I bet you’ve been part of a discussion at some point about the use of the word customer. It’s happened to me several times in my nearly six years at my library, including this week.

There are a lot of word choices for libraries to use when referring to the public: Patrons, cardholders, residents, visitors, users, borrowers, and customers.

Library staff like to be accurate. They strive to be inclusive. They want to use the best term to describe the people they work with on a daily basis.

I think that’s totally fair. And it’s good to have conversations about the words we use! But when we have these conversations, the word customer causes the most angst for library staff. And I don’t understand why. I’ve turned this over and over in my head and I still don’t get it.

And today, I’m going to take a hard stand on this one. It’s okay to refer to the public as customers. Here’s why I keep coming back to this conclusion.

In order to remain relevant and competitive, libraries must start thinking about the public in terms of the way the institution and its pieces are set up to serve the public. We need to shift the focus of our jargon from thinking about our staff and services and how we present them to the public. We need to focus on how the public views us.

In marketing, customers are generally thought of as people who buy a product or service. Clearly, most of the things the library has to offer to the public are free. Most people do not make purchases at the library.

But a customer can be more than that. A customer is a person who uses the library to do something that might cost them monetarily at another institution. The fact that we don’t charge for most of our services does not mean the people we serve are not customers. They’re customers who get our stuff for (mostly) free!

Too many times, I’ve been in meetings where a new service or product is being discussed. And in all honestly, the setup usually centers around making that product or service easy for the staff to implement and use. We don’t focus enough on the customer experience… the way in which the public interacts with us. We don’t focus enough on making it easy to use the library.

Shifting our focus to customer service and customer experience will help us compete in the marketplace. Using the word customer to describe the public changes the way the library and its staff think about the public.

Tyler Bryd, host of the Library Figures Podcast  does a great job of explaining this concept on a recent episode. He points out that most of our libraries offer eBooks and eAudiobooks using a vendor like Overdrive or Hoopla.

Using those vendors is, frankly, a pain in the ass for many people–myself included. You have to download an app–not the library’s app but one that’s branded to the vendor, like Libby for Overdrive. Then you have to set up an account that’s totally separate from your library account. You can’t put digital offerings on hold using your library’s catalog. You have to go to the vendors site and put items on hold in a completely separate area. Only after you have jumped through all of these steps can you download an eBook or eAudiobook.

No wonder people don’t use the library for digital offerings. It’s so damn hard! It’s not a good customer experience. If libraries were focused on the customer experience, we would all band together and demand that vendors integrate fully into our catalog and app. We would insist that they brand their sites with our library’s brand. We would demand they put the customer experience first.

Not everyone can donate to our organization, so they can’t all be patrons. Not everyone who uses us has a library card, so they can’t all be cardholders.  Not everyone lives in our service area, so they’re not residents. Not everyone who walks through our doors actually borrows an item, so they can’t be called a borrower.  But everyone who touches our services and building and interacts with staff in any way can be described as a customer (or a visitor–I’m okay with visitor too!).

Customer is not a dirty word in library marketing. It’s an accurate representation of the public. We should let go of the notion that “customer” connotes something negative. It’s a positive! It helps us focus outwardly and provide the best experience possible for the public.

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