The Customer’s Always Right

To thrive, the library must be an essential component of the community's educational infrastructure

August 16, 2010

We strive to provide great customer service, yet few of us actually use the “C” word. We have many names—patron, borrower, user, reader—but “customer” remains controversial and typically we avoid it. Not so at Howard County Library, located in the Baltimore suburbs. At HCL, they embrace the term, feeling that it accurately conveys the relationships they are building with their community.

This is part of using strategic vocabulary. “Circulation” became the “customer service desk.” “Librarians” and “library associates” became “research specialists” and “instructors.” “Programs” were tagged “workshops,” “seminars,” or “events.” And, perhaps most controversially, “storytimes” became “children’s classes.”

HCL President and CEO Valerie Gross explains, “We use smart terminology in order to be more intuitive,” adding, “We want to be very clear about what we do, how we do it, and how we talk about it.”

Gross has strategically positioned the library inside the realm of education. This is evident from HCL’s mission statement: “We deliver high-quality education for all ages” and by the use of the term “curriculum” to describe the library’s agenda of providing instructive and transformational experiences. HCL operates very much like a business and behaves like an academic organization.

The library’s most successful initiative is A+ Partners in Education, an ambitious collaboration with the local schools. Each of the county’s K–12 public schools is assigned a branch library along with a liaison. Library staff work closely with teachers in planning assignments, assisting with access to instructional content and research field trips, and celebrating academic achievement. Gross says, “The aim is to bring the library into the schools, as well as to bring the schools into the libraries.”

This effort has paid off. Not only has the library seen a rise in gate counts and borrowing, but it has also solidified a strong relationship with the community through events such as a regional spelling bee and a reading competition dubbed Battle of the Books. According to Gross, when county executives had to make a 3% budget reduction last year, the main sectors that were impacted were transportation and community services. Education, under which the library resides, was left untouched. “It’s important that we align ourselves with what is valued most in our community,” she observes.

Success fuels ambition, and HCL recently revealed its aspirations for the future. A top priority is to focus on key subject areas including health, environment, finance, and science education. The library will also explore virtual instruction, which would reach more people online through webinars, videocasts, and classes.

Another area of concentration is the customer experience. HCL will form a customer insights team tasked with gathering and assessing data, implementing new strategies, and examining service perceptions and expectations. One goal is to increase “customer convenience” through “impulse borrowing” and other merchandising techniques, shifting collections to maximize visibility, and studying usage patterns both online and within the buildings.

Retention is another prominent theme: 90% of the community has library cards, so the library is looking at ways to build incentives for frequent borrowers. Another focus is to place an emphasis on making a strong first and second impression as well as creating a lasting impression that leads to fiercely loyal customers.

Gross admits to being inspired by Nike’s outreach tactics and strives to make a similar emotional connection with her customers. “Education is timeless; 200 years from now, self-directed education will still be critical for economic advancement and quality of life, and the public libraries that embrace this will always be center stage, regardless of the current technology.” She contends that we shouldn’t just strive for relevancy, but rather, that we should embed the library so that it becomes an indispensable component of the community.

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.



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