Serving Users and The Element of Surprise

Every year we have a library retreat at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. It’s a really relaxing, reflective environment and it’s always productive. This week, one of the conversations that we were having out there centered on our service philosophy and how we go about serving our users. This meant serving them in person, via chat, in the classroom, on our website, etc.

Our team had a lot of great insights, especially in talking about our reference interactions. In reflecting on how I wanted my service to look, I realized that I dont want to simply satisfy them or give them a positive experience. I want to surprise them. I want users to walk away from a reference question thinking “wow, I didn’t realize how much time asking a librarian saved me.” I want students in a class to think “this person is a librarian? This class was actually fun and I learned something useful!”

And sometimes this happens. This semester a student came up to me when I was wandering through the library and we had something resembling the following conversation:

Student: “Can I ask you something?”
Me: “Sure, what do you want to know?”
Student: “Why do you librarians always smile so much? You seem so happy.”
Me: (smiles) “Huh, I guess we just really love what we do. Thanks for saying such a nice thing.”

Surprise is all about doing things that are unexpected. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that one of the factors that can contribute to an idea or experience being sticky is if it is unexpected. People may not expect librarians to be smiling all the time. Perhaps they had different experiences other places they’ve been. Students may not expect library instruction sessions to be fun and engaging. Maybe they’ve seen boring lectures before. Students may not expect a librarian to be non-judgmental and amazingly helpful in a reference encounter. When these things do happen it creates a very memorable experience.

Steven Bell did an excellent conference paper presentation at ACRL this year about this. In his paper he outlines strategies to deliver a “WOW user experience.” He points out that student expectations for libraries are actually fairly low. In fact students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience. According to the literature there are students that have library anxiety. It makes surprising students that much easier.

The element of surprise is a powerful weapon. It makes experiences very memorable. If you are able to surprise the people you’re serving, then you’ll likely have people who keep coming back and maybe even tell their friends.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Thanks for mentioning my ACRL presentation and providing the link to the recording – first chance I’ve had to come across it. Also good to read that you are thinking about how these ideas can have an impact on our work and ability to connect with the user community.I’ll look forward to hearing about more of your experiences with the element of surprise.

  2. No problem Steven. It was a good presentation and I remembered some of the elements of it during our retreat. It’s good to get people thinking about more than just serving users, but impressing them.

  3. While I agree completely with the need to deliver a WOW user experience, I think that libraries assume this can effectively implemented by providing staff with relevant training, such as customer service, presentation basics, and reference skills etc.

    However in my view, great customer service (and a WOW user experience) only comes when library staff are equipped, motivated, trained and supported to do so. One way to assess whether staff are engaged or are able to do great things, is the internationally recognised Gallup Q12 survey. Gallup has undertaken extensive research to identify 12 core questions that can be used to determine the level of staff engagement in comparison to others in the same industry, country or perhaps across teams within an organisation.I recently wrote a blog post about how the first two Gallup questions can be applied in libraries. If you’re interested in reading more, it can be found at http://findingheroes.co.nz/2011/03/29/great-customer-service-requires-committed-library-staff/

  4. You make a good point Sally. I think that for the most part our staff is engaged so I sometimes don’t realize how good we have it. I also think we could be more systematic about our customer service. Great customer service doesn’t just happen. Thanks for the link to the article. I think it’s an interesting idea that you talk about in there that the staff needs to come before the customer, so they are engaged, committed and can do their best work.

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