use of hands, facial expressions, and body parts not always indicative of aggression but the joie-de vivre which is so essentially Caribbean. Alas, Ferguson (2000) contends, globalization has contributed to rending the social fabric by way of various instruments in the region with ethnic tension, growing inequality and poverty, drugs, crimes, etc. Narcisse (2000) in her essay on social integration and disintegration in the Caribbean, points to violence and crime as the main expression of people’s feelings of disconnection from and lack of tolerance and responsibility for one another. She identified verbal interactions as one such form. Fast forward two years and we have medical practitioner Rattray (2012) opining that a contemporary response to what is Jamaican culture could vary from “sun, sea, sand and smiles” to “aggression, indiscipline, crime and murder”. Policy maker’s response has been to attempt to direct and control what is perceived as negative behaviors by posting signs relating to dress, deportment, and conduct at the entrances of schools, hospitals, government service points, including the public libraries.
Zeithaml and Bitner (1996) contend that good service is culture bound. Several studies (Bebko, 2000; Garvin, 1983; Wakefield & Blodgett, 1999; Zeithaml, 1988) maintain that service quality is an elusive and abstract construct which is difficult to define and measure. In this regard, libraries might be better off focusing on improving product quality to increase customer satisfaction (Shang & Lin, 2010) as current customer surveys can more easily identify those tangible deliverables and their impact on the patron. In this way, complaints can be specifically addressed as more than likely it is dissatisfaction with the product which triggers misbehavior by patrons. This perception seemed to be confirmed as demonstrated by two of many such responses. In one incident a staff member was struck with a wad of paper on his forehead after informing a student that the requested book was unavailable. On another occasion two staffers were verbally abused with expletives by the student after they informed about the unavailability of an item.
Reynolds and Harris (2009) claim that a customer’s disaffection with a service could contribute to dysfunctional behavior. But Fisk et al. (2010) maintain that there is an upside to this type of behavior as the regularity of these encounters and numbers of patrons engaged in such behavior could be communicating the need for changes to rules or procedures which might be too rigid or too loose. They also explored a more latent function of such behavior, i.e., the occurrence that such misconduct affirms the cultural values and norms for society or the organization. These perspectives would seem to support the case for the creation of a hybrid model for customer service. Such a framework would take into consideration the library’s service level, employees’ skills and capabilities, institutional culture and socio-cultural factors. The following measures are proposed to develop this:
I. Research issues in customer service practice in libraries
A. Consensus on appropriate service delivery practices
Customer service delivery practices vary widely; between industries whose human concentration spans giving all rights to the customer, to that of the business being supreme. These practices range from the excellent, to the bad, to the in-between. Although businesses rarely fold as a result of poor customer service, if ever, they will because of a poor product. With libraries, a fundamental issue in customer service deliveries has been the lack of consensus among librarians as to what constitutes “good customer service.” An examination of the literature revealed that customer service labeling and indicators are not always consistent (Cherry & Calvert, 2012; Talley & Axelroth, 2001) and so there is sometimes no true buy-in by staff.
Service delivery guidelines should strive for consistency, resulting in systematically developed statements to inform all stakeholders about appropriate deliverables for specific and general circumstances. Ideally, the document should contain elements from the organization’s strategic plan, and consider socio-cultural practices and patron’s requirements. The design of customer service guidelines should be that element consistent with research, experience, and realistic deliverables into practical recommendations that largely determine the library’s vision for customer service. It should also be a document which provides a regulated service environment while empowering staff to effectively deliver as Schroer (n.d.) maintains that allowing an unregulated service environment sets staff up for failure. Since customer service guidelines should be important to determine the scope and quality of customer service provided to patrons, it should also take into consideration the lack of consensus of what constitutes good customer service.
B. Facilitate options for decision-making
Customer service guidelines should be candid. In a library there may be varying rules of customer service provision as different units may operate under different policy guidelines. For example, the loan procedure at the library’s West Indies and Special Collections sub-library differs from the general circulation area because that library treats with a specialized clientele and specialized material. The individualized service available in that unit may not be possible in a heavy service circulation area. Sometimes these distinctions may not be apparent to patrons or even to some staff members.
