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customer service mind, beginner’s mind

Thanks to Linda Braun, Louise Berry, Alan Gray and probably a few other people, the first thing I read this morning was an article on Amazon’s surprisingly wonderful customer service. The author relates his Christmas tale of a stolen Amazon package containing a Playstation for his son, his desperate call to Amazon and Amazon’s Christmas Eve delivery of a miracle game console.

This is the stuff customer service legends are made of. Nordstrom’s returns department taking back tires, Danny Meyer’s maître d’ racing to a diner’s apartment to rescue a certain-to-explode anniversary bottle of champagne from the freezer and leaving behind caviar, chocolates and a pile of goodwill. Amazon is in good company with this holiday tale of woe turned wonderful.

Great story, but it was just the hook. Amazon’s setting Wall Street on fire, which investor-types attribute to everything but their service philosophy:

But I couldn’t help wondering if maybe there wasn’t something else at play here, something Wall Street never seems to take very seriously. Maybe, just maybe, taking care of customers is something worth doing when you are trying to create a lasting company. Maybe, in fact, it’s the best way to build a real business — even if it comes at the expense of short-term results.

Libraries don’t have to worry about profit, Wall Street or investor expectations, but do we also fall victim to this sort of reasoning? It’s so easy to fall into the pigeon poop trap- Daniel Gilbert notes in Stumbling on Happiness that we easily remember all the times we were hit by pigeons flying overhead, but not the multitude of overhead pigeons that passed without incident and formulate pigeon conspiracy theories based on bad statistics. Do we focus on all the terrible patron encounters we’ve had, rather than the average or good moments? How about the patron interactions we’re not having? What does that do to customer service?

Are we really going to rescue libraries from the tragedy of the commons by aggravating our communities? There are alway going to be people who take advantage, who steal books, trash the bathroom, argue over damaged materials and generally act badly. We can’t run our libraries based on the actions of the horrendously selfish.

Kevin Gamble posted recently about respecting the perspective of the beginner. His post is largely about the authorship of textbooks, but he adds:

This is all about respecting learners. Being open to the idea that everyone has something to contribute.

You know what is best about this model? It flat scales. There are no boundaries to what can be accomplished when you turn people loose.

Almost everyone who walks through our doors is a library beginner. Even the people that we see every day don’t know the depth and breadth of content and service the library has to offer. Libraries work from our perspective, one that is not only expert, but also occasionally overwhelmed with pigeon poop.

Individually and collectively, we can regain a beginner’s mind when we look at our libraries. Remembering how confusing a new place can be is a good place to start, but what about policies, procedures and rules? How about the monologues you find yourself giving on a nearly daily basis? The “this is how it works” soliloquies? Some of those explanations are not ours to control (we are not in charge of the bathrooms and have no say in their lack of paper towels; we can, however, give you the phone number of the public buildings department and you can ask them to provide paper towels in the public bathrooms) but many are (yes, you can opt-in to save your history of checked-out books).

Beginner’s mind is hard (people meditate for decades to get back to where they were when they were five). It might help to talk to some beginners. Not the cranky regular who complains about everything and wants the entire library to be run according to his or her personal needs and quirks, but to the people who pass right through, barely blipping our radar. How do they think it should work? What makes sense to them? What about their friends (especially the friends who never use the library)? What do they think?

Do the small things, plan for the big things. Then check back with that cranky regular- she has some great ideas, once you get past the pigeon poop.


9 comments for “customer service mind, beginner’s mind”

  1. Great post Kate. Good to keep our “beginner’s mind” close to hand. For me it’s not hard – I have beginner’s moments almost every day! I always remember how incredibly confused I was in my college library until a librarian showed me the ropes and opened my world. And how I wanted to scream the first time I had to use a mouse. Experiences that are ‘beginners mind’ touchstones for me.

    Another quote from Bezos in that NYT article struck me: “We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them.” Sounds like libraries to me, or hopefully what we strive to be.

    Oh, and thanks for the reminder not to dwell on the pigeon poop. :-) Time to toss out my sunhat and let the poop fall where it may… ??

    Posted by pollyalida | January 5, 2008, 10:37 pm
  2. Thanks, Polly!

    Maybe Bezos was secretly a librarian before being a gazillionaire? He sure sounds like he has our number!

    I remember that college librarian, too! And the first time I saw Yahoo, when it had a fraction of the content and no ads. Can you imagine encountering the Internet for the first time now?

    There’s some sort of scatological meme to be had here, but I’m not sure I want to start it!

    Posted by kate | January 6, 2008, 10:56 am
  3. Great article.

    Your readers might want to try http://www.Measuredup.com a leading customer service review website where people share reviews with other users and with companies. Companies that are involved with and value customer service read Measuredup to keep up on what people are saying and to be able to improve customer service.

    It is free and easy to use.

    Posted by Marc | January 7, 2008, 12:37 pm
  4. First, thanks for submitting my post on info lit to the Carnival :-).

    Second, Great post! Coincidentally, I’ve been drafting a similar post on the value of beginner mind. Is it kind of a New Year vibe (new beginnings, fresh starts, etc.), or just a simple case of great minds thinking alike? 😉

    If I get it in gear and finish my post I’ll leave a trackback. All the best,


    Posted by Pete Bromberg | January 7, 2008, 2:24 pm
  5. Thanks for writing your info lit post, Pete!

    I think the New Year vibe helps. I find that transitions (like, say, a new job) remind me how it feels to be walking in the door with fresh eyes.

    Can’t wait for your post!

    Posted by kate | January 7, 2008, 9:48 pm
  6. […] folks to step back and look at how they’re running their libraries. Are we creating policies only with our most difficult users in mind? Are we forcing our patrons to jump through our hoops without considering their perspective? Are we […]

    Posted by » Sam’s club? Loose Cannon Librarian | January 29, 2008, 5:17 pm
  7. […] written here before about listening to “difficult” users and trying not to hoard pigeon poop. Plenty of our patrons still walk through our doors expecting buns, shushing and hostility. People […]

    Posted by Loose Cannon Librarian » Nice library, jerk! | May 11, 2008, 10:35 am
  8. […] Libraries, new employees | [14] Comments  Kate Sheehan had a wonderful post a week or so ago, Customer Service Mind, Beginner Mind, in which she writes about the value of looking at things with a fresh eye. It reminded me that […]

    Posted by Ten Questions to Ask Every New Employee « Library Garden | August 29, 2009, 8:33 am
  9. […] new employees | [14] Comments  Kate Sheehan had a wonderful post a week or so ago, Customer Service Mind, Beginner Mind, in which she writes about the value of looking at things with a fresh eye. It reminded me that […]

    Posted by Ten Questions to Ask Every New Employee « Library Garden | August 29, 2009, 8:33 am

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