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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2024

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Vol. 44 No. 3 — April 2024

You Are Not Your User: Breaking Through Customer Service Roadblocks
by Meghan Kowalski

This is a model of customer service in which we lead with empathy. Everyone is treated as an individual with varying experiences, skills, and needs.
Librarians are asked the same questions dozens of times. For a library customer, it could be their first time. When we work with customers, we are not looking in a mirror. We are not our users. Every library customer is an individual. However, our assumptions can cause issues that impact both the user experience and our organization’s brand reputation.

This divide in understanding between librarians and our users comes from the false-consensus bias. This refers to people’s tendency to assume that others share their beliefs and will behave similarly in a given context. We think that only people who are very different from us would make different choices. But you are not your user.

Every person is an individual. You, both as a librarian and a person, are different. You have a distinct background that comes from your education, training, and lived experience. We, as librarians, have a lack of insight on the diverse backgrounds of our users. We have no idea what personal experiences people are bringing with them to the library. Due to the false-consensus bias, we make assumptions anyway. This can create roadblocks in our users’ experience with the library. We cannot best serve our customers if we don’t take into account who they are as individuals.

How Our Work Becomes Routine

Where does this service divide come from? For us, library work is routine. It is what we do, day in and day out. Not only are we trained and educated in our profession, but we have the experience of being at the library every single day. We answer a lot of the same questions over and over again. We have policies and procedures that provide road maps for our work. Additionally, we have access to resources to shore up our weak spots. Plus, we know that we have colleagues who can assist us.

This background gives us a firm knowledgebase from which to draw. Furthermore, our time working the service desks means that we make presumptions of what our users need based on previous experience. Since we see the same things a lot, we simply presume that we can fall back on how we’ve always acted in any given situation. Again, we accept the false-consensus bias that has us believe we know how our users will act.

The Problems of Routine Treatment

Our users most likely do not have our level of expertise. Even if they are trained librarians, our library is different. There is always a first visit and first time asking for help. When a user asks a question, that is because it is new to them. If we make presumptions about skills or knowledge, we may lose the customer during the service interaction.

Additionally, our users are generally unaware of our policies and procedures. Even if we make support material available, odds are that our users didn’t read it. This lack of background knowledge can then get entangled with the emotional experience of being at the library. Our users can have a lot of feelings. They may feel excitement and curiosity about what the library offers. At the same time, they may feel fear and anxiety when they ask for assistance. Many users also feel a sense of shame, as they may believe they should already know the answer to the question they are asking.

This idea of emotions intermingling with experience is best seen in Carol Kuhlthau’s model of the information search process. Essentially, actions are tied up with feelings and thoughts. The information-seeking process is messy. We, as librarians, don’t necessarily know where users are in this process. This is why assuming things can inadvertently reinforce negative feelings. When we don’t treat our users as individuals, we fail to provide the full level of service they deserve. Their definition of a successful transaction can be different from ours. We may never know this if all we seek to do is add another checkmark to our statistics.

Common Customer Service Roadblocks

When it comes to customer service, some roadblocks tend to show up time and again. While we can’t prepare for everything, we can assess our work and prepare for these common issues.

Dismissive treatment—Dismissive treatment occurs when we answer questions offhandedly because we do it all of the time. It also occurs when we shrug and say, “I have no idea,” implying that we can’t (or won’t) help, and the user should go somewhere else. Librarians often do this with internal referrals when we tell users to go somewhere without providing the context for the referral. Essentially, we come across as making the user someone else’s problem.

Presumption of knowledge and skills—In the majority of service interactions, our customers have done little to no prep work. They assume that we can give them everything. Even if the information they seek is on our website, available in handouts, or posted on signs, our users are not reading it. This is why they are asking questions.

When our users come to us, we often presume they have some level of background knowledge. This means that we may provide poor customer service by going too fast, skipping steps, or forgetting to check in to see if our users are following. This presumption leads to frustration and confusion. It does not resolve our users’ needs. It can reinforce the users’ feelings of shame or anxiety because they think they should already know how to do something.

Difficult interactions—When people feel like they are not heard or understood, it brings up emotions that can sometimes lead to problematic behavior. When we provide routine treatment, we don’t get to the core of what our users need. They can, in turn, react emotionally and, on some occasions, physically. This is not only aggravating for everyone, but can be dangerous in certain situations.

Often, we end up labeling the person—and not the situation they are trying to navigate—as the problem. This is something commonly experienced in caregiving for young children. We presume that the child can do something because we, ourselves, do it all of the time. Most likely, however, we have not yet given the child the tools they need to complete the task. So, they whine, cry, or lash out. We then become impatient, frustrated, and angry. These tough moments often end with one or both parties crying or yelling. No one is happy or satisfied.

Never to return—When our users don’t feel welcome, heard, or understood, they leave. This can happen from a single interaction or build up over many interactions. We often presume people will come back to the library when they need us. They won’t. Our users will find somewhere else to go where they feel they are treated better. When people don’t get the service they want, they don’t come back. This means the library loses a chance to not only help someone in their community but also to build repeat users through brand loyalty.

