Creating a customer focused environment in the academic sector

I went on a CILIP training course last week, the title of which is above. The main objectives of the course were as follows:

  • To understand what outstanding customer service is and why it is important
  • To understand and predict customer needs
  • To create a plan to involve customers
  • To learn how to communicate effectively with different types of customers (including more challenging ones)
  • To learn how to measure customer satisfaction using different methods
  • To learn the methodology of writing and conducting questionnaires
  • To have an action plan to take away and implement

We began by thinking about what a customer focused environment is, and why it is important. I found the reasons why it’s important quite interesting: of course it is a “defensive necessity” – to keep customers and win new ones, but it is also a motivator for staff. As the course notes quote “If you know you are adding value you feel valued yourself”. I think this is an important point, and one that is quite relevant to what is going on in the library I work in at the moment. Library staff are trying their best to provide good customer service but aren’t able to do so due to circumstances outside of their control. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but this is making me feel useless, bad at my job and undervalued.

We thought about and discussed good and bad experiences of customer services. On our table, Argos was held up as an appalling example of customer service and Amazon are very good, apparently.

We went on to assess how customer focused we feel our organisations are at the moment, using the six basic customer needs as our criteria. These are:

  • Friendliness
  • Understanding and empathy
  • Fairness
  • Control (as in whether the customer feels they have some degree of control over what happens to them)
  • Options and alternatives
  • Information

I think the library is good at some of these but quite bad at others! Again, part of the reason we’re (front line/Reader Services) bad at providing some of these things is due to reasons outside of our control. We had to give ourselves marks out of ten for each criteria. I had the thought that the scores would differ if you looked at what people (especially library managers) think we’re good at and then looked at the reality of what happens on a day to day basis.

Coffee time, then we thought about one particular group of customers, or a particular customer, that we might come into contact with and tried to put ourselves in their shoes to think about what they might want or need from the library. I decided to try and think about what it might be like to be a Sports Science student. It was quite difficult! In the end, I thought that the main thing would be that the student would need to realise that the library is relevant to him (sorry, I was being stereotypical) and so the library would need to find ways of making itself relevant, accessible and unpatronising.

We then thought as a group about a different group of potential customers and what we thought they would most need their “service providers to be and give”. Our table thought about academics and decided that the top six things that academics might want were for us to be accurate, flexible, knowledgeable, professional timely and well-stocked (in no particular order). I know this latter is rather ironic in light of the stock management policy, but perhaps we’d better not go there. We then thought about how well these customer needs are currently being fulfilled and what services we could provide to fulfill these needs. We didn’t really get very far with our thoughts, although it occurred to me that it’s important not to pander to the ‘needs’ of one group of customers if that could result in a detrimental effect on another group.

Then it was lunch time, after which we looked at different models of communication style and how we could use these to improve our communication with different types of customers. Apparently, I have an analytical communication style – I am less assertive and less responsive. Responsiveness “relates to how much or how little you show your own emotions or demonstrate awareness of the feelings of others”. The other styles are:

  • Driver (more assertive, less responsive)
  • Amiable (less assertive, more responsive)
  • Expressive (more assertive, more responsive)

The purpose of this was to think about ways in which we could adapt our communication style when dealing with customers we might find difficult to deal with. I thought of some things I could do, but these things are always easier said than done.

More coffee, and then we moved on to looking at ways of measuring customer satisfaction. We briefly examined different types of surveying (random customer survey, staff attitude survey, target customer or customer type survey, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, mystery shopping) and then learned about how to create an effective survey. The most important thing to remember when creating a survey is that you need to define your research objectives. This is more complicated than it might first appear, when you start thinking about it.

The last thing we did was to create an “action plan” to take back to our workplaces. I found this quite difficult, mainly because I don’t think I have the power to change very much in the library. If I did, I would want to try and look at how we can give more equity of service to students and staff, a lot of whom are not based on campus. Also relating to equity of service, one question that arose at the beginning of the day and never really got answered was ‘how do you deal with individual needs and still follow library policies and procedures?’ Needless to say, I didn’t create much of an action plan. That’s the problem with all courses, I find. They’re very interesting and potentially useful, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever implemented anything I’ve learnt on a course into my day-to-day work, unless I’ve done it subconsciously. I shouldn’t have said that, should I?

P.S. I’m sorry if anyone doesn’t like using the word “customers” when referring to library users. I don’t really like it either, but it was the word that was (unsurprisingly) used in the training. I came back to work and used to word “customers” about three times in one email. Aggh!


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