Defining “good service”

When I wrote our strategic plan, I included Objective 1.2:  We must review our service philosophy and priorities in light of the assessments available to us, including Spring 2010 assessments and 2008-2009 Program Review and Self Study reports.

Review our service philosophy? Okay, many of us say. No problem.  I bet any librarian can start filing in the blanks.

“We strive to provide excellent service.”
“Service is our number one goal.”
“Good service is why we’re here.”
“This is a service-oriented profession, and it’s the most important thing we do.”

Yes.  Okay.  But.  What’s that mean, in the practical, day to day sense?  There was a brief discussion on Friendfeed recently about the difference between providing good service and being a doormat.  It didn’t really go anywhere, but it stuck in my mind in no small part because of the kinds of conversations I have every day.

  • In a discussion about our impending website redesign, the project team debated our goals.  Is our website a finding tool for our student users?  Or is it a venue through which we teach students how to be better information consumers?  Should we make it straightforward to get from the homepage to the ILLiad login, or should we take advantage of the real estate on the login page to communicate important concepts to the user?  Should we arrange the information to meet the expectations of people with many different learning styles or should we create an architecture that is as streamlined as possible and assume people will learn it?  Do we create pages that direct students through the research process the way we hope they will approach it, or do we give them prominent links to the resources we know they go to first?  Which is the better service to them — giving them what they want, or guiding them to what they need?  What is our role in furthering the educational mission of the college, and how far do we take that in our own planning and implementation?
  • A student wanted to appeal her fine, insisting that she returned her books on time.  Five months ago.  I explained that our appeals policy allows appeals within 10 days of receipt of notice of the fine.  She responded that the address on file was her sister’s house, and that’s not where she lives, so she didn’t get the fine notice.  I countered that it was her responsibility to make sure the College has her correct communication information.  “But I returned them on time, you checked them in a month after I brought them back!”  I had to sigh in frustration; that scenario is unlikely.  I have no reason to believe my staff didn’t do their jobs appropriately and effectively.  And I cannot go back five months and figure out what went wrong — too much time has passed.  (Thus the 10 day policy.)  And so: waiver denied.  The student is not happy.  But I ask myself: did I provide good service?  What’s the better good, waiving $18 in fines because she went to the trouble of complaining, or teaching her something about the world, with its rules, policies, and responsibilities?  Is it better to be kind to an individual, or to fairly uphold policies for all users?
  • We received an anonymous complaint in our suggestion box that was liberally laced with profanity and ALL CAPS and was signed “FUCK YOU!”.  The problem was a lost paper, saved to the desktop of a library computer, and then DeepFreezed into oblivion at log-off. We wipe our computers at log-off to protect student data and to keep the machines running smoothly, and have for at least five years.  All of our students are told about their cloud storage, over and over, every year, by computing services, orientation staff, and the libraries.  They don’t always listen, or understand what they’re hearing, or why they should care.  So, in this case, the infrastructure worked as intended for our institutional needs, in pursuit of our goal of meeting the teaching and learning needs of our users.  But from this user’s perspective, the system, our attitude, and that computer are broken.  Do we provide a better service by maintaining the infrastructure so that it runs as fast as possible with the fewest possible security leaks, or by making it easy for students to manage their data however they want to in accordance with their individual habits? If the user is not broken, and our systems are not broken…

Parsing these distinctions into a usable definition of “good service” is very, very hard.  Impossible, I think. This week, someone in my social stream floated this post on the Nordstrom Employee Handbook into my consciousness.  It says, simply,

Welcome to Nordstrom

We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

And perhaps that’s all that needs to be said.


  1. These questions become even more challenging in the public library setting. In an academic setting, at least, my feeling is that you should be educating your student population to be responsible, read and understand the policies, and guide them to what they need rather than spoon feeding.

    In the public setting, though, we deal constantly with this issue. I fear in our library sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So is the patron who is paying fines and fees without question and accepting our policy about only 2 renewals being shortchanged? If someone argues fines, we tend to waive as if we don’t our director will. If someone whines about needing the book for another 3 weeks, we tend to override and give another renewal for the same reason. But how fair is that to the person who understands that we are a public facility and respects the policies that have been set up?


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