The Solution: Person-Centered Service

The solution to these roadblocks is person-centered service. This is a model of customer service in which we lead with empathy. Everyone is treated as an individual with varying experiences, skills, and needs. We work with the person in front of us without making any presumptions. We put that individual’s customer service experience ahead of a presumed outcome. The goal of person-centered service is to create happy and satisfied customers.

To provide this kind of service, there are some basic best practices we can follow. Each of these actions are small, but the overall environment they create is empathetic, caring, and user-centered.

Greeting and welcome—Talking to a librarian can be an intimidating act. We can help alleviate some of the stress by offering eye contact, smiling, and inviting people to interact with us. The initial ask is always the hardest, and offering a friendly face can help ease a user’s anxiety and any sense of shame. A warm smile and a “How can I help you?” can go a long way.

Actively listen—In active listening, we remain neutral and open. We can ask questions to clarify or simply get our user talking. It can be useful to paraphrase or summarize what the user said to show that we understand. In active listening, the goal is a complete understanding of what the user is looking for and an outcome that will satisfy their need.

Create rapport—Rapport is when we develop a friendly relationship with the person we are helping. This makes for an easier interaction that results in a better outcome. We can help create rapport by allowing people to chat. As our users get comfortable, they open up and are more honest about what they are seeking. We can help that along by personalizing our service. This can take the form of mirroring the kind of language they use—if they are informal, we can be informal. We can also provide teaching through techniques the customer understands. We can ask and use the person’s name and share our own. Most importantly, we can create moments of empathy by sharing relatable stories or using listening noises such as uh-huh and hmm and saying, “I see.” Finally, we can say thank you. Creating a friendly relationship is a two-way street, and we can show kindness by simply thanking someone for coming to the library.

Foster good emotions—We can continue building rapport by creating a friendly environment. We can smile, laugh, and talk with our hands. Our physical actions impact how our service attitude comes across. This even works online or over the phone. When we show happiness, openness, and friendliness, it can put our users at ease.

Demonstrate and walk through—Often, we need to show our users what we are doing. This demystifies the work of the library while allowing them to develop their own skills. When we provide this kind of teaching, we must go slow to ensure that our users are following. It’s easy to speed through things we do all of the time. We can also confirm directly with our users after each step, and we can always go back and show something again. To provide asset-based instruction, we can try to connect our work with something the user already knows. For example, we can share how using the filters on Amazon are just like using limiters in a library database. It’s also important to explain the why behind what we are doing because it can help connect the user more fully to whatever we are showing.

For online support, we provide screensharing, and we narrate each step of our work. We can also use directional language with image cues to help the user follow. Instead of saying, “Go to this link,” we can more clearly state, “Do you see the image of the man holding the book? To the left of that, click on the text that reads, Start Here.” Also, when providing this kind of service, it’s helpful to use whatever platform the user has on their end. If they are on a computer, use a computer. If they are on a phone, use a phone. This means that both parties will be working from the same kind of display, which alleviates confusion when pages change due to screen size.

Clarify—During our interactions, we should seek to clarify. We can adjust our wording and adapt our demonstrations to meet the needs of each user. Flexibility is key, because we never know the level of skill and knowledge our users have. Also, we should always explain library lingo in plain language. Or, better yet, avoid it entirely when we can.

Patience—Throughout all of our work, it is important to demonstrate patience. As librarians, we have these interactions a lot. Our users do not have this regular experience. We will need to repeat things, go back over details, or clarify. Rushing through an interaction will only aggravate or confuse our users. It is better to provide a slow but effective interaction than a fast one that does not meet our users’ needs.

Confirm satisfaction—At the end of each interaction, we should confirm that our user has received what they need. We can ask if their question was answered or if they need anything else. Also, if we mentioned that we would follow up on something, we can confirm that we will do that by a certain date. This sets the expectation that our service will come full circle, and the user will not be left waiting.

Assess—Finally, after every interaction, we should reflect on the transaction to assess our work. This does not have to be complicated. We can merely review the good and the bad of each interaction. This can help us identify weak points that can be improved through training or professional development. We can also lean into our strengths to improve the next interaction.


Best practices work most effectively when they are built on a basis of strong organizational training. Providing great customer service is a team event. We all need training and reminders to reinforce and grow our skills. Some training should always be provided in-house, as each library has its own niche and community to serve. Internal training can cover material such as customer service basics, service for those with handicapped or special needs, and service to diverse audiences. Internal training should also establish standards for service provided in person, online, or over the phone.

Internal training can (and should) be bolstered by external training. No librarian is an expert in everything. Our vendors can provide detailed instruction on the products, resources, and tools we purchase from them. How can we troubleshoot issues if we don’t know how these services work? In addition, it can be easier for a vendor to tackle difficult matters such as de-escalation training or providing equitable service to those experiencing mental health issues. Professional development services such as WebJunction, Niche Academy, and LinkedIn Learning can also offer material that we can turn to instead of creating our own content from scratch.

