February 16, 2018

Stuck in Neutral, Part II | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

Like the airline industry, higher education and by relation, the academic library, has a real conundrum. With little hope of getting budgets restored in the next year and considerable uncertainly about how to stave off institutional drift or decline, what options exist for doing things better and keeping those we serve engaged and loyal?

In Part I, I said there was nothing particularly new and exciting at the ALA Conference. Well, that not entirely true. I did enjoy one conference experience in particular because it suggested a potential solution for shaking our academic libraries out of their doldrums. The answer I found was at the OCLC Symposium at which Dr. Joseph Michelli spoke about the library experience.

Experience matters
Michelli has authored several books that show how a great user experience can make a difference. He spoke about the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Starbucks, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. All three operate in highly competitive markets, but what makes each unique is their approach to designing a different experience that builds customer loyalty.

Knowing that librarians can be cynical about business solutions, Michelli reminded the audience that libraries need not try to replicate Starbucks or the Fish Market. He encouraged attendees to seek out the right experience for their library, and to create the right EBS (Experiential Brand Statement).

Think the experience doesn’t matter? Think this doesn’t apply to or matter for academic libraries? Think this is just one more pile of business hooey? Think again. Here are three simple examples based on experiences I had in Chicago at ALA.

Experience makes the difference
Participating in the conference involves interaction with two or three particular industries: airlines, lodging, and food service. The attitude towards delivering a good experience can make all the difference.

At the Intercontinental Hotel I was greeted in the lobby on two occasions and directed to my meeting room. At so many of the conference hotels you can just get lost, and the staff seem not to care—unless you bother them for help. Not at the Intercontinental. They had greeters in the lobby, and then I was handed off to another employee who actually took me to the elevator and pushed my floor for me. Does this experience change my impression based on a two-minute experience? Might I stay there next time? Yes to both.

I also heard several airline tales of woe. Except for one, Southwest, which earned only mentions of praise. Why? It focuses on giving a great experience—one that starts with engaged employees. Southwest believes you can’t deliver a great experience without motivated, caring employees.

We don’t have Corner Bakery in my region, and I wish we did. What a great place for any meal. Fast. Clean. Convenient. Free wireless. Good food at reasonable prices and even better service. I felt like the employees cared, and that they wanted me to come back again—and I did. But one morning I visited a local diner for a pancake breakfast, and they brought out a bottle of supermarket syrup. Was it too much trouble to put it in a dispenser? Without that little touch it just didn’t feel special. That tells you something important about great experiences. Little things make the difference—like pressing the elevator button for a guest. Yep, I went back to Corner Bakery the next morning.

It can’t happen here
There you have three different industries. The industry performers that excel at differentiating themselves from the competition and building loyal customers have something in common: the design and delivery of a great user experience. It sounds like a great idea, and just the thing to get higher education and the academic library moving forward again. Why? Because investing in the development of a great academic user experience is right for the times.

First, it requires no special equipment, latest technology, or new capital investment. What it takes is a change of attitude and an engaged work force. That makes it a desirable initiative in a budget crisis. Second, it meets the needs of a new generation that is less materialistic and is driven more by capturing memorable experiences than accumulating possessions.

I know this sort of thing is easy to be cynical about. Great experiences sound nice, but it’s just not realistic in higher education—and what works for Disneyland and Zappos just can’t translate to what higher education does for people. Academic libraries mostly engage in simple transactions such as book lending and question answering, hardly the stuff of which great experiences are made. If you feel that way, read what Robert Sevier has to say in his University Business article on “Managing the Experience.”  Sevier believes that higher education institutions need to develop user experiences as a growth and improvement strategy.

Let UX get higher education in gear
Perhaps this whole UX (user experience) thing sounds a bit vague, and it’s a strategy outside of the usual tinkering about whether we should check-in serials or just let it go or if it’s time for a stacks inventory project. Both are important and worth considering, but neither will probably make an obvious difference for users in the long run. It’s time to put it in drive and start learning more about how you might create a unique experience at your library. In time your users will notice the difference and they’ll show it with their enthusiasm for your library and their loyalty to your services.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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