On-going research can play a vital role in helping libraries evaluate the costs, risks, and outcome involved in a particular customer service practice. For example, the assurance of service deliverables based on Library 2.0 technologies becomes an important factor in a resource-poor or technologically-inept environment (Casey & Savastinuk, 2008). The library’s literacy sessions are illustrative in this case as increased student intake is disproportionate with space and technology maintenance resulting in over-crowded classes and intermittently working computers. One solution to this dilemma could be the creation of online classes but in the interim, the customer experience is less than satisfactory.
To facilitate staff decision-making on appropriate service practices, research can be undertaken to answer the following questions.
- What are existing service guidelines and current practices in the library, and are they still relevant?
- What are the costs, risks, and benefits, including issues of staff and patron safety?
- Once a service guideline has been changed, has the library modified its customer service practices accordingly, and communicated these to all staff and patrons?
- What impact has this change had on access to information and the quality of service provided by staff and received by library patrons?
- What are the events occurring on the library’s landscape and how would these impact future services?
Library interest groups such as ACRL have taken a variety of approaches to study service quality and provided a variety of assessment procedures in libraries of higher education. SERVQUAL, for instance, is used as a diagnostic tool to measure service quality thus highlighting the service situation but it does not suggest techniques for mitigating service failures or improving service quality (Chen & Chou, 2011). Surveys cannot usurp management’s responsibilities for facilitating poor work ethics resulting in poor experiences as highlighted in the case of one responder to the LibQual survey conducted in April 2012: “Rest room facilities need improvement. Bathroom out of soap/water, Bathroom out of water and malfunctions very often. Bathrooms need to be cleaned more often, No paper towels in bathroom for two years.”
II. Examine existing customer service delivery guidelines and practices
When current customer service practices are assessed, two components should be examined:
1) The institution’s written guidelines and procedures; and
2) The actual practices of the library.
While the first component can provide essential information about written rules as it relates to customer service relations, the second element is important as it provides the reality of what actually transpires during an encounter. When studies of actual interactions are undertaken, it can clear up several misconceptions; while at the same time allow both staff and patron to anticipate the production of an objective and fair standard. In 2012, an independent library review indicated that students were spoon fed and would not meet the challenges of North American institutions. On the heel of this observation, student assistants were employed to assist random students in using the catalogue although they would also be seen fetching items from the open shelf for persons who chose not learn to use the library. What might have been identified as a pedagogical opportunity was instead pegged as a customer service requirement.
A. Legal and security issues in customer service
Bold (1982) contends that libraries have now changed from “temples of learning” into “human services facilities”. While the literature often addresses security issues of the library holdings not much has been formally written about staff at risk (Brashear, Maloney, & Thornton-Jaringe, 1981). Yagil (2008) attempts to address this in his study on workplace aggression and sexual harassment exhibited by customers towards staff. While serious crimes in academic libraries may be rare, Bell (2012) nevertheless proposes “Preparation, Prevention, and Protection” as the three “Ps” to adopt in order to counter any security issues which may arise. The upsurge in violent crimes in institutions of learning would seem to confirm the premise that such violence tends to mirror society. In Jamaica, the most conspicuous and severe problem has been identified as the erosion of the rule of law (Oberai, 2004). The escalation of this behavior prompted the Jamaica Bureau of Standards to draft, for public consideration, a Standard for Public Behavior (Bureau of Standards, Jamaica, 2012). Libraries, in writing rules of conduct for users, should anticipate such fall outs and must, according to Pease (1995) balance the rights of library employees and users to be free of harassment against the rights of a diverse population to use the library.
All library staff and patrons should understand the rules not only as it relates to violation of copyright, but also sexual harassment, physical or verbal assault, or damage to property should these incidents occur. To mitigate such occurrences a definition and listing of these rights, violations and actions to be pursued if breached, should also be documented on the library’s website and or physical surroundings, and included into employees’ handbooks. The staff member suspended in the wake of the physical altercation with the patron admitted to earlier face-offs which led up to fight. Systems should also be in place as preventative measures such as temporary rotation or replacement of staff to allow a cooling off period.
