Wednesday, February 29, 2012

5 Ways Libraries Can Be Like Nordstrom

I'd just been hired into my current position as teen services librarian and was learning the ropes at the reference desk when my supervisor explained our library's strong commitment to customer service.

"We want to be the Nordstrom of libraries," she said.

And suddenly, just like that, my whole philosophy about customer service was summed up into a succinct phrase. The Nordstrom of libraries!

Photo by flickr user ttarasiuk

I am a lifelong Nordstrom shopper. When I step into that store, life just feels a little nicer. I could do my shopping anywhere... but for me, Nordstrom isn't just a place to buy something, it's a treat. It's an escape from the everyday.

So what does it mean to be the Nordstrom of libraries? How can libraries learn from Nordstrom?

1. Perform small gestures that mean a lot
I love when the Nordstrom sales associate walks around the counter to thank me and hand my purchase to me, rather than shoving it at me distractedly and moving on to the next customer. It's a small detail that's exemplary of their customer service ethic as a whole. They go the extra mile to make the customer feel valued.

We can do that at the library. We do it every day. Little things like:
  • Greeting the patron before they initiate contact, or saying "Welcome!" if it's their first time there.
  • Walking the patron to the stacks to find a book instead of pointing. 
  • Remembering to end every reference interview with, "Is there anything else I can help you with?"
These small gestures add up to make the patron feel valued, and they'll walk away with a positive feeling about the library.

2. Let people know that cardholders receive special advantages
Nordstrom cardholders have access to privileges like complimentary alterations and early access to sales, and they earn "Nordstrom Notes," (e.g. cash back on their purchases that can be used at the store). Nice, right? A library card offers a lot, too-- and librarians should be vocal in promoting everything we provide for our patrons.

As all librarians know, with the advent of electronic resources, a library card entitles its bearer to so much more than it did in the past. Not only does it grant the library patron access to an amazing collection of books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, and DVDs, but library cardholders can also take advantage of subscription-only article databases, business resources, Web-based language learning programs, and downloadable ebooks and eaudiobooks. All that, for free!

3. Be consistent
Any dedicated Nordstrom shopper will tell you a few things they've come to expect from their favorite store, like an easy returns policy and special sales that arrive on the calendar like clockwork.

The library version?
  • If we have reasonable policies and ensure that all employees enforce them consistently and fairly, patrons know what to expect. 
  • If we host a successful event that patrons enjoy, like summer reading program or a used book sale, continue to offer it at the same time every year.
4. Create a calming environment
When I think about Nordstrom's elegant atmosphere, I think of their pianists. I also think of they way they thoughtfully display items for sale, never crowding their clothing racks. How does this translate to the library experience?

Okay, so we can't have a live pianist at the library. But there are certain things we can do.
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing space by minimizing unnecessary and unprofessional signage (in other words: back away from the Comic Sans and Microsoft Publisher, folks!). 
  • Strive for a calm atmosphere by designating "quiet zones" as well as "okay for chatter" spaces within the building, if space allows. (Hint: put the quiet zone far away from the children's department.)
5. Offer personal shoppers
Personal shoppers are specialists who set aside time just to help you, and their expertise is free to the public. Sound familiar? That describes librarians, too!

Many libraries offer patrons the opportunity to schedule individualized research appointments-- and research isn't the only thing patrons need customized assistance with. So many people have shiny new ereaders, and are eager to download library books, but don't know how to get started. Libraries can fulfill that need by providing individual ereader tutorial sessions. The possibilities for personalized help are endless, depending on your library's specialties: genealogy, local history, business information...

For more insight on how to provide an excellent library experience for your patrons, check out the following:

Top Ten Customer Service Skills for Library Staff from ALA Learning (My favorite: "Provide alternatives to No.")
Library Trigger Points from Designing Better Libraries (" thing, or maybe two things, that really makes the difference for potential library users...")
Extreme Customer Service at Darien Library from David Lee King (Including mini laptops used for roaming reference-- that patrons are allowed to use, too.)
The Customer-Centric Library from Marianne Lenox (Simple yet very useful tips like: "Use your enthusiasm to exceed customer expectations.")

(Disclaimer: I should mention that Nordstrom did not compensate me in any way for this post. I just happen to be a big fan of the store and how they operate.)


  1. What an awesome post. Kuddos to your supervisor for the inspiration! "Offer Personal Shoppers" was my favorite point. My best friend has a sick obsession with JCrew and knows pretty much everyone at her local store by name. Whenever she comes in, they have a small stack of things behind the counter that they "just thought she might like." Wouldn't that be an awesome thing to do for our regular "library customers?" I'd love it if my public librarians knew my son and I well enough to set a few books aside that they just knew we'd enjoy. And I'm developing going to incorporate these ideas into my own library work! Thanks so much for the suggestions!!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Katie! I feel really fortunate to work at a library where customer service is so highly valued.

    And I love your idea about librarians setting aside books for regular patrons! We actually do that, sort of... I mean, we can't physically set them aside because that wouldn't be fair to the other patrons, but I've made lists of particular titles that I think so-and-so might enjoy, and then I get to go through the list with them next time they visit the library. So fun!

  3. I should have been reading your blog a long time ago. This is an awesome post. I can definitely relate to the Nordstrom Love. Awesome, awesome post!

    1. Thank you for visiting! :) I thought you'd relate to my love of Nordstrom, hee. They really are the best! A role model for service and a fantastic place to shop.

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  5. Personal shoppers are specialists who set aside time just to help you, and their expertise is free to the public. Sound familiar?

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  6. The public library is important to me for serendipitous reading, and for books and journals that I need to use but don’t need or want to own. (Or can’t afford to.) Ours also has recording studios and instruction in digital editing (sound, image, etc.) and librarians who are very good at what they do.

    The university libraries are also important resources, containing vast archives of academic books and journals which have both supported my directed readings and introduced me to topics I would not have thought to look into, but found through browsing. It is also very pleasant to get lost in the stacks for hours on end.

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