Please Ask for Assistance

don't touchI took this photo at a guitar store in a small town in Wisconsin. I get what they’re doing – lots of guitar/music stores do the very same thing. They really don’t mind you touching the guitar – as long as a staff member is standing beside you. Why?

Well … you might break the thing … you might scratch the back of the guitar … your playing style might be too rough for their floor model … it might be out of tune, and the floor rep could help you … the sales dude might need to “persuade” you that it sounds good …

And of course, the floor rep would need to remove that sign for you before you tested it out.

What’s going on here? This music store (like many others) is not focusing on customers. They are focusing on their stuff – their guitars, their drums, their merchandise. They want to make sure that merchandise isn’t damaged … maybe something bad happened once, and someone tripped while holding a guitar, and cracked it. But that’s certainly NOT the majority, is it? For the most part, they are actually damaging their business. Who wants to ask for assistance?

Guitar Center gets this. That has to be the noisiest music store I’ve ever visited. Why? Because they let you touch the merchandise. Grab a guitar off the wall, plug it into the largest amp you can find, and wail away. Go to the drum room, find some sticks, and try out that new Disturbed (yes, this is a rock bad) lick you just learned.

In the process, you get to test out the merchandise. And Guitar Center does a good job of pushing that merchandise (judging by the many large stores they have all over the US). It’s working for them.

Which leads me to my point – do we do this in libraries? Do we have processes in place that force customers to “ask for assistance” before they “test out the merchandise?” Some possibilities:

  • study rooms that you have to ask to use (or bathrooms, for that matter)
  • computers that are “locked down” so even simple things like USB drives don’t work on them
  • The reference section that can’t be checked out (even though those books aren’t used much)
  • A subscription service, like Overdrive, that’s there … but difficult enough to use that it turns customers away.
  • Or even good, useful services in your library that simply aren’t advertised (my library’s guilty of that – and we’re fixing it)?

How to fix this? Maybe start here – figure out the original reasoning behind the rule/policy. If it’s one of those “5 people did it so we’re punishing/protecting 100” types of rules … simply stop it. Right now. You should have other policies in place to fix those things (like a behavior policy, a check out policy, a computer use policy, etc).

My guess is that if you get rid of those types of policies and procedures, you will be well on your way to fixing your own “please ask for assistance” signs in your library.

pic by carpaccio

  • naamme

    As a MLIS student and library enthusiast, I totally agree with the sentiment of your post. But as a guitarist, I find it amusing that you're using Guitar Center to illustrate your point. Most of the musicians I know hate going to Guitar Center, and do so only because of necessity (i.e. it's the only music store in their area or they need something fast or on credit). Why? Partially because of the noise encouraged by their policy of letting anyone try anything at any time. Although this policy seems like a positive in terms of customer service on paper, in practice it makes being in their stores a miserable experience. Meanwhile, their size and power let them to balance out the cost of strings, cords, guitars, etc. that get broken, which is a luxury that libraries often don't have.

    I could try and relate this to your library analogy by noting that leaving study rooms, computers, etc. open for easy public use can also lead to unsatisfactory patron experiences (trashed or loud study rooms, viruses on computers). But I think the difference is in motivation – Guitar Center is motivated by sales, while libraries are supposed to provide a public service. Companies can decide what customers can have access to based on what they can afford versus what it will net them, while (in theory at least) libraries should make everything as available to the public as possible, because otherwise, they are neglecting their mission.

  • davidleeking

    Interesting take on Guitar Center – I like it for the same reasons other musicians don't, I guess. Personally, I LOVE plugging into amps and testing them out – that's why I have the amp I do right now… cause I A/B'd a whole bunch of amps there.

    But to each his own – it's definitely noisy there, too!

  • aarontay

    Interesting, given that my library has moved towards a policy where discussion rooms are open all the time, but people who booked the room have the right to ask others to leave if they booked it.

    “The reference section that can’t be checked out” – This one is interesting, my sense is the reference section isn't being used much (our special collection – SIngapore/Malaysia collection is still well used though) , with patrons preferring online sources, so it might be a good time to actually do away with most of the section, moving them back to the main shelves.

