Blogger Abby Johnson

Customer Service from Behind the Scenes

Are you “behind the scenes” staff at your library? Think you’re not directly serving customers? Think again! I’m a collection development librarian and even though I’m not in the public eye for most of my day, customer service is still an important part of what I do. Here’s how I make it a priority in my day.

Full disclosure – I’m in a full-time collection development position and my small library system serves a population of about 78,000 people. I do understand that you may not be able to have this level of direct patron contact from a behind the scenes job if you work in a very large system. But wherever you work, you for sure work with some number of other people and I wonder how these techniques could be applied to your situation? Feel free to share ideas in comments!

A screen shot of me providing customer service through our chat reference service
A screen shot of me providing customer service through our chat reference service

Communicate early and often

Whether it’s communicating with staff about changes to a collection or keeping patrons in the loop when a book they have on hold has gone lost, communication is a big part of customer service. I really try to keep staff in the loop whenever something is happening that they might be hearing about (for example the recent news about Dr. Seuss books going out of print) or if part of our collection is being relocated or anything like that.

One of my weekly tasks is going through our report of items with holds on them that have gone lost or missing and deciding whether to replace them. If we’re not going to quickly replace them, I reach out to the patrons to let them know the status of their hold. If it’s something we can try to request from another library, I offer to place the request for them. Patrons really appreciate this proactive communication. And I often find that they may have an unrelated question they reach out with after I’ve made contact. I never mind helping someone renew their book, report a book they believe they’ve returned, or answering a question about a program. And if I can’t answer their question, I can point them to a person who can.

Go above and beyond

I know answering patron questions about programs is not really a collection development task. But if I can surprise and delight our patrons by being very easy to communicate with and taking care of a problem or question for them, I want to do it! When I communicate with a patron about a hold request or a question about our collection, I might be the only person they’ve talked to at the library. I want to make sure I’m giving them the best customer service experience of their day. Even if I’m not technically “customer facing”, we’re all a team here at my library. Our team’s goal is to provide wonderful library service for our patrons.

I also try to go above and beyond with following up on patron requests and alerting patrons to new items in our catalog that I think they might like. Since we started our Grab Bags at my library, I’m now more familiar than ever with some of our patrons’ tastes and particular authors or subjects they request. If we get a new book by an author I know a patron has requested in a Grab Bag, I’ll find their email and drop them a note. Do they want this new book on hold? I saw it and thought of them! And by the way, is there anything else I can help with today?

Be up front and honest

The hardest customer service for me when I started was responding to people who had made purchase suggestions that I wasn’t going to buy. But I have found that 99% of people have been fine with my decision and really appreciate me taking the time to communicate with them about it. If they understand the Why – we already own this in another format, we don’t have the budget for this right now, this is a title without high demand that I can get for you from another library – they’re very likely to accept the outcome. I make sure that I can point to our collection development policy to back up my decisions. And if I’m proactive about communicating with them about it, we avoid the frustration they feel from never hearing anything until they finally follow up about it.

Proofread your emails

One big factor in providing “behind the scenes” customer service is that most of my interaction with customers is not happening face to face. Occasionally I’m on the phone, but most often it’s email (and sometimes I help cover our chat reference, too). Email is definitely a mixed bag. I do like that it gives you some time to craft a message. I don’t like that it can be hard to predict if it will be read in the tone that you intend. A few tips for email customer service:

  • Don’t forget the apology if you’re apologizing for something. “I’m so sorry, but it looks like that book has gone missing” or “I’m so sorry but that title you requested we purchase is out of print”
  • Take out some of the exclamation points. Children’s librarians, I’m looking at you. An American Libraries editor had to tell me this when I submitted my very first column for them. Children’s librarians tend to write in exclamations. It’s just part of how we’re wired. Reread that email and take them out. You can maybe leave one if you really mean it. Otherwise, you can come off kind of intense! (See what I did there?)
  • If in doubt, have a colleague read your email before you send it. I especially use this when I’m sending anything out to all staff or anything about a potentially sensitive issue. When I emailed our public-facing teams about the Dr. Seuss news, I asked my colleague to read the email first to make sure my email didn’t immediately bring up five other questions staff would have that I failed to answer.

What else?

How do you provide good customer service from behind the scenes?


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

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