Blogger Renee Grassi

Empathy and Inclusive Customer Service

I am often asked, “What does inclusive customer service mean?”

To me, it’s about providing the same high level of service to everyone regardless of who that person is or what their abilities might be.  And there’s one component that’s key in practicing inclusive customer service.  Empathy.

Empathy is not a switch you simply turn on when you need it. Empathy is something that needs to be developed, nurtured, and practiced.  Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view. Empathy helps us communicate with one another and, as a result, helps us show compassion towards other people.

Why is empathy important for librarians? Our library communities are becoming more diverse–not only racially or ethnically diverse, but more diverse in ability, gender expression, age, education level and background, and sexual orientation. With this diversity comes a richness in perspective and life experience.  We librarians need empathy in order to connect and work with those around us.  What’s more, we need empathy to understand the needs of our community members. Empathy helps us do our jobs well, so that we can provide inclusive customer service and be welcoming to all.

Sara Zettervall is founder of Whole Person Librarianship and Community Engagement Librarian at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota. In her Public Libraries article entitled “Whole Person Librarianship,” she discusses how empathy, social work and librarianship are aligned.

There are a number of ways libraries can make practical and theoretical connections that lead to growth in our ability to serve patrons. Listen and respond to your patrons from a place of empathy. One of the primary tenets of social work is that each person is an expert on his or her own life. Another is that each person should be viewed in the context of his or her full existence because we are all inseparable from the systems in which we live. Together, these tenets from the base of serving the ‘whole person’ – thus, librarianship informed by this principle becomes ‘whole person librarianship.’

When we consider the whole person, we realize that empathy is a crucial component in our pursuit of whole person librarianship.  To learn more, check out Sara’s archived Whole Person Librarianship webinar available on Webjunction.

Applying this to our day-to-day routines, what are some small ways we can move towards a more empathetic approach to customer service?

  • Reflect. Grow in awareness about who you are and where you came from.  What is your background? What values and life experiences have informed your life choices?  What are your fears, your triggers, your hopes and dreams?
  • Listen.  Be aware and practice active listening to what others are saying, rather than rushing to think of a response.
  • Ask.  Focus attention on the other person. Ask them about themselves and work to understand the “why” behind who they are. Pay attention to what is important in their life and look for opportunities to learn and understand.
  • Respect.  There is more that connects us than divides us. Work hard to avoid assumptions or preconceptions. Be open to and believe their truth, even when it is in conflict with your own. Honor everyone’s story.

Empathy is essential to the work of librarianship because our work involves and revolves around people.  And this TedTalk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie demonstrates what is at risk when empathy is missing.  Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — warning if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

We need empathy in our libraries and in our country now more than ever.  With the ability to shift perspectives and truly understand another person’s point of view, we can help build connections between ourselves, others, and our communities.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group, II. Reference and User Services, and VII. Professionalism and
Professional Development.

One comment

  1. John Brock

    Nice article. Let me share a bit of science as to why empathy, which is equally sensitive to development or destruction, is so important to practice in all that we do. According to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers, college students who arrived at campus post 2000 showed 40% less empathy. That is a dramatic, massive shift towards Narcissistic Personality Disorder on an enormous scale. You can read the full article here;

    Libraries, which can be the last resort of intellectual and emotional safety for patrons of all ages, particularly at risk youth, play a key role in demonstrating the virtuous qualities of the human condition to all those that enter. To me the practice of empathy goes far beyond customer service and enters the realm of positive social engineering. Librarians should not underestimate the powerful influence they have on those that seek their guidance.

    In the presence of depression, empathy can save a life. In the presence of youthful fear, it can shape the way a child looks at the world. In the case of curiosity it can provide companionship during intellectual exploration. You give empathy to others. It is handed over at each and every instance. The receiver takes it with them and slowly it builds into a lifelong skill that in turn, is used to transfer its beauty to others.

    Lastly, when you introduce yourself to patrons, let them know you are the Librarian “Hello, I am the Librarian or Hello, I am the Librarian’s Assistant or XXXX.” This sounds basic and it is. However, this simple statement aids in reinforcing your credibility and the brand value of all libraries. When you assist them and give them your empathy,
    they will know top-of-mind who shared it with them, where it was shared and it will play a positive role in patron retention and public awareness.

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