    “figure out the original reasoning behind the rule/policy” – This one is something that I'm trying to do recently, look at a rule and try to figure out why.. Supposedly as employees you should know why hence you can explain and use your discretion to override..

    One that I've being wondering lately.. why the loan entitlement of X? Why the number of renewals (why not unlimited unless holds placed)? Was there some sophisticated calculations done?

  • BookFarmer

    Good post; we do often set up systems with the best of intentions that confound our customers. OverDrive is a great example. We are a member of the Kansas Consortium, with the aim of giving our customers access to thousands of downloadable titles. Unfortunately, I've sent many of those customers to Sony to find out how to download titles for eReaders. Three of us spent nearly an hour trying to download books one afternoon, with no success. Any idea on how we can make that experience easier? We don't want to lose those folks, but OverDrive can be a pain.

  • davidleeking

    Yes – that's a great example! I think I might post on that experience in a
    month or so – I've been focusing on ebooks lately. It might be something to
    start off a discussion, anyway!

    David Lee King – blog – videoblog
    twitter | skype: davidleeking

  • Luke Rosenberger

    ranganathan's first law of music retailing: guitars are for use.

  • annew

    Love the “5 people did it so we’re punishing/protecting 100″ meme… our library, one of San Diego's under budget squeeze makes us ask for a key for the restroom… has measurably improved that used-to-be-trashed system. Computers are always busy… just always which pleases me, means a signup procedure for any attempt at fairness and makes me wonder what folks will do under reduced hours… as a patron I see my local library as doing an excellent job under pretty awful circumstances not of their own making.

  • annew

    well, darn, disqus just dumped my comment… hows' that for helpful.

    I think I said something like I love the 5 did it so we prohibit to protect 100 meme… and in San Diego our libraries are under such stupid financial stress as a patron I see them doing an outstanding job under miserable conditions, including forcing use of bathroom keys so librarians no longer have to clean up that trash.


  • Jan Elkins

    OMG, thanks for the perspective. Must process information. Shutting down for attitude adjustment.

  • Peter J.

    OTOH, David, the local GC posts a staff member as a guard at the door to check you over for possible shoplifted items as you leave, which I find as bothersome as having to ask to try out an instrument. Maybe this is not the case in all of their stores, but it's what they do here. I realize that many libraries do essentially the same thing, but we moved away from that years ago.

  • Justin Keiser

    Alright I just experienced one of my many ask for assistance moments. We don't have computers that are “locked down” but there are a couple of problems. My library does not have it's own IT, that part of our operation is managed by a giant City IT. The library's needs are drastically different from other departments. The computers are locked down with deep freeze so we aren't allowed to make changes to them. This causes friction. For instance, IE6 without flash installed (yes it is 2010) is still the city's primary browser. The library fought for nearly a year to get an upgrade. Once that was decided upon, it was IE7 not 8. Still no Firefox. I just had a library customer ask why he couldn't check his gmail, he'd tried 3 different computers and it froze every time. Yes it was because of the browser. So I tried to install Chrome for him, but it took too long so he left. Very frustrating. The other frustrating matter is that our computers have Office 2003. This isn't all that bad except people come in with 2007 files. This needs the converter, which isn't installed on the public PCs. It has to be installed every time somebody wants to view or edit a 2007 file. It's all very frustrating, but there isn't much that I or the library can do about it.

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  • John Kennerly

    Insightful post. I had an identical experience at a music store earlier this week. As a musician, I want to be able to browse at my own pace, hold the guitars, and find a live cable tethered to an amp. The store I visited this week had the same little “dental floss box”-like apparatus attached to the strings which hinders that experience. As a librarian, I put myself in the shoes of a library visitor, and I can see how this same type of experience-buster can take place.

    Something to seriously think about. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Sara

    Justin- I work in a Swedish library and we have the EXACT same situation.
    After complaining for a year about still having IE6 I've finally been allowed to install IE8. I started installing it last week and it turned out that it won't work because of some kind of lockdown in the system. IT are coming to take a look at it. In may. Maybe june…

    I'm tired of feeling like an idiot and of the way it makes the library seem ancient to our patrons. I'm working on trying to make them think of us as a company that has to attract customers and to make them see their part in it.

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