As I reflected on our Customer Observation Assignment in class last week, I gained a bit of hope. The majority of my interactions, were abysmal. With each successive establishment I visited, the communication became worse and worse. With a total of four supremely open and vague questions, I was asked none in return at the majority of locations. Then I found out that my cohort had had positive reactions; their was good service and competent people in the world!Once I got over my initial happiness, there were some very interesting patterns that emerged from the aggregate data. Where all but one of my interviews were marked by a lack of approachability and enthusiasm, others had nothing but approachable and enthusiastic staff assisting them. On my own, I would have told you that customer service is doomed. However, when you put those two experiences together an entirely different theme emerges. Together we could extrapolate that no matter the actual outcome (whether they accurately answered your question or not), approachability and enthusiasm (which we will simply call good service) created an open environment for discussion that left the user feeling helped and included.
When we aggregated the entire classes experiences through discussion, even more interesting patterns emerged. Not only did good service make the interactions more palatable and the patron more likely to return with questions, they also were more likely to lead to customized interactions. The difference between a cookie cutter response to a query and a customizable one being that in one situation a librarian will take your question and treat it like all other questions they had were asked today (regardless of if it is the same type of question or not), while another staff member will see you question as a unique entity that deserves its own set of follow up questions and procedures. If good service made the patron feel slightly included in the information seeking process, asking questions that specifically respond to their original one make them feel like a true partner in finding the answer to that question. The customization turns the librarian/staff and patron/user into partners. I would even suggest that it turns them into equal partners. The librarian has the knowledge held within the library to find the an answer, while the user has the information within themselves to find the accurate one.
When the discussion turned to our readings from that week, the question of what would be different in reference service if we got customer service right really seemed to figure at the center of all the aggregate data and emerging patterns. Where the purpose is to not simply answer a question, but to create a sense of collaboration and connection through good service and customization, there emerges a very special phenomenon. That phenomenon is wanting to ask a librarian before you ask Google. Or as our classmate so aptly put it – spending more money on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream when there is perfectly good and cheaper ice cream across the street at Walgreens. Or as Kuhlthau put it, being a wholesaler rather than a resaler of information. Then we ask ourselves, why aren’t reference librarians Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or wholesalers?
I would posit that reference librarians (and service providers in general) fail to see these aggregate phenomenon that we have in our classroom. Looking at each interaction on its own and asking how we can make each interaction better will not yield the right policies. If librarians do not sufficiently distinguish one interaction from another, they create an environment were a question is simply that, rather than an opportunity to meet with enthusiasm, customization and partnership. We don’t want to make just one interaction better, we want to create a community of interactions that are great. To do that we have to look at the aggregate experience. We have to see how developing a unique way of looking at each interaction can create partnership between the patron and staff, and ultimately yield a community dedicated to good service that makes all interactions better.