missrachelsmith

Posts Tagged ‘Customer service

Public libraries: 3 big changes

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Two weeks ago, I headed back to the town where I grew up on the south coast to spend three days working at a large public library. As a child, I used the library to take part in the summer reading challenge, and as a teenager, to revise for my GCSEs and A levels. I hadn’t been to the public library for a while, and as I woke up at my parents’ and walked to the library in the pouring rain on my first day of the placement, I wondered whether I would find it as I remembered it. There’s a lot of talk in the news and in the industry press about public library budget cuts and I was interested to find out how that was affecting the library and the services it offers. And I was intrigued to see what it was like to be behind a public library counter, rather than in front.

Whilst I was revisiting my old life, I found a library service which was changing and moving to new ways of working. These were the key points of change I picked up on during my time at the public library:

1. Budget

The budget the public library is operating on is massively and rapidly reducing. The county council library service had to make £1 million of savings in the last financial year and they’re looking at making the same cost saving this year as well. To do this, the library was attempting to save money where possible and had implemented lots of little income streams, such as asking people to pay to hire meeting rooms, selling greetings cards and auctioning rarer books for disposal. This was a difference between the public library and the university library, where I work, that I wasn’t expecting. Traditionally, libraries are seen as a ‘free’ service (although they’re not, of course. Customers pay for the public library service through their council tax and for the university library through their ever-increasing course fees). Beyond simply borrowing a book, there wasn’t much you could do in the public library which was free. This seemed a little sad from a customer perspective, but from the perspective of the public library’s tightening budget, necessary.

2. Staff and structure

The county council library service had recently undergone a major restructure in terms of staffing and structure. The public libraries throughout the county had been organised into tiers, determining their opening hours and levels of staffing. After the tiers came a major staffing restructure in March 2011. Collection management was centralised, whilst specialist roles such as the children’s librarians, reference librarians and community librarians were spread throughout the library service, working with a number of different branches. The remaining staff within the branches worked in front-line or management roles and were directly engaged with running the library they were based in.

It was interesting to talk to staff about the restructure and how it had impacted upon their jobs and the service that the library offered. I came away with the feeling that the staffing structure was becoming leaner, that several jobs had been lost, and that even visiting six months down the line, a few of the creases had yet to be ironed out. However, the public library staff seemed to be making the best of it and making it work. I was really impressed by the positive attitude demonstrated by all of the staff I met in the face of such big changes to their established ways of working.

3. Service

The public library is currently preparing for another big change – they’re moving to self-service and RFID in November. This will mean an entire new customer service desk layout in the entrance level to the library, which houses the circulating stock out on the open shelves. Transactions will be handled by RFID machines, which will allow customers to borrow and return items, as well as check their Library record and renew items. There will be a small visitor desk created which will handle library registrations and enquiries, but on a much reduced scale.

I’ve seen RFID in action at a public library in the North East, and it’s spangly technology – the way that the self-service machines recognise a stack of items is pretty magical. The new kit will certainly have the wow factor, but it will mean a shift in the way customers experience the library service. I think that the word ‘service’ implies a personal element, rather than a machine. The library I work in operates on a self-service model and I feel that although it works well in terms of handling the volume of customers we see, we’re constantly trying to get across to students that Library staff are approachable and that we’re (as one of our ‘identities’ says – we don’t call it a logo, otherwise Marketing are down our throats!) here to help. The public library is a public service; by moving towards using RFID, the human element will be reduced and I think that’s a really important part of what public libraries do.

Bearing the first big change that the public library is up against in mind, and the fact that the public library is looking to save a million pounds before the end of the financial year, the move to self-service also rings alarm bells. Will this decision make the impact of budget cuts upon staffing even more drastic?

Over the next year, I’m going to attempt to revisit the public library to see how self-service works in practice and how staff are adjusting to this. I’m also going to try to monitor what the local press is reporting about what’s going on at the public library.

It’s true that change is inevitable, but not all changes are necessarily for the better. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes lie ahead for the public library and what kind of challenges and opportunities they bring.

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Written by missrachelsmith

October 7, 2011 at 15:50

In the clink

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Prison is one of those places I never thought I’d go to. I don’t really fancy life behind bars and I hope I’ll never have cause to visit any of my family or friends there either, you know? But some librarians work in Her Majesty’s Prisons around the UK. In fact, the closest library to the library where I work is a prison library. A Category B men’s prison, the jail serves the local courts and has a high prisoner turnover rate. I arranged to visit for the day to find out more about what prison libraries and librarians do…

Security

Perhaps it’s a bit obvious, but the biggest difference that struck me about my time at the prison library was the importance of security. In prison, everything revolves around it. Walking to the library, we travelled through pairs of locked doors every few metres around the prison buildings. Alongside the librarians, prison officers assigned to the library were present at all times to ensure the security of both library staff and prisoners. Due to their customer group, stealing of library property was an issue and prisoners are unable to access the internet, word processing software or printing facilities. Security issues also extended to the stock that the library offered. There are a number of banned items and subjects which you won’t find in the prison library’s collection, from the obvious – books about bombmaking, for example – to the ones you wouldn’t have thought of, like the Igguldens’ Dangerous Book for Boys.

