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Library Chief Customer Officer: A Title Ahead of Its Time

by | May 15, 2024 | 2 comments

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By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

Just writing about library customers as a possible alternative to all those other terminologies we use (think users, readers, patrons, clients, community members, guests, etc.) is enough to elicit a vitriolic response from librarians – especially academic librarians. I know this because any of my prior writings about it have not gone well. That’s all right. If you think something is worth writing about, keep trying to get better at how you present and express your ideas. Hearing what your critics say can help you better shape your message…and you might just change some minds.

While I’m not eligible to attend Library Journal’s Director’s Summit events because it’s only for public library directors, I find it illuminating to visit the site to see what’s being discussed and who’s invited to speak. What caught my eye in the fall 2023 lineup was a speaker with the job title “Chief Customer Officer” (CCO). I imagine there are more than a few of those in the corporate world, but I was unable to recall ever seeing this in a library setting. I was curious and inspired to learn more.

At conference sessions, in the literature and on their websites, public librarians are more at ease with referring to the people who use their libraries as customers. As a result, in the public sphere, there are more job titles that incorporate “customer” in some capacity. The primary case made for why academic librarians find “customer” a problematic way to refer to their constituents is that students, faculty and researchers do not exchange money for a service or product, though you could debate how to interpret student tuition payments. These individuals are learners or educators. Referring to them as “customer” implies a misunderstanding of the relationship. All good points. 

Nor are all public librarians accepting of the customer concept. They make the case that community members have a stake in and can play a role in determining what their local library offers. In this view, library users are not consumers conducting the type of simple, forgettable one-way transactions they perform in retail establishments. Rather, they are members who contribute to the advancement of library service in their communities. No doubt we all know those individuals who not just fit but exemplify the community member persona. However, this view may oversimplify the impact of customer and user experience research on library adoption of customer-oriented practices and mindsets. 

Many academic and public libraries employ User Experience (UX) Librarians. Why would they bother unless they cared about the quality of the library experience to the point of adopting methods shaped by customer service research and practices in the retail and service world? Those libraries are clearly seeking to establish a relationship with their students and faculty that goes beyond learning and research – and it may present a better way to achieve educational objectives. Let’s also acknowledge that many people go to their public or academic library solely for the purpose of conducting a simple, one-way transaction. They just want to borrow a book, use a study space or make a café purchase. They have no interest in being a member of a community which for them is mostly intangible.

By adopting a customer experience mindset, many libraries do seek to go beyond transactional experiences to specialized, unique or personalized experiences. The end goal is to convert the person who feels nothing special about their library into someone who, if not passionate, feels emotionally connected to the facility or those who work there..like, say, someone who belongs to a community of like-minded individuals. We do that by differentiating the library from all other sources where information is readily available. The customer mindset need not be mutually exclusive with the academic librarian’s student/learner mindset.

What does it look like to venture further down the customer mindset path? One possibility is to learn from the experience of a library that is going there. The Richland Public Library (RPL) is an exemplar in the world of building customer relationships. Evidence of their commitment to it is to designate a member of the administrative team as Chief Customer Officer. 

Wanting to learn more about what’s behind such a unique library worker title, I reached out to Georgia Coleman, previously the library’s Chief Customer Officer and currently the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the Richland Public Library (RPL).   Coleman has worked at RPL since 2007, and describes herself as a public services leader who uses a more human-centered, customer-focused lens to library operations. Here I share our interview conducted by email.

Thank you, Georgia, for your willingness to respond to my interview questions. Can you first tell me a bit about RPL?

GC: Richland Library is located in Columbia, SC, where our thirteen locations serve a population of about 400,000 county residents. In 2012, voters approved a $59 million bond to renovate each of our locations, allowing us to infuse a “Library as Studio” vision into our spaces and services. Richland Library highlights include: a vast collection of print materials and e-resources, maker spaces throughout the system, a fiber arts studio, an industrial maker space, a teaching kitchen, a print studio, a recording studio and a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion – particularly through our Let’s Talk Race initiative. Our mission is to help our customers learn, create and share.

Owing to the addition of new responsibilities to your position, you have a new title, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at RPL, but let’s start with how your original title, Chief Customer Office (CCO) came about. What is its origin?

