Info Pro: Adopting Tools from the World of Business Consulting

A successful ServiceScape encourages consumer-staff interaction and makes everyone's tasks easier.

January 3, 2011

Info Pro: Adopting Tools from the World of Business Consulting

As professionals serving increasingly business-savvy consumers, librarians must realize that we are, in fact, consultants. As such, we need to adopt some of the tools and thinking of business consultants to better communicate our value to library customers.

We do that by creating what is called a ServiceScape environment, which is essential for building and maintaining a library’s brand identity. We also use service blueprinting, a complementary tool for documenting the processes and specifications required to achieve a ServiceScape. By nature, services are heterogeneous and intangible, requiring input from both the librarian and the consumer to successfully achieve a desired outcome. This invites variability in operational inputs and outputs. Because consumers rely on tangible evidence to judge service quality, librarians must understand and develop their organization’s ServiceScape to effectively market their services and products. We must also construct service blueprints that allow us to objectively and quantifiably manage these products.

ServiceScape

A ServiceScape is the environment where a service is delivered and customers interact with employees. It’s important to create the right ServiceScape because it influences both customer and employee behavior. Before, during, and after a customer uses a service, the customer will consider the physical evidence and use it to form an opinion of that service. For example, the quality of furnishings, building layout, signage, and equipment will communicate both quality and value to the customer along with other tangibles, such as the consistent presentation of brochures, websites, and other communication mediums.

Ideally, a ServiceScape satisfies the needs of both the consumer and the library as well as the information consultant. It should be designed to appeal to market segments the consultant wishes to target.

Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library, for instance, offers Job Help Centers. These centers, located in its branches, are defined using special signage and furniture. To assist community members looking for work, the library also partners with JOBLeaders, a statewide organization, to bring the Jobs Mobile bus to its locations. Job Help Centers are an important feature of Columbus Metropolitan Library’s ServiceScape in a state where countywide unemployment rates reach 7 to 16%.

Similarly, Veria Central Public Library in Greece created The Magic Boxes, a space within its library designed to promote reading, creativity, and digital literacy for children. To encourage children to interact with one another and express their creativity and curiosity, the library made this ServiceScape flexible, with multipurpose furniture that can continually be reconfigured. It also selected colors and materials that engage children’s emotions and creativity.

The complexity of a library’s ServiceScape, however, can overwhelm consumers. This is an undeniable reality today as collections and services are spread across a physical and online environment. A visitor arriving at Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, for example, encounters collections and services located throughout an 11-floor building with more than 200,000 assignable square feet of space. Signage alone can’t help the visitor navigate this space. All staff must consciously be alert for consumers in the building who appear lost or confused, offering directions and even escorting them to their desired destination.

Standards of employee dress also contribute to the ServiceScape. At Thompson Library, Vocera communication badges, worn with traditional picture identification badges, distinguish staff from regular patrons. The badges assist both consumers and staff by allowing staff to address consumers’ information needs where and when they occur. Part phone, part pager, part walkie-talkie, Vocera uses voice commands to enable staff to communicate with each other regardless of where they are in a building. Thus, if a consumer on the 19th floor of the library approaches an employee shelving books with a detailed question, the employee can immediately call a library and information consultant for help without having to physically escort the consumer to a phone or a consultant’s office. Vocera also allows users to call groups; a circulation supervisor can send employees to work on a shifting project in the stacks knowing that she may use Vocera to summon these individuals back to the desk if a line forms.

Thompson Library, however, is just one building in a system of eight department libraries, six regional campus libraries, separately administered law and health sciences libraries, and a remote storage facility. Ohio State library consumers can borrow materials from or make use of any of these facilities. An added complexity for Ohio State Libraries’ ServiceScape is that customers can request books and journals through the statewide OhioLINK system, a consortium of 88 college and university libraries and the State Library of Ohio.

Given this huge information complex, Ohio State Libraries employs a communications officer and a graphic designer who work in tandem to craft carefully designed maps, brochures, websites, and other media to help patrons understand and navigate the library system. This is an important yet daunting task, as is communicating a consistent message about the OSU libraries. Promoting consumer understanding of the library system is a major contribution to the ServiceScape, influencing consumers’ commitment to the system, their use of library services, whether they recommend the library to their peers, and whether they support the libraries’ funding.

The ServiceScape also allows customers to differentiate one area of service from another within the library. Using furniture, private consultation rooms, and other elements, a library and information consultant may distinguish her service area from others, such as circulation or a technology help center. Further, placement of computer terminals and chairs in areas where a library and information consultant interacts with customers will affect social interaction. If chairs are located at a distance that prevents the consultant and consumers from communicating comfortably, the ServiceScape will be negatively affected.

While the ServiceScape facilitates the tasks of both consumers and library employees, it also socializes them by communicating appropriate roles, behaviors, and relationships. The ServiceScape may define the role of the library and information consultant by functioning as a differentiator and attracting market segments. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A well-trained, knowledgeable consultant may find it difficult to attract professionals to use her services if her behavior belies her knowledge. Locating patron answers while blowing large bubbles with green-apple-scented chewing gum, for instance, may be distracting and communicate a lack of respect for the customer.