B. Emotional issues in customer service delivery
Korczynski (2003) in his seminal work refers to “communities of coping” which is the way interactive service workers turn to one another to deal with the pain inflicted by irate customers. Indeed, in all or at least most service work, administrators depend on emotional labor to achieve favorable results. A dimension of the worker customer relationship is the degree of inequality between service workers and their customers (Lopez, 2010). This is sometimes seen in countries which have undergone centuries of enslavement and indentureship, such as the Caribbean, and are still subject to deep divides by virtue of race, caste, class, and wealth. In analyzing human resource practices in the Caribbean, Coke (1995) refers to the resulting act of resistance as an alienation which conditions workers to give as little of themselves as possible so as to avoid the risk of being considered “tyrants, queers, slave drivers or company people.” When creating hybrid models, hierarchies and the worker-customer relations should be considered for example, the implementation of practices which equate staff to the levels of shop assistants (Cherry & Calvert, 2012). In some cultures this equation creates a gulf or alienation because the triage is aligned more with the customer-manager or when the lines separating servitude and service become blurred. In an interview with another staffer he recounted what he perceived was an unfair reprimand when he was made to apologize to a customer. He was accused of making an offensive remark. Although his immediate supervisor admitted that this behavior was uncharacteristic, the customer had to be pacified.
C. Customer service delivery guidelines
Existing guidelines may need to be assessed in detail to consider their validity. This allows for the elimination of unnecessary or obsolete practices, underlining those in need of revision, and emphasizing preferred practices.
Other details to look for are practices which have been epitomized, either because explicit guidelines do not exist but practices may have been codified as a result of communication discharged by various library administrations over the years (sometimes with contradictory directives).
Note that examination of service delivery guidelines cannot identify all significant barriers to customer service nor can it measure the relative importance or impact of these impediments.
While library surveys in customer service provision have been the standard operating procedure for assessing customer service deliverables, discussions with focus groups and library staff can also prove to be useful (Miao & Bassham, 2007).
These discussions should take place at points where the concepts of service practices and barriers are introduced. Library staff and users should discuss prevailing barriers and the steps which can be taken to overcome them. One example was a meeting between the library’s Acquisitions Unit and the University Bookshop which supplied approximately 40% of the library’s annual print holdings. By reviewing the ordering procedures and eliminating one or two unnecessary steps, the delivery of orders improved significantly which in turn positively affected the library’s ability to satisfy students’ and faculty’s demands.
D. Service delivery practices
Lyman (1991) contends that there is some variance between the de jure and the de facto experiences of customers, staff and managers during the customer service encounter. It is for that reason policy and guideline scrutiny are most useful when supplemented with data on the actual customer service practices of library staff such as:
User surveys – tailored to elicit detailed information about library staff-customer service practices and processes. It is a commonly used process in the customer service environment as service staff are the primary point of contact between library patrons and the service they provide. Accordingly, they are essential sources of information and also the conduit through which service practices are delivered. Statistical surveys furnish detailed information about customer service relation practices but in interpreting the data researchers must bear in mind a potential source of bias. Interviewees have a tendency to report what they think the interviewer wants to hear rather than their actual actions. Again, socio-cultural backgrounds may influence the answers provided. It is as a result of these limitations that a sequence of library staff observation sessions, user surveys, or use of simulated users may serve to validate results from a library survey and so enrich the analysis.
Observation – can be used to assess the actual practices of library staff. As staffs provide answers to patrons, observers can make use of the responses to develop an understanding of strengths, potential misinterpretations or identify shortcomings in the library’s deliverables.
Simulated Users or Mystery Shoppers – when properly conducted can be an accurate and efficient method to check and assess existing service at library service points. It also allows administrators to monitor staffs’ adherence to guidelines and policies. Although a method normally attributed to the commercial sector, researchers also view it as a form of participant observation (Calvert, 2005). In their study of two academic libraries, Benjes-Small and Kocevar-Weidinger (2011) found that the process pinpointed areas for improvement, provided training, and determined whether “shoppers” reported staff behaviors that met established expectations.
III. Impact of introducing or changing customer service guidelines
Many studies have been devised to measure the impact of library services to patrons such as access to information, service quality, material usage, etc. The inclusion of focus groups in assessing the impact of specific practices can be essential in implementing change (Miao & Bassham, 2007). These surveys are also helpful in the preparation of service guidelines since they also provide information on services which should be voided or identify potential service points. User surveys can assess which category of patrons requested specific services but did not receive it. For example, were patrons told they could not get a particular service because it required a certain status, or other screening criteria? The main drawback to user survey is that patrons sometimes lump all libraries together, without distinguishing operational procedures and the various levels of services offered. In these cases, perhaps definitions prior to polling can assist in providing a framework.
