Monday, March 20, 2006

The Art of Questioning: Lessons from my modem troubles (Part 2)

[From: The Art of Questioning: Observations from my modem troubles (Part 1)]

So my wife and I decided to get a new modem. We found one on sale in a book store (nowadays, book stores carry more than just books). Told the salesperson we needed one. He unlocked the display case and handed it over. We paid and left the store.


My wife and I thought we needed a "router" since our previous modem was called a "Wireless-G router". Turned out we needed a "router + modem" and not just "router". Worse, the "router" we bought from the store turned out to be a "pre-router" (i.e. totally useless if you don't have a working modem). The thing cost almost $200 and we already paid for it.

We returned to the shop that same day. My wife spoke to the salesperson who attended to us and asked if we could get a refund. He was apologetic but answer was no. Hardly surprising since majority of Singapore retailers don't have a refund policy if the item isn't faulty.

But the salesperson offered to check with the store manager if something could be done. After a short wait, he came back and -- again, still being apologetic -- said we couldn't get an outright refund but could purchase other things from the book store for the equivalent value.

We were happy with that. My wife went on a book shopping spree and bought $200 worth of reading materials. Turned out she's been eyeing most of the books anyway.

Some observations that relate to Librarians and the Reference Interview/ Reference Service:

#1 - Don't just take the Enquiry at face value; make an attempt to understand the intent
Some customers might be very definite about what they want. E.g. they'd ask, "Do you have this book/ journal article/ resource" (just like me -- I sounded very definite when I asked the salesperson for "that router").

While we, the service provider, should not question the customer's motive for using our service, we should make some attempt (e.g. small talk) to understand their intent. Maybe the salesperson could have asked me if I'm facing problems with my current router, as an indirect way of understanding why I asked for it. It would be a subtle way of checking if I was asking for the right product.

#2 - Know your product
While I found the salesperson polite, I wouldn't rate him very high on Product Knowledge. When I asked about things like Warranty Cards and Technical Support, he couldn't really answer me and started looking for information in the box. I probably wouldn't recommend others to buy from that store.

#3 - The librarian can make a choice -- provide a Transaction, or a Service
The salesperson in that book store performed merely a Transactional role. He was friendly and polite but that's it. If the equipment was on the open shelf, I wouldn't have bothered to seek his assistance. I'd preferred to go DIY where I can read the product information at leisure (does this scenario seem familiar in the library's context?)

I think we should recognise that when customers utilise the service of a librarian, inherently they'd expect something more than what they could easily obtain on their own (like using Search Engines). And they wouldn't articulate this expectation. We, the service providers, have to recognise that.

#4 - Reference Training should include the "Service Behaviour" aspect
This point follows #3. If customers want a transaction to be performed, they are better off dealing with a machine (I know I will prefer that). But I'd argue that machines don't provide services as much as performing mere transactions. Hence the part of the librarians.

But some librarians (consciously or not) merely perform transactions. Service Attitude isn't necessarily an intuitive behaviour. Some people naturally are service-oriented while some aren't.

To my knowledge, "Reference Training" is often planned or carried out separately from "Customer Service" or "Service Behaviour". Maybe there should be a way to integrate the two types of training. Maybe it's about training librarians on how to start and engage in meaningful conversations.

#5 - Never, ever make the customer feel stupid
The salesperson (or service provider) could've dealt with the same product enquiry so many times that they might sound bored in giving the answer. Or they might be a bit quick to anticipate the question from the customer and shoot off an answer, hence making the customer feel as if they shouldn't have asked a seemingly basic the question.

There are many reasons for the service provider "losing it". I think fatigue is the biggest culprit. Or sometimes it's just a genuine lack of awareness on the part of the service provider. For the latter, maybe continual training is the answer.

Here's a wild idea: Reference Librarians could be sent out on mock assignments to buy a product in a field which they totally have no background. They should observe the service they receive and also record their feelings.

The assignments should be something totally out of their depth. For instance, if you're not a Mac user, go into the Apple store and pretend you're interested in the MacBook Pro. See what kind of service we receive, match against our expectations, and finally relate it to the service we provideas Librarians.

#6 - Giving the customer something is better than nothing even if it's not what they really want*
What my wife and I really wanted was a refund. While we didn't get that, we were offered something good enough, given the circumstances, i.e. we could be stuck with a $200 pre-router that was totally useless to us, or we could shop for $200 worth of books.

In the context of a question asked by a library user, what I mean to say is that if we can't find any answers or information to fulfil the enquiry, rather than say "No, we can't find the information you're looking for", the librarian should attempt to provide something close enough while acknowledging that it might not be the exact answer the customer is seeking.

[* NOTE: I decided to strike out that last phrase, based on some very valid feedback to this blog post. Upon hindsight, that phrase was a distraction to the point I was trying to make for #6, which was to always do our best to fulfil the customer's information request, with the available time and resource at that moment in time. It's about trying to end the service encounter on a positive note rather than with a flat "No". I am definitely NOT suggesting that librarians giving something good enough in order to end the transaction quickly ~ Ivan, 19 Apr 2006.]

#7 - It takes two hands to clap
This isn't something within the control of the librarian but I'd put it here anyway. It's about promoting good customer behaviour. My wife and I could've kicked up a big fuss about inadequate advice by the salesperson and insisted on a refund even when they said it was against the store policy. But instead, dealing with the problem rationally and quietly proved to be the better way out.

Every librarian dealing with customers would come across some irate people at some point. While we cannot prevent customers from exhibiting less than desirable behaviours, I wonder if we should actively reward and publicise those who demonstrate qualities of a Good Customer.

For instance, what if that book store gave us further discounts on the books (in recognition that we could've kicked up a fuss but we didn't)? While my wife and I wouldn't want our pictures to be taken and posted in their store, a discount or voucher for the next visit would certainly make us want to patronise the store a second time.

I'm not sure how public libraries could implement this (and preventing abuse), but it might be worth giving it more thought, especially if our library customers are faced with so many other alternatives to the services we provide.

Coming up: Part 3 -- Second attempt at buying a modem!



  1. You may want to consider getting the Wireless Router + Modem from Singtel Hello! shop, coz some Router + Modem brands may not be supported by their technical support. :)

  2. Thanks Herry. Yeah, I realised it a little too late about the support... we got a modem elsewhere, and that's a story for the next post!

  3. Anonymous1:33 pm

    Excellent idea about going to a shop to ask about a product. I was trying to think about how to reproduce reference training by "participant observation" when there aren't really any other libraries within easy reach. This would be one way. Thanks!


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