Customer decisions about whether or not to use library services are influenced by staff. That is why hiring, retention, and promotion decisions are important in creating the ServiceScape. Having the right employee in the right position influences customer decisions to use a service as much as environmental conditions such as natural lighting, noise, and building temperature. Friendly library and information consultants who are welcoming with words and body language will be more successful than staff with dismissive facial expressions, no matter how knowledgeable.

The ServiceScape’s physical environment also affects staff behavior cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically. A work area in front of an open door during a cold northern winter can hobble even the most talented library and information consultant. Would a consumer enjoy an interaction in such a setting? If the consultant is uncomfortable, the consumer is likely uncomfortable too. Failing to address an uncomfortable environment will lead to avoidance behaviors in both the consultant and the consumer the consultant wishes to attract.

Service blueprinting

The less experienced the consumer, the more important it is for the service provider to manage the consumer’s service experience. Service blueprinting complements the ServiceScape by detailing the processes and specifications of the service product. Introduced by G. Lynn Shostack, a former vice-president at Citibank and chair of the American Marketing Association’s special task force on service marketing, the service blueprint maps the processes inherent in a service and identifies potential points of failure by indicating all possible points of contact where the customer and service provider interact. It is a useful tool for developing or improving a new or existing service. By understanding potential failure points, the library and information consultant can either address the service failure by redesigning the service process, or, if appropriate, create contingency plans to minimize or address a service failure that cannot be avoided. For instance, in a library that offers a series of popular classes requiring preregistration, unavoidable service failure may occur on the first day of registration, particularly if budgeting restricts the library to telephone registration only. If telephone capacity cannot be increased to accommodate the increased volume of calls from eager consumers, a service failure will occur.

There are various formats of the service blueprint an organization can use. Choose a format that works best for the consultant’s professional service products and use this format consistently. An example of a service blueprint for a proactive library and information consulting service is provided in figure 3.1. To construct this blueprint, the key activities required to produce and deliver the service from the customer’s and consultant’s points of view were identified and mapped into the following categories: customer actions, employee actions both onstage and backstage, and support processes. The tangible physical evidence the customer experiences for the service process was also identified and recorded at the top of the blueprint. The service blueprint illustrates that front-room and back-room activities run in parallel. Along with the physical evidence, these activities contribute to the successful delivery of the service.

The Service Blueprint
The Service Blueprint

Figure 3.1 attempts to identify all the steps taken, the frustrations experienced, and the choices made by a library customer looking for articles on a specific topic. Listed are the onstage and backstage actions by the consultant interacting with a customer in a proactive library and information consulting service. Backstage activities include anything that an employee behind the scenes does to assist the consultant delivering the service. Lastly, the support processes that help the employee backstage to assist the consultant are listed. In a library organization, this support would include work by staff in acquisitions, cataloging, information technology, and general management.

As shown, the service blueprint denotes three key action areas: the line of interaction, the line of visibility, and the line of internal interaction. Service encounters are denoted any time a vertical line crosses the line of interaction; this means a customer has interacted with an employee. The line of visibility denotes all activities that are visible to the customer and on which the customer will form an opinion, based on his or her service experience. This includes everything above the line of interaction. Potential failure points are usually identified above this line and are represented by a circled capital F. Making a service process more visible to the customer or improving the physical evidence can sometimes address these failure points. In other instances, a redesign of the service process may be required. For example, in an academic library setting, offering tours of a remote storage facility to university faculty and graduate students can help manage expectations regarding book retrieval wait times. A creative way to accomplish this task would be to circulate a short YouTube video explaining the storage facility to these target populations. Changing the process for retrieving items in a way that reduces wait time is also an option.

Vertical lines that cross the line of internal interaction represent internal service encounters, such as consultants seeking input from colleagues in information technology. For example, a customer wouldn’t see a consultant’s request for assistance with creating and posting a subject guide in the library organization’s content management system. But that subject guide is essential to successful service transactions.

To improve a service or address failure points, any activities identified in the service blueprint may require their own service blueprint. The beauty of the service blueprint, however, is that each service encounter identified by the vertical lines indicates a moment of truth when an internal or external customer may have an excellent or poor service experience. The service blueprint illustrates that service failure is usually not the result of human error, but of a gap in a systematic design and control. The blueprint provides an opportunity to systematically describe a service concept and record detailed specifications. It represents the who, what, where, when, and how of the service product.

The service blueprint in figure 3.1 shows three potential failure points: when the consultant approaches and interviews the customer; when the consultant researches the customer’s question; and when the consultant gives the customer an answer and follows up with a question or invitation to return for additional service. Failures will not occur in every transaction. In fact, they may rarely occur at all. The service blueprint, however, prompts library and information consultants to honestly work toward minimizing errors in their service, through means such as training or standardizing practice. From a marketing perspective, the service blueprint is essential for understanding a service and creating both a marketing plan and a brand identity to communicate its value.

SARAH ANNE MURPHY is coordinator of research and reference for Ohio State University Libraries. This article is an excerpt from The Librarian as Information Consultant, scheduled for publication this spring by ALA Editions.