Embracing Change for Continuous Improvement

In a period of transition, libraries must redevelop their services to create loyal customers

January 13, 2010


Progress implies change. Not all change is progress, but all progress requires change. Change can be planned or unplanned. Libraries have experienced some serious unplanned changes in the recent past; they have been buffeted by changes in technology and scholarly communication and the downturn in the economy. Even so, most libraries have adapted wonderfully to the changes and challenges created by the new technologies. Now is the time to plan for improvements in customer service and to create a cadre of loyal customers.

The box below, developed from conversations with some state librarians and leaders in public libraries, suggests areas in which public librarians need expertise as new challenges arise. Those areas    help to define the library’s role in community building, which encompasses economic development, redevelopment and neighborhoods, workforce development, and civic engagement. In an April 2009 presentation at Simmons College reviewing these issues, San Francisco City Librarian Luis Herrera stressed the importance of service development, or reinventing service models. This includes defining reference services and roles, functions and processes, the library as a place, and virtual versus physical space. Accountability and assessment should not exclude program evaluation and determining the value of library services. Technology and the internet pose new challenges and opportunities as libraries engage in content creation and keep pace with new applications.

Critical Issues Facing Public and State LibrariesCoping with these issues and challenges requires a workforce that is not confined to a particular area of the library and enjoys reaching out to the library’s communities. As part of coping, senior managers must manage stress and guard against staff suffering dangers cited by Thomas W. Shaughnessy in the July 1996 Journal of Academic Librarianship: “mental and physical exhaustion, burnout, frustration, low morale, and other symptoms of stress. In some instances the library’s structure adds to the distress by slowing response time, preventing cross-functional solutions to problems, and frustrating efforts to intervene.”

Due to the current economic recession, a number of libraries are experiencing severe reductions in operating budgets, resulting in an inability to keep pace with inflation and having to take funds for equipment purchases from the acquisitions budget. Budget cuts also produce downsizing and staff reassignment; the result is an increased workload for the staff. Some libraries are consolidating services at the same time as they reconfigure the physical plant. Complicating matters even more, a number of libraries are moving toward evidence-based decision-making and a workforce committed to demonstrating accountability and improved services. All in all, these changes suggest an extremely challenging, but rewarding, time for libraries and their staffs.

Gathering library metrics

The type of metrics that libraries have historically collected and reported has created stakeholder dissatisfaction because these metrics do not adequately reflect their contribution to their communities. The metrics typically comprise outputs or performance measures, but none reflect customer-focused outputs relating to service quality or satisfaction and outcomes—the impact of programs and services. For instance, how many people using the library résumé service or other job-related services found fulltime employment? Do children increase their reading levels after attending summer reading programs? If yes, by how many grade levels?

Such questions may involve accountability, which requires the adoption of a multiple-stakeholder framework and recognition that librarians are managers of complex service organizations. Any organization must balance its needs with those of other units in the institution, recognizing that budgeting occurs within a political context (e.g., competition with academic units and with other government agencies), while addressing issues of “How well?” “How satisfied?” “How productive?” and so forth. Consequently, the types of metrics that libraries use should settle on the quantitative and qualitative benefits that the library provides to its community.

Providing for Knowledge, Growth, and Prosperity: A Benefit Study of the San Francisco Public Library, a 2007 publication of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, notes that “for every dollar spent supporting SFPL, the citizens of San Francisco see a return in the range of $1.40 to $3.34.” Turning to academic libraries, Sawyer Library of Suffolk University informs full-time students that, for the 2008–09 academic year, they paid about $382 of their tuition to support the library, whereas a part-time student paid about $26 per credit hour. In return, depending on the frequency of their virtual or in-person visits, students would accrue a minimum value of $433.36 for use of library collections and services. Students and their parents can review the calculations of that amount if they are so inclined.

Libraries reporting metrics frequently list those relating to budget allocation (input metrics), turnstile counts, or volume of business (output metrics). Although such “countables” are easily gathered (e.g., a hash mark for each reference question fielded or title processed), they fail to indicate more than “How many?” and to deal with what is important to customers or convey organizational effectiveness. Furthermore, they do not reflect the outcome of physical or virtual visits to the library. The meeting or exceeding of customer expectations has a direct impact on organizational effectiveness, the creation and maintenance of customer loyalty, and customer satisfaction.

Whatever metrics libraries develop must reflect what is important to the institution, and there must be cohesiveness among the metrics adopted. One metric or customer-related indicator does not tell the complete story. How many metrics are needed? Which ones? Libraries have choices about what they assess and report; they should concentrate on those indicators most meaningful to the organization while overcoming inherent weakness.

Academic and public libraries should not limit the metrics that they report to ones demonstrating their uniqueness within the broader organization (inputs and outputs). Rather, they should address their role, for instance, in attracting and retaining faculty, students, or businesses; advancing learning; educating a workforce; providing an educational or a cultural facility; and assisting the job placement process. Libraries should partner with central administration, the faculty, and other community groups in providing those services that customers need and expect.

