Service Quality and Customer Satisfaction Do Matter

By Altman, Ellen; Hernon, Peter | American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Service Quality and Customer Satisfaction Do Matter


Altman, Ellen, Hernon, Peter, American Libraries


Many librarians maintain that only they, the professionals, have the expertise to assess the quality of library service. They assert that users cannot judge quality, users do not know what they want or need, and professional hegemony will be undermined if they kowtow to users.

Such opinions about service, in fact, are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the customers' opinions, because without users there is no need for libraries except to serve as warehouses. After all, customers (present, potential, and former ones) believe that the library's reason for being open is to meet their needs. Each customer evaluates the quality of service received and decides when (or if) there will be further interaction with that organization.

That some librarians reject the idea of users as customers is equally irrelevant. Most people do not focus on a label -- customer, patron, or user; rather, they concentrate on their information needs and preferences, the services offered, and how the staff treats them. They also evaluate the service in terms of time and effort expended, and foregone opportunity to do something else.

Service quality encompasses the relationship between the library and the people whom it is supposed to serve. How the library perceives those people clearly affects the nature of the service rendered. When library and customer measures of quality are not congruent, the library may be meeting its own internal standards but may not be performing well in the eyes of its customers. The challenge is to learn what matters most to customers and apply that knowledge to improve service delivery.

When they commit to quality, libraries try to meet the changing expectations of their customers, delight current customers, and seek out new or lost customers. They learn from their successes and view problems and complaints as opportunities for improvement. A belief that service is "good enough" does not inspire an organization to improve and challenge itself. Continuous improvement should be a way of life.

Service quality is often defined in terms of customer expectations and the need for the organization to meet or exceed these expectations. Merely knowing the expectations is insufficient; that knowledge must be translated into performance that reduces the gap between expectations and the service actually provided. Gaps, especially large ones, identify areas for improvement.

As an individual interacts with an organization, those interactions fuse together to form an impression of service quality. Each library user forms an opinion (excellent, poor, or somewhere in between) about the quality of service. When the collective opinions of many customers become known, those opinions create a reputation for the library and the quality of its service. That reputation will become known to those who fund the library and to the library's community. Three key questions are:

* What kind of reputation does your library have?

* How well does that reputation match the one that the library staff want?

* What is being done to improve the reputation?

* Quality service is a competitive necessity for businesses and service organizations. Librarians have tended to believe that libraries have no competitors because each locality, school, college or university, or business has only one library (though perhaps with multiple outlets), and the perception is that other libraries do not compete for their customers. The presumed captive audience, however, is in reality exploring and using alternatives for information delivery, which are the library's competitors.

Both the number and diversity of present and potential competitors increase with the accelerating shift of information delivery from print to electronic format. Some competitors, such as online services, offer new, intriguing ways to interact with graphic records. Compuserve, for instance, recently sent subscribers an announcement offering three different databases: one for popular magazines, one for business, and one for health. …

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