Customer journey

This heightened awareness of security stretched to the customer experience of using the library. The customer journey begins when the prisoner fills out an application form, or ‘app’ to visit the library. Each wing has appointed times when library officers collect those who have filled out an app. The prison officer takes the men to the library for around half an hour and then the group are escorted back to their accommodation or their next activity. I found it interesting that the customer experience of using the prison library begins sometimes days before their visit. This had its own unique set of problems – sometimes when called to go to the library, the men are busy, for example. If prisoners forget to fill out a library app or are unavailable when the library officers come to collect them, they are unable to return their books on time. These were issues that library staff were debating on the day I visited and I hope they continue to investigate ways to resolve this.

Prison libraries and public libraries

Something that I found surprising was the close relationship between the prison libraries and the public libraries in the area. The library service, like the educational provision in the prison, is tendered out. The county council currently provides library services to the prison and the library staff are employed and managed by the council. Therefore, there were a number of crossover points – one of the part-time librarians working at the prison also works for the main public library in the city and the prison and public libraries use the same library card system. The prison libraries in the county use the same library management system as the public libraries and borrow books from there. This close relationship between the services means that data protection is paramount. Library Orderlies (prisoners who work within the prison library) can use the library management system, but can’t access any information on patrons within the public library network. Similarly, only very basic information – surname, current cell and prisoner number – is held on the library management system about the prison library’s customers.

Although I wasn’t aware that the two systems were so closely linked in my area, it appeared that this had a number of benefits – the library is able to provide access to a wide range of material, and there is continuity between the service provided within the prison and libraries within the local area.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I turned up at the prison gates, but I found the atmosphere within the prison to be calm and controlled, and the prisoners seemed to respect and value the service that the library offered.

I’m not sure that prison libraries are for me, but it’s not so bad in the clink.

Written by missrachelsmith

September 15, 2011 at 09:44

Service!

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(I watch far too many reality TV cooking programmes.)

I’ve been thinking about service levels and customer service quite a lot recently. I’ve always been passionate about good customer service – I began my working life on a bakery counter aged 15, and I learnt that being polite, friendly and informative in my approach to front-line services gave the customer a better experience and made doing the job a whole lot more worthwhile. Granted, there are differences between selling doughnuts and finding academic information, but in essence, the way I went about serving customers then is more or less exactly the same now I work in a library:

Rachel’s Golden Rules of Customer Service

–          Make eye contact

–          Smile

–          Greet your customer (I think the word ‘Hello’ makes the world go round)

–          If you can deliver on their request – that’s great.

–          If you can’t help, but someone else in the library can, make sure you pass your customer on to the correct colleague (make sure you know who knows what). And follow it up – did your colleague respond to the query? Or do you need to consult someone else?

–          If your service can’t meet a customer’s request, suggest an alternative. An example of this – as a library, we don’t buy used textbooks from students. But I know that the academic branch of Waterstones do, that some of the college libraries do, and that Purple Books, a website set up by some of our students, does. So I make sure I know about local services so that I can point my customers in the right direction.

–          It might seem obvious, but when a customer comes to make a comment or complaint, make sure you listen. And make tell your customer what you’re going to do in response to their feedback, and follow through on that.

–          Try to end the transaction on a positive note

–          Say thank you, and smile!

The only thing I’d add to this model, which sets information services apart from retail environments, is that working on a library service desk, try to assess what your customer needs, not necessarily what they want. Your customer might come to you wanting to find out how to access a particular article on their reading list. But they might need to know what an academic journal is, how to find these on the library catalogue, how to find their reading list online, how to find full-text e-journal articles… and you need to try and judge what level of information they need when they’re asking you for assistance.

And actually, I don’t think that good customer service is very difficult. I don’t stray far from my golden rules, even on a really bad day (and I’m having enough of them recently to safely say that). As a customer, that’s the level of service I expect to receive. And if I can do it, you can do it!

Written by missrachelsmith

July 5, 2011 at 17:37

Training and development

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If there’s one thing you should learn about me, it’s that I don’t really do easy. And I don’t think that CILIP Chartership is an easy qualification, which is probably why I’m really enjoying it. Working towards Chartership is making me think, it’s making me reflect on what I do, and it’s making me take responsibility for my personal development as an information professional.

