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Customer Is Not a Dirty Word! Why Libraries Should Shift Their Focus to Customer Experience to Stay Competitive and Relevant

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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The Best Thing You Can Do is Leave the Safety of Your Desk

I had an amazingly and scary experience this week.

My library is in the very first stages of comprehensive facilities plan. With money from a levy passed by our county voters in May, we’re going to renovate or rebuild ALL 41 library locations.

I’m trying hard not to not have a panic attack reading that sentence back to myself.

When complete, these projects will likely change the course of our library forever. As a first step in that massive undertaking, our board of trustees hired an architectural consulting firm to gather ideas and insight from our cardholders. As part of this opinion-gathering process, our library is holding community forums and structured question-and-answer meetings at each branch over the course of the next year. If you’re counting, that’s 80 plus chances for us to interact with the public and ask them directly what they want their library to be. MY GOSH, what a gift. Am I right? It’s a huge task but it’s also a huge opportunity!

I volunteered to work the forum boards during the first of our community meetings, and to help with logistics at the second one. Both opportunities gave me the chance to get out of my basement office and actually talk face to face with the people who receive, consume, and respond to my marketing messages. And it was amazing.

I’m serious. I learned all kinds of interesting stuff just from talking to people. I found out what they think about the layout of libraries, the frequency of email messages, the reasons they got a library card, their favorite parts of the collection, their impression of our staff, and their dreams for the services they want us to provide. It was gold mine of information.

Honestly, I’ve never actually done drugs, but I felt high was I left my first shift. I ran into one of my good friends who works as front-line staff and I gushed to her about how amazing it was to actually talk to people. She said, “Hey, you should just come hang out at the desk with me. People will tell you exactly what they think of our marketing if you ask them, and you’ll learn so much about our cardholders.”

And I realized in that moment, for all the research and thinking and strategic planning and data analysis that I do, I might be missing one of the most important aspects of library marketing–my cardholders. I *think* I know what they want and need. I’ve got survey results and conversion data and social media engagement statistics that tell me about the people our library serves. But, before last week, I cannot remember the last time I actually talked to a customer about the library.

That changes now.

I don’t really have to worry about forcing myself outside my comfort zone over the next year. All I must do is sign up to be a part of each of those community forums as they are scheduled. But after that, I’m going to have to make sure that I get out and talk to people. I have learned that direct interaction with customers is exceedingly valuable.

I hope you are better at this than I have been. Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “Duh, Angela.” If so, my hat goes off to you. I’m learning this lesson late. But I thought it was important to share it with you.

Don’t be a dummy like me and stay locked in your basement office, separated from your cardholders. Get out of your comfort zone and talk to your cardholders. Set up a regular calendar reminder and spend an hour with your front-line staff. You could just observe. Or you could ask questions. You’ll learn so much. You’ll make the cardholders feel valued. And you’ll be demonstrating your commitment to customers to your fellow staff members. You can’t be any more engaged than that!

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, click on “Follow” button in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Connect with me on Twitter, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. I talk about library marketing on all those platforms!

Six Tips to Make Sure Your Library Does Remarkable Customer Service

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Your job as a library marketer is to ensure good customer service. If you don’t believe me, read this blog by Jay Baer. He makes a clear case for why good customer service is crucial to the long-term success of any organization. I also recommend the Focus on Customer Service podcast. It features marketers at top companies, who talk about the essential connection between customer service and marketing.

These one-on-one interactions with the customer are crucial marketing moments. Don’t take your customers for granted. Help them solve their problems–even when the problem is your library–and keep them loyal for a lifetime.

This connection between marketing and customer service was clearly demonstrated to me in a personal way when I found myself on the customer side of bad customer service. Maybe labeling my recent interaction with the U.S. Postal Service as a “bad service” is pushing it a bit. I didn’t lose any mail. No one died. But the encounter left me scratching my head–how could a business or agency unapologetically make so many mistakes? The encounter made me feel like my voice didn’t matter. And you never want to leave a customer feeling like that.

Here’s what happened and what I learned from it.

I went to the main post office at about 5:30 p.m.,  to drop off some letters. I knew the building would be closed but the drive-thru mail boxes are picked up every two hours until 9 p.m.

When I pulled into the drive thru, all three boxes were overflowing with mail–literally. There were also bins full of mail piled on top of and around the boxes.  I wish I had thought to take a photo!! It was kind of amazing.

I could not fit my letters into the boxes. I started to worry about security. It would have been  easy for someone to steal the mail. The boxes weren’t scheduled to be cleared until 7 p.m. I have no idea what was inside those hundreds of envelopes and I realize it wouldn’t have been my fault if they were stolen–but I could not sit back and do nothing.

So I decided to call the post office. I figured someone must be inside the building somewhere. Even if all I could do was leave a message, surely someone would hear it and come collect the mail early. I used Google to find the number and dialed. The phone picked up–and I heard this message.

“You have reached a non-working number for the U. S. Postal Service. Please check your number and try again.”

Lesson #1: Keep your information updated on Google. Check to make sure addresses, phone numbers, and websites for all locations are up to date and accurate.

I decided to call the main 1-800 number for the postal service. I thought maybe they could send a message to this specific location.  I Googled the number and dialed. This time, I had to listen to a recording about severe blizzard conditions in the Northeast and their effect on the mail. This emergency message lasted one minute and three seconds (I know because I took the phone away from my ear when it was finished to see how long I’d been on the call!)

