Friday, September 01, 2006

Fix-it Fridays: Ahhhhtomation or press 0 to get angry

Today’s Fix-it Friday will discuss automating your services and the problems they create.

The use of technology in a library has many advantages to save your library staff time, stress, and deal with the lack of staff to meet user demand. It is typically a reactive program instead of a proactive program. As demand goes up and you can’t keep up, buy some technology and have the users serve themselves just like the grocery store. Check-out your own groceries, your books, renew your own books, go online and user our services. These work great for people in a hurry or are technology savvy. In most urban environments, it is not a problem. However, in a small or semi-rural community, people can’t figure it out, and then they get very angry at you.

In the August edition of American Libraries, the latest Will’s World column derides the use of automation as a way to solve problems. He would rather speak with a person. Well, wouldn’t anyone?! The problem is that when you do a cost analysis, it is much cheaper to buy a piece of technology and have IT come fix it when it breaks rather than employing a person to make everything friendlier and easier. No one looks at automation and thinks this would be great customer service. What the library is trying to accomplish it to push simple tasks to the users so that staff have more time to handle the more advanced tasks. However, simple is a very, very relative term.

About a year ago, the library employed a phone tree, an automated phone notification system (telephony), a self-check machine, and a little before that put up our catalog page which further allowed automation. Of all of this technology, it was the phone system that caused the most problems. We simply could not afford to call every patron for their hold or overdue book. We hold books for seven days, but by the time we were able to contact the patron, they only had three days to pick up the book! So our policy had to be changed to three days even though in the system it gave them seven days. We also could not pick up the phone because our philosophy is to serve the patron in front of you first. So patrons were leaving angry messages left and right with much of the time, they just wanted to know when we were open, or where we were. The first thing we did was implement a phone tree.

The gigantic revolt from the phone tree was heard around the world. People complained to the city manager, constant messages were left on phones complaining about the system. To this day there are still complaints, but we have no choice in the matter. It is either they can get a phone tree and get quick information through the phone tree, or leave a message and wait for someone to call them back sometime next year. As a result of the revolt, we were forced to make 0 the first option so that patrons knew they could press 0 to talk to someone. This of course did not alleviate anyone’s problem. We still can’t answer the phones unless I hire a secretary or remove someone from the front desk when we have a 20% increase in walk-in business every month. We stuck with the phone tree. We further exacerbated our patrons by changing all of the city’s phone extensions. We just added a zero on the end of the extensions. However, patrons used to working the phone tree ended up dialing three numbers instead of four. For some reason, it always took them to our Spanish language prompt. They did not appreciate that. (However, on a side note, it does let them know how difficult it is to navigate in this country if you cannot speak the language. I mentioned this in a previous post how it is vital for our economic development for employers to get monolingual Spanish speakers bi-lingual.) We ended up having to bounce the calls to increase our pick-up chances. When someone dials “0” they get the circulation desk, when they cannot pick-up, they get the reference desk, when they can’t pick up it goes to me. The thought process here is that someone should be able to pick up after that, and if I even can’t then they know who to complain to when they leave a message. This didn’t solve the problem, but I could usually smooth things over with the patron by the time they got to me or my voice mail. Of course, we made the problem worse with our telephony system.

Our telephony system makes outbound calls with an automated voice. It tells the patron it is the library and they have books on hold or overdue and to pick them up. People hated this as well. They of course wanted a warm voice on the other end telling them that they have a book on hold. A personalized service, just like Cheers where everyone knows your name and what you read. So of course, they hated that as well. “I don’t want to talk to a machine I want to talk to a person!” Again, we can’t afford the time for staff to call people to pick-up holds. It took 4 days to get to call the person and that left them 3 days to pick up the book instead of 7. No one had enough time to pick up their books. Again, there was a revolt, but they got used to it. Until I can get more staff, I can’t afford not to automate. However, automation causes you to push your staff costs onto IT. Staff time is never really saved unless the technology never breaks. Don’t we wish it wouldn’t? Customer service is lost with patron talking to machines instead of people. No new revenue for the city means any new staff for me, usually not the highest priority anyway. Until I can hire another person just to do this or reduce face to face time with increased telephone coverage, there is not much I can do. I don’t think anyone sees automation as a solution; it is just a way to get by with what you have. Some things works, like our time management system for our public access computers, but like I have said in the past, self-service only works when the patron really, really, wants to use that service. If not, it is simply a barrier and a reason NOT to use the service.

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