My Chartership journey is also challenging me to have a go at things I never thought I’d do. I can now add the words ‘accredited customer service trainer’ to my list of professional achievements. Flashy, isn’t it? But not at all easy. I want to use this post to reflect on my journey to becoming a customer service trainer for the library and what I’m learning from it.

The journey begins

Improving the customer experience of the library service is a key part of the library’s strategic plan for the next five years. As an organisation, we’re exploring various ways of doing this, including looking into Customer Service Excellence status and ensuring that all staff members undergo customer service training. Providing a great level of service to my customers is something I see as a priority in my role, so when the opportunity came up to become a customer service trainer and deliver training courses to my colleagues, I threw my hat in the ring…

Train the trainer

I was excited to hear that my head of service had chosen to put me forward for training and assessment to become a customer service trainer, along with three other colleagues. I hastily scrambled together a training-focused version of my CV, and went along to a ‘train the trainer’ session. At the time, I sketched out my thoughts about the day in my Chartership art journal (please excuse rubbish phone camera images!):

On the left hand page, the trainer, ‘Deborah’, discusses great and awful customer service, surrounded by the training materials we’d be using. I felt that there was a lot of information hurled at us during the 5 hour course, after which we would be left to deliver customer service training sessions to our colleagues. My confusion about conveying the course content is expressed on the right hand side of page one.

Page two, and it’s my turn. I’m in the spotlight, delivering the ‘Excellent Customer Service’ course to a faceless audience. And back in March, with the only training I was going to receive under my belt, I felt distinctly uneasy about that.

I didn’t feel that the train the trainer course was enough to thoroughly familiarise myself with the course materials, and actually, the course materials themselves weren’t all that relevant. The customer service training programme we’re providing was originally designed for the tourist industry – there are sections about increasing customer spending, the importance of tourism to the local and national economy, and so on. My workplace, a university library, doesn’t operate in the arena of tourism. We are not a commercial business. So there was a lot of preparatory work to be done between the trainer briefing and the first sessions, which were arranged for June, to ensure that the training we were going to deliver would be useful.

Be prepared

I met with the other three in-house trainers to organise the administration of the sessions and plan how we were going to deliver the training. It was decided that we would split down the day-long course into two half-day sessions. Two of my colleagues took the first half of the course, and I worked with another member of the academic liaison team to deliver the second session, which included providing information to customers, meeting specific needs and handling complaints.

What were the big challenges for me? Well, I actually found getting to grips with content I hadn’t written quite difficult. Normally, if I give a presentation or deliver a session, I’ve put the content and activities together. And I think that’s the way I learn and remember things – by creating and doing. It was important for me to look at the course content in quite some depth to really understand what I was trying to get across, and what I was asking the course participants to do.

Something that I’ve definitely taken from the experience is the importance of communicating with my colleagues. There were a lot of emails going back and forth between the trainers about what arrangements had been made, issues arising and adapting the course content. When I tailored activities to make them more relevant, or added in new slides to illustrate a point, I had to ensure that I kept my colleagues up to date and explained the rationale behind the changes I was making. Keeping up with the correspondence amidst one of my busiest periods in the academic year (the exam term, Library 24/7 and the start of the redevelopment work at the main library) was tricky, and next time round, I’d hope to improve on this.

And the session itself?

I’m never very good at accepting compliments, but the feedback from participants was positive. A number of participants highlighted the second session, and some of the sections that I led, as the parts they found most valuable about the course.

In terms of how I felt about the session; the course participants were a really nice bunch of people and were generally enthusiastic about thinking and talking about customer service. The session was quite relaxed – we presented sitting down, and there were lots of opportunities for discussion. I had been quite nervous about leading the training session, even with one of my colleagues by my side, and the participants’ attitude and the general atmosphere definitely made me feel more confident.

Next time…

We’ll be running a second set of sessions over the summer, and next time I’ll be concentrating on the first section that I’m presenting, which I feel was the weakest part of the material I delivered. This was partly due to ‘start of the training session’ nerves and also because I had spent less time looking at this section. We also slightly overran the three hours we’d allowed for the session, so my colleague and I also need to think about timings and whether we need to cover less material, or cut one or two activities.

Providing customer service training courses to my colleagues has also been an important training and development activity for me. I’m directly contributing to a key aspect of my organisation’s strategic goals, my increased knowledge of customer service is feeding back into my front-line duties, and on a personal level, it’s been a great opportunity for me to develop my communications skills in a range of ways.

So not easy, but I don’t do things because they’re easy.

Written by missrachelsmith

June 29, 2011 at 16:08