Lesson #2: If you have a special alert about service issues for a portion of your customers, make your message short and simple. Give customers an option to go elsewhere to learn more about the alert. 

Next I navigated a complicated directory designed to route my call to the appropriate department based on my problem. But there was no option that came close to matching my issue. In fact, the list of choices was quite short. It left me feeling like the post office was deliberately trying to make it difficult for customers to register a complaint or concern. When I finally got past the irrelevant questions, I was transferred to a line of waiting phone customers. The wait, I was told, was 30 minutes to two hours.

Lesson #3: Make it easy for customers to register complaints and concerns with you–in whatever form they choose to contact you. The customer is taking time out of their day and their information could potentially help you to improve service.  Don’t make them jump through hurdles of burning fire and dodge dragons to give you a heads up about a problem.

Unwilling to wait two hours, I decided to turn to social media. I sent a Tweet to two USPS accounts, @USPS, the official Twitter account of the United States Postal Service, managed by the PR staff at USPS HQ, and @USPSHelp, which is for customer service.

I should have noticed a problem right away.


They’re not manned 24 hours a day. And apparently, they don’t use the account to actually answer problems–at least not in public.

I tweeted the accounts around 5:45 p.m. that night… and again an hour later.


And… I never received a reply. Never. Not the next day, not a week later… never.

Lesson #4: Man your social media accounts as much as possible. Answer ALL complaints in public, even if the message is just “We’re sorry you are experiencing this problem. Can we send you a private message for more information so we can help?” And do it in a timely manner. Try to respond within one hour of the post but certainly within 24 hours. Don’t ever, ever ignore complains on social media.

FInally, I decided to email the post office.  Then I went to bed and hoped for the best for that abandoned mail.

One week later, I received a voicemail on my cell phone.  It was from a postal worker.  He said that he had received my email, had forwarded it on to the person at the appropriate postal location, and thanked me for looking out for the agency.

Lesson #5: Personal contact is always best. It makes the customer feel special.

Later that day, I received a detailed and very well-written survey asking for feedback on my experience.

Lesson #6: Ask customers for feedback on their experience and use that data to improve customer service.

All six of these lessons are easy to implement, inexpensive, and essential. Libraries should review their customer service, by phone, text, email, and in-person, at least once a year to evaluate and improve. And marketing departments should certainly be at the center of any customer service improvements. There is no better way to market your library than to give someone a fabulous experience!

Are you interested in writing a guest article for this blog or do you know someone whose insight would be helpful to my readers? Leave a message in the comments or email me at  

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, click on “Follow” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Connect with me on Twitter and Snapchat–it’s where I talk about library marketing! I’m @Webmastergirl. I’m also on LinkedIn, Slideshare,  Instagram and Pinterest. Views in this post are my own and do not represent those of my employer.




Facebook Rewards Libraries For Responding to Customer Messages


Library social media teams may have returned to work to find a new feature on Facebook: an icon that identifies their page as responsive to comments.  Facebook launched the “responsiveness” rating a few days ago and it’s important for libraries to take note of it and work to make their pages as responsive as possible. Why? Because customer interaction is essential to library marketing.

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Your page will show the new green icon just below your profile photo if you meet the following criteria:

* You respond to 90 percent of messages from customers.

* You keep a median response time of 5 minutes for each message.

When your page earns the icon, it’s visible to everyone, even visitors. It’s not as hard to earn as it sounds. Our library system is big, serving nearly 600,000 cardholders and we post 3-4 times a day on Facebook. We have one full-time staff member dedicated to social media but his job also includes video production and other marketing tasks, and he occasionally takes vacation so I do his job while he’s away.  And I can tell you from personal experience that the number of messages we receive and respond to in a day is not excessive–maybe 4-5 messages on a really busy day. I might check our Facebook page once on weekends–and yet we earned the icon. So it’s doable, even for small libraries.

And moreover, I think your library should strive to earn the responsiveness icon because it shows you care about your customers, working to give them the best customer experience possible. Message responsiveness on Facebook only takes a few minutes of your time each day. Your page is like a customer service desk and it may be the first interaction many cardholders have with a library staff member.

There’s also a niggling thought in the back of my mind that somehow the Facebook algorithm will give more weight to responsive pages. I haven’t found evidence of that yet, but I’m pretty sure there’s a reason they’re making these badges a part of their design. So that’s a great reason to work on responsiveness!

If you haven’t yet earned the icon,  your page administrators will still see the icon below the page’s cover photo. The results of your responsiveness rating will help you gauge how close you are to earning the badge.

If your page does not allow people to contact it, you will not get a responsiveness icon. But really, every library page should allow customers and visitors to send messages. There’s no good reason to limit your interactions with customers.

Wouldn’t it be great if every library earned the responsiveness icon? I did a quick check of some of the major  corporate brands and I couldn’t find any of them with the icon. This is an area where we can–and should–beat our for-profit competitors!

Does your library work respond to comments and messages on Facebook? Share tips for other libraries in the comments section and, if you’ve got the responsiveness icon on your library page, let us know!

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Connect with me on Twitter. I’m @Webmastergirl. I’m also on LinkedIn,  Instagram and Pinterest.

Views in this post are my own and do not represent those of my employer.


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