A Librarianís Guide to QSC
by Anthony Aycock
I wasn’t always a librarian—I made the switch in my late 20s. Switch from what, you ask? In 1991, with high school graduation looming and college still months away, my father told me to get a summer job. I had avoided work during high school while focusing on my grades, earning a full-tuition scholarship in the process. My father was proud of that and of me. He did not mean this job to be a comeuppance, but a character builder. He took me job hunting, and after a few interviews, I was hired by McDonald’s—“America’s number-one franchise,” in the words of Entrepreneur’s Lynn Beresford. I stayed at McDonald’s part-time through college and full-time for 5 years afterward, working my way up to general manager of a $1.5 million-per-year unit.
By 1999, I needed a change. I was tired of 12-hour shifts spent sliding through the kitchen on a runner of grease or consoling mothers—not kids—who were heavyhearted over which Happy Meal toy we had in stock. A bookish sort since childhood, I looked around for graduate programs and found one in library science, which, similar to a lot of people, I hadn’t known existed. The late nights of driving home smelling of French fries became early mornings of churning out descriptive cataloging exercises. I graduated in 2000 and got a job a few months later as a law librarian with a utilities company. When I asked my supervisor about his decision to hire me, he said what impressed him the most was my McDonald’s experience.
The principles of quality, service, and cleanliness—called QSC in McDonald’s argot—have given that company a half-century honeymoon with American consumers. In recent years, these principles have moved beyond restaurants into other industries. Many colleges, for instance, have adopted a customer service mindset, which is embraced by some (e.g., dus.psu.edu/mentor/2012/06/customer-service-in-higher-education) and maligned by others (e.g., chronicle.com/article/Faculty-Members-Are-Not/145363). The critics have a point: Some customer service tenets don’t belong in higher education. I wouldn’t attend any school that offers BOGO classes, for instance. But maybe the problem is terminology. Instead of “customer service,” we should think of “customer satisfaction.” What university would reject opportunities to graduate satisfied—i.e., motivated—students?
Libraries also owe their patrons satisfaction. McDonald’s delivers satisfaction through QSC, a philosophy librarians should adopt. Here is how we could do it.
At McDonald’s, quality means “hot, fresh, made for you.” I heard this phrase over and over in my 9 years under the Arches. For libraries, to paraphrase William A. Katz in Collection Development, quality means having the right item for the right person at the right time. In general, libraries acquire quality materials that meet the needs of their communities. Dan Hazen writes in Library Resources & Technical Services that libraries “have built their collections through expensive, carefully planned efforts that have extended over decades and in some cases centuries. Their holdings are deliberate creations of mutually reinforcing materials, not just haphazard accumulations of books and journals.”
Hazen is describing selection, which is where library quality begins. A selector’s job is to look for the values, strengths, and virtues of the book or other medium as a whole. Selectors spend a lot of time poring over reviews, bibliographies, and approval plan profiles to come up with resources to satisfy—there’s that word again—patrons’ current and future needs. The goal is to have a high-quality library that will “provide the books that people want—not those we think they ought to read,” writes Frederick M. Crunden in Library Journal.
The mantra for quality at McDonald’s is, “If it’s not right, don’t serve it.” So the lettuce with brown edges? Leaf it alone. The eggs 1 day out-of-date? Not all they’re cracked up to be. Salad dressing with a tear in the package? Ship it to one of the thousand islands.
Notice how time is an important component of quality. Whether it’s an extra day in the walk-in cooler or an extra minute in the heated holding cabinet, time is the difference between savory and scrap. Library deselection, or weeding, is also time-sensitive. In one library in which I worked, I came across a book called The Testing of Negro Intelligence, published in 1958. Classy. It seemed a perfect entry for the Awful Library Books blog (awfullibrarybooks.net).
Books age slower than food, but they age nonetheless. Those that have outlived their usefulness deserve to be weeded. Weeding is the yang to selection’s yin, another way to enforce quality. However, total library quality extends beyond the collection itself. Librarians should also scrutinize and update their collection development policies. This avoids “overselection” or buying stuff that will probably receive little use. This is similar to the McDonald’s practice of adjusting ordering levels to reflect changes in business flow. Or monitoring expiration dates in order to pitch the junk. Librarians who stay on top of quality will have more success with customer value, which should be the goal for restaurants and libraries alike.
Customer service is often discussed in library literature. Focus groups, surveys, and in-depth interviews are some of the techniques from the retail world that libraries have incorporated. At McDonald’s, the standard for service is “fast, accurate, and friendly.” We measured our service times, striving for 2 minutes in line and 1 minute at the counter for inside service. The drive-thru time was more exacting: 90 seconds from the time a car entered the line to the time it left.