In Viewing Library Metrics from Different Perspectives (Libraries Unlimited, 2009) authors Robert E. Dugan, Peter Hernon, and Danuta A. Nitecki discuss metrics from four perspectives: the user in the life of the library, the user and the library in the life of the institution, the library and institution in the life of the user, and the library and the institution in the life of stakeholders. Some of the metrics enable libraries to demonstrate their contribution and value to stakeholders, in part, by showing their impact on customers.

Maintaining customer loyalty

Identifying and serving loyal customers is an important part of the success of any organization. It is far easier and cheaper to keep a current customer than it is to get a new one. Current customers who frequently use the library have already demonstrated their support. Loyalty concentrates on repeat use and those making the most use of the library and its services.

Any determination of loyalty must address the issues listed in the box on this page and the customer’s purpose for library use. The purpose might relate to use of the facilities, technology, staff, or collections. The identification of longtime loyal customers is an opportunity to let them know that the library appreciates their patronage. Formal appreciation of longtime customers is also an excellent public relations opportunity for the library, but how do libraries recognize it?

Developing a service vision

Service drives the library, not vice versa. For this reason, it is important to develop a service vision that stakes out an innovative competitive position addressing future expectations related to customer-service quality and satisfaction. Such a vision should be brief, clear, challenging, future-oriented, desirable, and perhaps inspiring.

Characterization of Library UseAttention should shift from the provision of service, or from continuing to be all things to all people, to what libraries can do well or outstandingly. An effort should be made to identify, recognize, encourage, and reward exemplary service. Librarians should not assume the service they provide is exemplary or that they automatically know or can anticipate the expectations of their customers. They should set priorities, goals, and objectives; benchmark performance over time; and commit the resources necessary to maintain levels of exemplary service—that is, service that customers regard as exemplary.

One way to identify service gaps where corrective action is needed is to use quadrant charts such as those Counting Opinions (www.countingopinions.com) generates from respondents to its online satisfaction survey. The charts indicate which services customers find important; those they believe libraries already deal with effectively; and those needing improvement, where service gaps exist. The charts can also gauge reactions to decisions made as well as actions or changes undertaken. Any movement of measured perceptions over a few months informs the library how the public is reacting to a service change such as hours open and programs held or canceled.

There is a myth that, because a library exists, customers will come in large numbers, be satisfied, be loyal, and be supportive—willing to vote in favor of local propositions providing financial support to the public library. This belief needs to be set aside in order to determine what matters the most to customers, and how the knowledge gained can be applied to improve service delivery. These are the real challenges, and they present an excellent opportunity for libraries to serve their customers better. Service quality, satisfaction, and customer service are not the only issues, but they are fundamental to dealing with other issues and improving the quality of library services.

Libraries should take the quality journey; they need to meet changing expectations of customers, delight current customers, and seek out new customers. They should learn from their successes and mistakes and believe that everything can be improved. A belief that service is “good enough” does not inspire an organization to improve and to challenge itself. Continuous improvement is a worthy goal and metrics of how many or how much do not deal with issues central to any service organization at a time of intense competition.

Time for action, not excuses

A lack of resources is the frequent response of some librarians to suggestions that libraries offer new services, change some aspect of the organization, or adopt new indicators. This lack is also the explanation that academic and governmental managers often give to requests from libraries for funding increases. The actual reason is either an unwillingness to change or the view that the library is not as high a priority as fire, public safety, and so on. Even though their budgets are mostly static or declining, library managers try to provide what most people want most of the time; in order for them to do so, it is important for them to know:

  • the demographic characteristics of customers and the intensity of their relationship to the library;
  • customers’ preferences for materials, based on their information-gathering behavior—what they actually use;
  • customers’ views of library performance on such factors as timeliness, helpfulness, courtesy, reliability, and responsiveness.

With information about customers—their characteristics and preferences—libraries can target marketing strategies to both present and potential customers. Patrons’ evaluations help libraries respond so that they can cultivate loyal customers who will rally support for bond issues or actively oppose threatened budget cuts. The payoff of learning about library customers and their requirements is their heavy use of materials and services and an enhancement of the library’s service and resource reputation.

Present and potential customers make choices. Ease of use and likelihood of obtaining what is desired play a large part in driving these choices. The library’s value, impact, and benefit can only be experienced and judged by customers. Is it worth the time, money, and staff to find out who they are, what they want in terms of materials and services, and how satisfied they are with those materials and services? We think it is. Now is the time for action.

Peter Hernon is a professor at the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. Ellen Altman, now retired, was visiting professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand until 1997. She has been a faculty member at the Universities of Kentucky and Toronto and at Indiana University, and director of the Graduate Library School at the University of Arizona. This article is excerpted from the second edition of Assessing Service Quality: Satisfying the Expectations of Library Customers, which was published in January by ALA Editions.