GC: By the time our Executive Director, Melanie Huggins, created the Chief Customer Officer Role in 2017, we had been learning about human-centered design and customer experience for nearly five years. Because of our deep interest in creating an outstanding customer experience (a term used across industries to describe the interactions users have with an organization through all stages of their journeys), it was natural to re-imagine an existing executive-level role to lead public services using a more human-centered, customer-focused lens. As Chief Customer Officer, I was responsible for customer service and experience across our thirteen locations, including all frontline staff – and, eventually, library collections and programs, as well.

As CCO, what sort of staff training did you employ to create a customer experience culture throughout your organization?

GC: Our brand promises guide all of our customer interactions – both with internal and external customers – and are the basis for learning opportunities related to customer experience. We have an amazing Learning Engagement Department that facilitates many in-house trainings, like, “Keeping Each Other Safe,” “Library Programming 101,” and “Spotlight on Research + Readers’ Advisory.” Human-centered design workshops and boot camps also help us keep the focus on customer experience and ensure that it’s integrated into every aspect of our work.

Public librarians increasingly refer to their community members as customers. Can you speak to the benefits of referring to the people who use your libraries as customers? What are potential benefits or pitfalls?

GC: I think this is a question that matters much more to us as librarians than it does to our users! Whatever we call them, our goal is to treat our users with kindness and care as we welcome them to the library and offer helpful, engaging experiences. At Richland Library, for most of our history, we called our users patrons. When we began to learn more about human-centered design and started to double-down on a customer-experience approach, we shifted to using the more broadly understood term, customers.

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate one possible pitfall of referring to library customers as patrons: In college, way before I ever imagined becoming a librarian, I needed to access a document in the academic library’s annex, where I’d never been before. I drove there and struggled to find parking. All I could see were two spots labeled “PATRONS ONLY.” I didn’t consider myself a patron. I was just a lowly undergrad and, to me, a patron seemed like some sort of official donor or supporter – so I drove around in circles, not knowing I could have parked in those spots! I definitely didn’t see myself in the term patron, and I wonder if others do.

While “customer” may not be the perfect term, I do think it’s more recognizable to most people than “patron” (which, again, seems so formal and sponsor-related) or user (which seems sort of transactional and distant). 

Does that help or hinder your staff, particularly those who think “customers” is inappropriate?

GC: We’ve been using the term “customer” for so long that I’m not sure even staff who feel it’s not the best word are hindered by it at this point. Public libraries are one of the only spaces left where people can just BE, without having to buy anything or pay a fee. It might seem counterintuitive to librarians, but this is actually one of the reasons I like calling people customers. They aren’t our customers because money is changing hands in the library. They’re our customers because we serve them, we provide them with access to all kinds of information and materials, we care deeply about their experiences with us, and we’re invested in having them return. Sounds like a customer relationship to me – even if it seems “free” to the customer!

Is it the case that your library, in communications with your users, directly refers to them as “customer” (e.g., “Dear Library Customer”; “We invite our library customers to attend…”)? Or is “customer” entirely or mostly a way that staff refers to those who use your libraries?

GC: We refer to our users as customers both internally and externally. For instance, we have a policy called, “Confidentiality of Customer Records,” and we have signs that say “Customer Parking.” It’s the universal way that we refer to those we serve. Of course, depending on the context, we might also talk about community members, stakeholders, partners, etc. – but our primary term is the word customer.

How would you respond to a librarian who is adamant that those who use libraries are not customers and we do them a disservice when we refer to them as such?

GC: I would ask them to tell me more about their thoughts, and I certainly respect and understand that the term customer may not be the best fit for every library. I think, though, our users don’t actually care much what we call them as long as we’re providing them with meaningful access and services. For us, “customer” is just a convenient, easily-recognizable shorthand for “person we serve and care about.”

Looking ahead a few years, do you see more public libraries adding a Chief Customer Officer or some position that is specific to managing customer relations? Do you get inquiries from other libraries about RPL’s customer-experience mindset?

GC: We’ve received questions from other public libraries about the Chief Customer Officer role, and I believe several have begun using that title. I could see the next trend leaning more towards a CXO role (Chief Experience Officer), which is becoming more common across industries and could encompass the virtual customer services that libraries offer, as well.

Has RPL decided to forever abandon the CCO title or does that responsibility carry on with another administrative staff member?