Reference requests are usually more intricate than fast food orders, so library staffers will never be as prompt as a McDonald’s crew. Where we can follow their example is that third word, “friendly.” McDonald’s emphasizes little things—giving cookies to children, carrying trays for seniors, showing a picture menu to someone who struggles with reading—that make their service sing. In the McDonald’s Operations & Training Manual, the first step in providing front counter service is to smile. I remember being corrected by shift managers when I wasn’t smiling. Where would librarians be if we smiled at every patron? Goodbye stereotype, that’s where (whatisalibrarian.blogspot.com/2012/10/unfriendly-librarian.html). And what if, instead of pointing at the stacks and saying, “Fiction is over there, alphabetical by author’s last name”—c’mon, don’t pretend you haven’t done that—we got up from the desk every time and walked the patron to the shelves, joining him or her in the act of discovery?
Old restaurant tricks such as cross-training and mystery shops should also be part of the library mise-en-scène. Cross-training was when I took some of the cashiers and trained them in the kitchen. Or had a number of people learn how to make biscuits. Or let an off-duty employee shadow our maintenance man, watching him filter fry vats or clean the bulk Coke tank. There is no downside to spreading skills. Librarians come out of grad school as generalists, but as we begin our careers, we specialize: catalogers to the back room, reference folks to the front desk. How often do we switch places? Maybe in a pinch, but it should be part of the normal workflow. Good reference work, an old boss of mine used to say, starts with good cataloging. Cross-training sharpens that link.
Mystery shoppers are people hired to go into stores as customers and then grade the service. McDonald’s has used them for decades. (I could always tell when I was being shopped because the person asked for something obscure, such as the short-lived McLean Deluxe. Real customers didn’t order the McLean Deluxe. Ever.) In 1998, the Stanislaus County Free Library in Modesto, Calif., submitted itself to mystery shops in all branches. The results of the shops “became a catalyst for setting customer service standards,” according to Vanessa Czopek in Public Libraries. More recently, the Columbus Metropolitan Library used “secret surveys” in 2013 to “make quick, significant improvements in our customer service model” and to gain “insight into how to make the customer experience even more positive” (urbanlibraries.org/mystery-shop-innovation-777.php).
Customers are picky about the cleanliness of restaurants, and for good reason. At McDonald’s, “clean” means “free from visible soil or dirt.” That definition holds for any public place, and for libraries, I would add one more: keeping the wrong book from the right person at the right time.
“Wrong book” deserves clarification. I use the term here to mean a book that should be weeded due to condition rather than age or subject matter. “Shelves crammed with worn, torn, dirty, or otherwise unattractive books,” writes Sally Livingston in Kentucky Libraries, “obscure those few volumes that are attractive and current.” The same is true of CDs in cracked cases, journals with ripped-out pages, and computers with a home row of ASD G J L, similar to a smile (there’s that word again) with missing teeth. I would extend the definition of cleanliness to the library’s website. Are there dead links? Pictures with poor formatting? Instructions that don’t make sense? Is there outdated information? Three words: Clean it up.
The issue is one of care. Libraries are a resource that people usually trust. When things look uncared-for, fear and uncertainty can supplant trust. This was described in 1982 by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in their now-classic Atlantic Monthly article “Broken Windows.” Detailing a program in 1970s New Jersey to get police officers out of patrol cars and walking the streets, Kelling and Wilson report that the mere presence of officers on foot established a sense of order, which made citizens feel less fearful of crime, although crime rates did not actually go down. “Disorder and crime,” they write, “are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” In other words, a window left broken makes it seem as if no one cares. What hope is there for the community in such circumstances? The same with restaurants, the same with libraries. McDonald’s managers keep a vigil. They enforce cleaning assignments, perform maintenance checks, and track safety measures to catch problems in the early stages. Librarians must also watch for those signs of decay, lest they lose the trust of their patrons.
In Library Journal, John Berry III ruminates, “Before I became a librarian, I thought that to write a book and get it published would guarantee one’s immortality.” He goes on to denounce the “badly flawed metaphor” of weeding and to commend librarians who never throw anything away because “taking that responsibility is surely part of the insurance that guarantees the survival of libraries themselves.”
Berry’s words here are a problem. Libraries are businesses. They have mission statements, budgets, and professional staffs. When they lack the money to operate, they shut down. People who romanticize information management with phrases such as “responsibility for immortality” do the profession a disservice and make themselves seem fatuous. The modern librarian is a product manager. Competition is heavy from Google, social media, and vendors who sell data directly to patrons. Libraries have to maintain QSC or watch their customers go elsewhere. How can we learn the singular focus on QSC that it takes to succeed? From McDonald’s. QSC will make our libraries so much better, and when patrons notice, you know what will happen: They’ll be lovin’ it.