Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New approach to service: is it all in a name?

The best quote from Elliot Felix's piece in the new Journal of Learning Spaces is in his second piece "Learning Space Service Design"

"...we’re moving from a culture of ownership to one of membership." 

This is not at all what the focus is for the rest of the article, but I think it is where non-academic librarians need to pay the most attention. For once here I am not talking about ownership of library items either! I take this statement as applied to libraries to mean we need to pay attention to our attitude toward our patron's and their expectations of society and the library within our greater society.

Public libraries already operate more closely to a Co-op than nearly any other organization. People meet certain criteria and we let the join the library. They get a card to prove their membership, and that card is used to borrow items. Besides the special membership dues we are already acting a lot like some of the groups Elliot Felix mentions: Netflix, Zipcar, Netjets, etc. That is why I find it so off-putting to call everyone who comes in customers or visitors or patrons (yes this list is in ascending order of how the phrase irks me).

I worked at a library once that used a library card that looked very similar to the CostCo Executive Card. This was not done for any other reason than using only a few colors was cheaper than a full color card. Most people when given their card for the first time always reacted like they had actually joined something unique and interesting. Even retirees who had library cards for decades in other communities had a reaction similar to that of a child excited at getting their first library card. When we asked people it was because the card looked like something they could proudly place in their wallet to let people know that they had a library card. The act of simply changing the look of the card and the reaction that evoked  always surprised me. Just imagine how your approach might change if everyone who came in was a member rather than just a statistic.

There is a lot more to this, though, than simply changing library cards. When we have members instead of patrons or visitors we would tend to treat them more equally. Another simple change is to alter how we think of our interactions. Instead of phrases like "reference transactions" how about a phrase that Elliot uses to describe what we do with our members: consultation? A consultation--which is really what is already happening in libraries--can involve everything from computer help to eReader purchase suggestions to printer unjamming. It is much more meaningful, too, to tell stakeholders we provided 1,000 consultations rather than answered 1,000 questions. 

Our members are changing their expectations of their world, and I applaud libraries that are working proactively to meet the expectations of our society. Simple steps like changing a library card can go a long way toward changing perceptions, but we need to go deeper and rethink many of the small ways that we approach our relationship with customers.

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