IV. Changing practices and managing change
Unilaterally changing guidelines, patchwork fixes and embedding foreign mores may not be the answer to improving the customer experience. The development of a hybrid model is posited as a more practical approach to achieve this as the process inspires a holistic approach, inviting input from all stakeholders, while considering organizational and socio-cultural factors. Its practicality also encourages drafters of guidelines not to over-reach by promising an undeliverable experience.
Change by all stakeholders is an anticipated outcome as the exercise might perhaps allow staff members and focus groups to reflect on past behaviors. However resistance to change should always be factored into the planning stages as this element forms a genuine part of any new procedure to be implemented. Consequently, if such a model is adopted administrators would need to give some thought to managing transitions and implementations. As Kamerow, Director of the U.S. Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) guideline-writing office stated, “Someone has to do something with it. Just holding the book up to your head and saying a mantra is not going to change behavior (cited in Gesensway, 1995).”
In addition to supervising and monitoring new practices to ensure that they actually change, there must be some thought towards sustainability. As Farkas (2011) notes, one of the biggest blunders in the provision of library services is the “Why don’t we try it and see what happens” approach.
This model encourages frequent communication with all stakeholders. Too often, strategies are doomed to failure because of poor or infrequent communication so the vision is blurred. While missteps might occur, the trick is to be on top of events so that problems can be quickly resolved. While improvements may not be immediately apparent, it should be recognized that refining policies and practices and changing organizational culture is a long-term process.
This research proposes the concept of hybrid models for the development of customer service standards. The notion arose from observing the actions and reactions of library administrators, employees, and students in their daily intercessions at the university library. To date parties continue to grapple with poor facilities management, intermittent services, weak communication, imbalance in relations, indifference, and an increase in aggression and bad behavior by all. The situation is further compounded by a seeming inability to repair the widening gaps, attributed in part to socio-cultural factors.
Simply embedding models or initiatives from other cultures is a short-sighted approach and not conducive to resolving the issues or providing good quality customer service. A more holistic framework is recommended. Globalization has enabled a differently educated, empowered population who are more astute, and vocal in their demand for the optimum customer experience. The phenomenon has also added new layers to the nation’s social fabric which are not all constructive. At the same time, citizens struggle for cultural protectionism holding firm against the pressures of being mainstreamed.
Like any good facilitator, libraries must be cognizant of the target audience they aim to serve. They must be mindful of changing socio-cultural factors as these ultimately result in other concerns such as security while identifying needs, and the easy availability of supportive and communicative guidelines.
Engaging with stakeholders is important and more and more associated with positive results such as increased transparency and accountability. The dialogue may also result in innovative delivery of policies and services. Creating channels of communication via surveys is only part of the equation; additional means should be engaged such as the measures identified in this paper.
Staff training is critical in any service industry. As hotel mogul of the Sandals resort brand commented on the Jamaican workforce “We take people from every walk of life but when you need a particular skill and you don’t have it and you force a skill on people who cannot do the work you will have a bad product” (“Jamaica has best workforce”, 2013). Perhaps administrators should factor this sentiment into staff training and instead of insisting, for example, on the use of “standard English” recognize Caribbean people’s tendency to code-switch; that criticisms of conveying negative value judgments, unsolicited comments, and lecturing patrons are instead expressions of caring and natural curiosity and is sometimes a determiner of the level of assistance the patron might require; and that responses such as “Yes, Sir” or “No Mam” are remnants of a repressive and brutal past which is too often used as an excuse for poor behavior.
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(To) Professional staff
(To) Paraprofessional staff
|Are you aware of the customer service model used by the library?||X|
|Have you received customer service training? If yes, was this via an internal or external programme?||X||X|
|Do customer service guidelines exist?||X||X|
|Are they used?||X||X|
|Are the guidelines detailed enough to guide your customer service delivery?||X||X|
|The library adopted a customer service charter in 2010. What are your views about this document?||X||X|
More about the author
Cherry-Ann Smart, MLS, is a Special Collections Librarian at the West Indies and Special Collections of the University of the West Indies, (UWI) Mona Campus, Jamaica.
Her areas of research interest are very diverse and include all aspects of librarianship which affects Caribbean people’s access to information.