Mr. Green's Axiom: Customer Service or Just Plain Good Service? (from the Editors)

By Van Fleet, Connie; Wallace, Danny P. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Mr. Green's Axiom: Customer Service or Just Plain Good Service? (from the Editors)


Van Fleet, Connie, Wallace, Danny P., Reference & User Services Quarterly


A Quiz

Match the organization in the first list below with the correct designation in the second list for the people served by that organization.

Organization

-- 1.  Dallas Cowboys

-- 2.  Reader's Digest

-- 3.  Indiana University
       Bloomington Libraries

-- 4.  Harvard University

-- 5.  The American Library
       Association

-- 6.  Allstate Insurance Company

-- 7.  Wal-Mart

-- 8.  Amtrak

-- 9.  The Library of Congress

-- 10. Merrill Lynch

People Served

a. Shoppers

b. Members

c. Investors

d. Insureds

e. Customers

f. Students

g. Travelers

h. Researchers

i. Fans

j. Subscribers

Mr. Green's Axiom

   A librarian should be as unwilling to allow an inquirer to leave the
   library with his question unanswered as a shopkeeper to have a customer go
   out of his store without a purchase. Receive investigators with something
   of the cordiality displayed by an old time shopkeeper. Hold on to them
   until they have obtained the information they are seeking, and show a
   persistency in supplying their wants similar to that manifested by a
   successful clerk in effecting a sale. (1)

Samuel Swett Green may not have been the first librarian to suggest that library service might benefit from adopting models from the business world, and he certainly was not the last. In the traditional mode of operation of librarianship it has recently become popular in many library environments to refer to the population served by libraries as customers and to focus on building a climate of customer service. The Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, for instance, implemented a program called EXCEL with a direct focus on the customer. The EXCEL training manual includes explicit sections on different categories of customers: the Internal Customer, the Telephone Customer, and the Walk-In Customer. (2) A quick search of Library Literature located more than three hundred entries with the word customer in the title and more than one hundred with both customer and service in the title.

Customer service as a phrase, although not necessarily as a concept, has origins firmly planted in the for-profit sector. The official RUSQ dictionary defines customer as "a person who purchases goods or services from another." (3) Perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that customer is closely tied to custom and customs and is inextricably linked to the concept of money changing hands. (4) The concept of customer service is embedded in the origin of the word customer in that one historical use of the term is to describe an individual who customarily does business with a particular provider. (5) Expressions that may be used as alternatives or near-synonyms to customer service include customer care and customer relationship management, frequently referred to with the acronym CRM.

It is perhaps not surprising, in an era that is simultaneously the information age and the consumer age, that managers of public service institutions have chosen to emulate the for-profit sector. Much attention has been paid in the news media and in the popular press to the influence of innovative customer service methods and techniques in improving the success levels and images of industries as diverse as automobile manufacturing and health care provision. Introducing the appearance of an organization designed for profit rather than service may be a mistake, though, even when the motives are well-intentioned. The for-profit model is at best a poor fit for the traditional roles of libraries and at worst a subversion of the core values of the library profession. Although the documents created to support the American Library Association's core values initiative include service as one of ten "values domains," the word customer appears nowhere in the core values documents. (6)

There is a certain cynicism inherent in the for-profit use of the term customer service. …

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