Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I've been thinking a lot about how we can provide experiences that make the library truly valuable to our patrons.  With that said, I wrote this little piece awhile back and just wanted to share it.  

Wake up and Smell the Coffee: Transforming the Ordinary Library to the Extraordinary through the Guiding Principles of Starbucks 

 by Lisa A. Forrest

The announcement by Starbucks Corp to close 600 of their stores due to economic slow-downs set off a flurry of reaction from coffee lovers around the United States, including letters and petitions to company officials, and an on-line grass roots “Save our Starbucks” campaign.  National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation featured callers pleading, “Please don’t take my Starbucks away.” Callers went on and on about their love for the consistency of the coffee, the variety of choices, the atmosphere, and the stellar service that they receive from the personable staff.  Sitting in my cozy local Starbucks with my half-caff., 1% milk (not all the way skinny), light-on- the- caramel –macchiato, listening to the baristas patiently decipher various caffeine requests, I began to draw comparisons between Starbucks and libraries.  What was it exactly that made people so devoted to a place—and so passionate about a coffee shop closing?  While libraries are certainly not businesses, I felt that there was something to be gleaned from the Starbucks model of customer service.  I began researching the subject and discovered that there are entire books written about the company’s philosophy of human service.  The “guiding principles,” which all new baristas receive during training, are contained in a 16-page pocket sized book called The Green Apron Book.  I inquired of this book to my favorite barista, who energetically returned from the back office with a copy just for me (why can’t all of life be so easy?). “Happy reading,” he said with a smile—“let me know if there is anything else I can help you out with.”   I opened the little green book to the first page, which appropriately read, “Give. Connect. Elevate.”  As I walked away, I did feel elevated--and it wasn’t just the caffeine buzz.  This pleasant, simple interaction with the barista actually made my entire day.   It reminded me that libraries could have the best collection in the world, but if the staff is unmotivated, unwelcoming, or uninspired-- it doesn’t really matter.

With that said, here’s my take on the rest of The Green Apron Book as it relates to libraries and human service:

Why we’re hereThe Green Apron Book states it in one sentence:  “to provide an uplifting experience that enriches people’s daily lives.”  It’s true—coffee can be uplifting…but it’s obviously more than just about the coffee (just as libraries are way more than about books!).  It’s the interactions that occur during the entire experience that have the power to enrich lives.  What would you say if someone came up to the reference desk and asked “why are you here?” Do you have a bare boned philosophy of librarianship somewhere in your back pocket?   For many librarians (including myself), the answer might be to inspire inquiry and a passion for life long learning.  What can be more heartening than being inspired to learn?  Yet I’ve seen libraries lose focus of this time and time again—it’s there, but often hidden under the everyday white noise of the running of the library. We forget that we are indeed in the business of enriching lives. 

How we do it.   We all know that it takes a lot of teamwork to keep a library working smoothly.  According to The Green Apron Book, Starbucks does it “Together. In legendary ways, big and small.”  The next time you’re in Starbucks, just notice how the baristas are communicating all of the time.  Notice the togetherness behind the counter—how one person picks up where the other leaves off (they are all cross-trained to work every station of the process).   Listen to how they speak to one another and to their customers (even when there is a line).  The whole process of ordering a drink appears almost effortless—when in fact, there are actually many steps involved in the “behind the counter” operation.  At my local Starbucks, the baristas often come out from behind the counter to walk the floor and check in on their customers.  It’s not so different from a reference librarian coming out from behind the desk to follow up with a patron.  Does your team of librarians and staff communicate with such transparency, cooperation, and good nature?   Or are some too attached to their specific roles to reach across those invisible lines to make even the smallest operation run smoother?       

Be welcoming.   The Green Apron Book provides some common sense advice on good manners.  Greet people as they walk through the door, make eye contact, start conversations, anticipate the customers’ needs, and so on.  The point of being welcoming is to offer everyone a sense of belonging.”  Of course, most of us do all of these things every day.  But if you’re reading this at the reference desk and haven’t looked up at the patron who just walked in the door…well, we all need reminders now and then, right? 
Be genuine.   Out of the entire Green Apron Book, I appreciated this section the most.  The points that stood out for me in regards to libraries: Remember that communication happens verbally and nonverbally, legendary service exceeds customers’ expectations, and to focus on the positive (what you CAN do, not what you cannot do).  As librarians, how can we get past meeting basic expectations to exceeding our patrons’ expectations?   Can you put yourself back on the other side of the desk to empathize with the patron—or do you find your patience running low?  I appreciate when someone tries to anticipate my needs, whether that is a glass of water at a restaurant or someone pointing out the restrooms.  Perhaps for those working in libraries, that comes in the form of drawing out a path on the library map, or maybe it is taking the extra time to guide someone through the online Inter-Library Loan application.  You need a pencil?  How about a piece of scrap paper, too?  There are many, many ways that librarians and library staff can exceed patrons’ expectations. 

Be knowledgeable.   Starbucks instructs its employees to  “Love what you do.  Share it with others.” It’s true what they say: enthusiasm is contagious.  Why can’t libraries be celebrated in the same way as good coffee?  National Library Week aside, do we really celebrate our libraries, our skills, and our knowledge?  Not only are libraries in the business of finding out the answers; they also serve as intellectual and social cornerstones of the community.  We should take pride in sharing what is most unique about the libraries where we work—everyday.
Be considerate. The Green Apron Book’s main points on the subject of consideration include offering support to colleagues, caring for the environment (think double sided printing and green friendly products), taking initiative as “when you see something that needs to be done, do it” (something as simple as picking up a piece of trash on the floor), and recognizing people for their efforts. How can we develop a greater consideration for our patrons? So often, we look at the library through “librarian’s eyes” without truly considering the perspective of the patron (we think we know what they want).  As the saying goes, “let the sweeper choose the broom.” Consider the use of online polls and focus groups…or better yet, go face to face and just ask your patrons their opinion. 

Be involved.   Libraries and coffee shops have one main thing in common—they both serve as social and intellectual meeting places in the community. The Green Apron Book reminds employees to be become involved in their communities (our local Starbucks has even partnered with the public library), to be aware of the tone and energy of the store in which they work, and to be models of positivism.  These are good reminders to those working in any public service job.  The Green Apron Book also encourages employees to express their views—what better way to ensure involvement than to give employees (and patrons) the opportunity to openly voice their ideas and concerns? 

Make a friend.  Make a difference.  Make someone’s dayIn regards to the library, we’ve all had experiences where we know we’ve really made someone’s day.  Remember, the small things make all the difference.  Just think how different my opinion of Starbucks would be if the smiling barista had told me that he couldn’t give me a copy of The Green Apron Book, or if the staff was not so motivated by challenging drink requests?  The last page of The Green Apron Book states that three things are needed to keep people coming back: products, place, and people. “They come for coffee, stay for the inviting warmth, and return for the very human connection.”  Everything matters.  Simply providing access to information is no guarantee of the library’s use, nor does it instill any lasting dedication.  If our patrons visit for library resources, it’s up to us to provide the personal connections which keep them coming back.         

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Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your contribution to the conversation. Best, Lisa