GC: For now, my role as Chief Customer Officer has transformed. In addition to being responsible for customer experience, frontline staff, library collections and programs, I also have oversight of facilities, IT, security, strategic planning and project management. With the expanded scope, my title has transitioned to Chief Operating Officer – BUT that doesn’t mean that customer experience isn’t top of mind at all times! Using a human-centered design lens, we seek to integrate all library departments, processes, and systems into a customer-centric approach, so I still get to focus on our customers regardless of my title.

At Richland Library, customer experience isn’t the responsibility of a single person. Everyone – from our maintenance staff who keep our outdoor spaces looking inviting, to our shelvers who ensure our collections are beautifully-presented, to our HR team members who help us recruit and retain customer-focused staff – we each play a vital role in creating the customer experience. Our Directors of Library Experience, who report directly to me, are responsible for our frontline staff, programs, and events, so they are closest to the everyday experience, but customer experience remains the most important part of my role.

What recommendations do you have for librarians that would like to engage their colleagues in a discussion about the value in choosing “library customer” over other terms such as user, patron or client or community member?

GC: I would recommend starting with the why. What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve? I’d also recommend looking outside the library – to the community you serve, to what resonates with users, and to what other industries are doing. There might not be (and probably isn’t!) a perfect term to describe library users in every single library. Word choice is very much related to library and community culture. 

Maybe we need a new word altogether? I’d love to hear those ideas!

I want to thank Georgia Colman for consenting to this interview. Will Georgia’s insights open more librarians to adopting, or at least accepting, the library customer mindset? I’m hesitant to count on that happening, but I like to think it might. 

My big takeaway from Georgia is that thinking of those who use our services and resources as our customers, or as Georgia puts it, the people “we care deeply about their experiences with us, and we’re invested in having them return”, need not diminish our professional commitment to how we fulfill their education and research needs. We should recognize that the people who use our libraries will appreciate an experience that meets or exceeds the customer experience they are experiencing elsewhere.

Here’s a thought. Refer to those who use your library with whatever terminology you are most comfortable. But as you do, consider committing to a customer-experience mindset. One approach is to base customer engagement on five basic qualities of what your students, faculty, alumni and non-affiliated community members expect in a high-quality customer experience. They are:

Engagement: Be polite, caring and genuinely interested in listening and helping.

Executional Excellence: Outstanding knowledge of products/programs and ability to explain or educate others about them.

Brand Experience: Appealing design and atmosphere making customers feel they are special.

Expediting:  Be sensitive to customers’ time constraints. No need to rush but be attentive.

Problem Recovery: Resolve problems fast and efficiently to create a positive library experience. 

Most public and academic librarians, I suspect, support offering a robust customer service culture in their organizations. We may find the term customer inappropriate, but we do accept the importance of offering great customer service. One problem is associating customer service only with those performing frontline public services duties. If your library desires to cultivate a culture of customer service, as Shep Hyken states in this article, it must be designed into every library touchpoint:

Customer service is not a department. It’s a philosophy that everyone in an organization must embrace. It’s the same with customer experience (CX), which most people view as a strategy. However, both customer service and experience must be rooted in a company’s culture. Everyone plays a part in the customer’s experience, regardless of how deep they are inside of the organization.

Did a student email you for a consultation after your instruction session? Expedite your response back to that student. A faculty member reports to resource sharing staff that their interlibrary loan book is the wrong one. Make problem recovery a top priority in correcting the situation. Does that first-year student insist perplexity.ai is all the search they need? Demonstrate how your library brand experience is designed to tailor discovery and full-text access to their assignments. Is your chat customer stressed and panicked over not knowing where to start their research paper? Make it an opportunity for customer engagement. Assisting the doctoral student making their initial attempt at setting up citation management software? A perfect opportunity to demonstrate your executional excellence.

When it comes to students and faculty in academic libraries, and the experience we want them to have, it is entirely possible to hold two different mindsets at the same time. When we work with students or faculty in the learning and research spheres they are more like our clients or partners; their needs differ from a customer expecting good service. What they want expertise, education and support. 

When they connect with us at any library service touchpoint, they do so as a customer of our services. Though librarians offer opportunities for deep learning and the development of quality research skills, not every student may want or need that. They might just want library stuff to work, be convenient and get fast, painless resolutions when they have a problem. Treat them like they’re the most important person you know. 

The ability to keep these two distinctions – learner and customer – separate in your mind is a practice worthy of consideration.

2 Comments

  1. Leah Hinds

    Testing – are blog comments working?

    Reply
    • StevenB

      yes…comments appear to be working

      Reply

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