Training should be conducted for all new hires during their first month and for everyone at least annually. We can always refresh our skills and learn the latest developments. Our services and resources are always changing. We need to keep up with them if we want to best serve our community. Additionally, everyone should get this training. This includes not just the frontline staff but administrators as well. Upper-level management often gets the cranky phone calls, and they should be prepared to handle strong emotions and know exactly where to refer users.

Training should be reinforced through internal communication. Everyone on the library team should be alerted to changes in products, services, and policies. We can’t enforce things equally if we are not aware of changes. Internal communications such as an intranet or shared files should be used to create an accessible knowledgebase. The goal of internal communication is shared understanding. Equitable customer service comes from people being on the same page.

Another aspect of communication is providing physical items such as maps and handouts. This not only keeps a library team informed but can also be something we share with users. These resources provide a demonstration tool and takeaway that our users can refer to. It is important, however, to make sure these materials are always up-to-date. Libraries should review handouts whenever products, services, and spaces change to ensure they don’t cause more confusion.

Get Feedback

User feedback is essential to creating a strong customer service culture. Without it, we won’t know what our community thinks of our organization. In reviewing feedback, we can look for common trends for things to improve through staff training, policy updates, or building infrastructure adjustments. We can also make note of which positives to encourage. No matter what we learn, putting changes into action is necessary. There’s no point in collecting feedback if we don’t do anything with it. There are several ways to collect user feedback. What works for each library will vary, but it’s best to use a mix of methods to get the full picture of what customer service looks like in the library.

Secret shopper testing—Secret shopper testing is when an individual poses as a customer to see what kind of service they receive. There are vendors that offer this kind of service, but it can also be done in-house with new hires or staff members from other locations. The secret shopper will try to accomplish various tasks and then report back on what happened. This allows a library to see what the user side of things is like—both the ups and the downs.

Journey mapping/usability testing—Journey mapping is when we track the customer’s journey from start to finish. Usability testing reviews the functionality of online services. These related ideas force you to explore just how many steps and roadblocks users encounter when trying to accomplish a single task. They also allow you to learn the exact process of using an online service or visiting a building. For example, in a kids’ room, a tester would get down at the height of a child to see how they would use the space. Another method of this kind of testing is bringing in users of different abilities such as those who need assistive devices. This testing often uncovers that a service desk is too high for users in wheelchairs.

Focus groups—Focus groups gather members of the library’s community for a conversation. The group is then asked a set of questions about a library’s resources and services, while a moderator facilitates the conversation. Moderators should not be library staffers, as they may influence the results. Focus groups will allow you to hear directly from users about the positives and negatives of your organization.

Comment boxes, forms, and surveys—Three additional and easy ways to collect feedback are through comment boxes, forms, and surveys. Each can be designed to simply ask for open feedback and/or ratings of what it’s like to use the library. Some library vendors offer methods to automatically push these tools out to users through emails following an interaction. This way, users can comment while the interaction is fresh in their mind.

Benefits of Person-Centered Service

The library is a community hub. Some visitors are regulars, while others come and go. No matter how strong a person’s connection to the library, everyone should receive equitable, high-quality customer service. Person-centered service—in which we focus on the individual in front of us—provides that. First and foremost, centering the individual in any customer service interaction leads to satisfied customers. Our users are getting what they want when they need it. Satisfied customers become repeat customers who can, in turn, become brand advocates for the library. Our jobs become easier when our users come in already knowing what to expect.

This kind of brand development and management is important for the library. We want to be the place our communities turn to for support. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it can make it easier when budget battles or book challenges arise. In being person-centered, we create a wellspring of vocal users who will rally on our behalf. They will want to support the institution that has helped them. Additionally, happier customers generally means happier employees. There are fewer tough interactions. When we display openness, kindness, and empathy, our users feel supported. When we treat people like individuals, they feel understood and welcome. That creates a better overall environment to work in.

Providing quality customer service is not a one-time thing. It is an ongoing practice maintained through training and constant communication. It takes work, but that effort is returned by creating a pleasant working environment with satisfied customers who strongly support what the library offers.


Customer Service Tip of the Week,

Defend Yourself,

Getting Started With Library Customer Service,

LinkedIn Learning,

Niche Academy,


Assessing Service Quality: Satisfying the Expectations of Library Customers, Third Edition,

The Big Book of Customer Service Training Games,

Branded Customer Service: The New Competitive Edge,

Customer Service in Libraries: Best Practices,

Putting the User First: 30 Strategies for Transforming Library Services,

The Quality Library: A Guide to Self-Improvement, Better Efficiency, and Happier Customers,

The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed With Customer Service,

Training Library Staff and Volunteers to Provide Extraordinary Customer Service,
Meghan Kowalski Meghan Kowalski ( is the outreach and reference librarian at the University of the District of Columbia. She spearheads customer training for her library and presents regularly on the importance of customer service, outreach, and branding.