My thoughts on ‘customer service’


Just to preface this post – this is something that has bothered me for a long time, but I felt particularly compelled to get my thoughts written down after a particularly interesting discussion at last weeks RLC meeting in Oxford.


Of course, in any role, I would agree a certain level of professional courtesy is required when dealing with anybody – we are all human, after all. However, having worked in both the food service industry (2.5 years experience in restaurants/pubs) and in Librarianship (2 years, academic libraries, both FE and HE) I have come to really dislike the use of the term ‘customer’ to refer to library users.

First of all, at the most basic level, and from my own experience in food service, customers are ‘always right’. It’s a well known policy, and it essentially gives people a green light to treat you as less than human. From being shouted at, physically assaulted, called names, clicked at, and sexually harassed, those of us working low-paid waiting/bar-tending jobs are expected to shrug if off as part and parcel of providing ‘good customer service’. Even when that means pretending to be okay with the fact that a man old enough to be your father is trying ask for your number, it doesn’t serve the company’s profits to have an ‘angry feminist’ yelling at punters, scaring them and their fat wallets away. Essentially, you aren’t 100% driven by a desire to make sure people have a super great time at the restaurant/pub – you’re driven by the fact that if they don’t, it might have negative financial repercussions for you.

From a less anecdotal perspective, let’s first dissect the meaning of the term ‘customer’. It’s first entry in the OED defines it as ‘one who acquires ownership by long use or possession’, meanwhile, Johnson defines it as ‘one who frequents any place of sale for the sake of purchasing’. It is not until it’s third entry in the OED that it is described as ‘an applicant or client’, and even then the OED stipulates that that is only in ‘extended use’. EXTENDED USE. It’s primary meaning, therefore is entirely related to transactional behaviour. This is why I find this term so problematic when applied in a library environment –  the process should be about collaboration, openness, and facilitating learning rather than espousing the kind of values that essentially only champion things that have some kind of market value.

Now, back to the anecdotal stuff for a second. Obviously, I’m good at the whole ‘shrug it off’ thing as I managed to hold down a job in a restaurant for 2 years. I can think of literally 2 times where I lost my cool with customers – once when a man started shouting unnecessarily at my pregnant co-worker because our card machine was broken and he hadn’t seen any of the three signs I’d put up on the doors about it, he made her cry so I told him I wouldn’t stand for people talking to my staff like that and asked him to leave, and another time when a man left after having (seemingly) nothing go wrong with his dining experience only to turn around when he was halfway out the door, come back and go ‘actually, the service here is terrible’ and have a go at me. I simply gave him major side eye and said ‘okay’ and watched him leave slightly horrified – but those two instances aside I have always remained polite, even when physically and verbally assaulted in my workplace.

In fact, I was given my first library job because of my customer service experience and not, as I thought, the voluntary library experience I painstakingly sought and talked up in my job applications.  This was for an organisation which is heavily influenced by neoliberal approaches to things – from having a ‘CEO’, investing in business and to some extent, corporate sponsorship. I firmly believe that certain things should not be run as a business and education is almost definitely one of them. Education, I feel, should prioritise learners – not profits – but at this organisation I didn’t really feel like that was the case; we were given customer service training, and were almost constantly told we weren’t ‘visible’ enough – ‘how will the customers know who to ask for help?’ Feeling that my values weren’t necessarily in line with those of the organisation I left after a year.

But away from the anecdotal stuff again. Using the term ‘customer’ implies a certain kind of relationship between librarian and library user, and the term customer is highly evocative of a market influenced register. It implies that the services we offer as librarians is a commodity, when, if you ask the majority of librarians, they will totally disagree with you. At the very heart of it, librarians organise information so you don’t have to, we help you find stuff, and (best of all) we teach you how to find that stuff yourself, for free. We’re like your fairy godmother and an encyclopaedia all rolled into one, and I don’t remember the part after the ball where the fairy godmother rocked up asking Cinderella for a bunch of money because those glass slippers were damn expensive and she had bills to pay. The reason I want to do it is because I want to help people and I have seen firsthand how libraries and librarians really can do this – it’s a passion career, not one you go into to make tons of money.

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that I see a core difference between a ‘business’ and a ‘service’. Businesses have customers and services have users. Businesses are driven by profit, services are driven by need (i.e. people need healthcare/education etc). Yes there is a grey area where businesses can provide services from which they profit, but in this context I’m using service to mean any fundamentally necessary service with which we cannot function as a society without. Academic and school libraries are an extension of education, which is a more than a service – it’s a right, whilst public libraries are a vital service in all communities for continuing education and keeping information accessible, as well as providing a safe space for people to go – whether they do not have internet access but need to look things up online, whether they’re a parent who can’t afford to buy their child lots of books but still want to read to them, the library allows for these things to happen without prejudice or judgement. These things are all necessary parts of the service librarians provide, and for that reason, I will refuse to refer to my readers or users as ‘customers’ – they’re not my customers, and I would never want them to be, because I don’t want to live in a world where the work I do stops being about helping people for the love of making a difference, and is seen as something that could, or should be generating profit.


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