How do we become excellent?

I recently went on a field trip to the National Library Board (NLB) to learn more about their service excellency journey and being the ever ardent fan of the public library, I lapped up all the information like an eager puppy. There are three take aways that I found beneficial –

1. Know your target market and spare no effort to reach out to them – NLB splits their target market into various profiles such as babies, young readers, students, young working adults, parents, business/corporations, government agencies, retirees and the under-served such as low income or disabled persons, understands each of their information needs and then comes up with innovative ways to bring the library to them.

For the physically disabled, NLB introduced Molly the mobile library and the taxi service where books are delivered right to their doorstep. Or in the case of the young busy professional who works at the computer all day – one can find a whole range of library services and materials available via E-Resources. Or for students who are rushing a project and in need of materials, librarians will gladly SMS or email suitable references which can aid them in completing their assignments.

2. If you can’t stop them, find ways to join them – one interesting case was shared to illustrate this point. There were several instances where a library was continually vandalised by students from the neighbourhood schools. In order to curb this and short of arresting the whole lot of them, NLB created an Expression Wall within one of their rooms where students, probably going through the adolescent stage of their lives, can wreak as much damage as they like on it or scream their heads off to relieve stress. And it surprisingly worked to eliminate further vandalism on the library walls.

I am not sure if this is a sign of an oppressed youth or that by allowing them to express themselves this way, we are condoning the action. But the crux of this example is that when something negative happens and we cannot stop it, find ways to contain, limit and control the damage. Quite similar to providing a platform for customers to rant about your products but confined to an area where you can keep an eye on and not all over town where the damage is likely to be more severe and uncontrollable.

3. Be transparent and keep them informed – 8 months prior to the no tolerance of library fine rule was put in place, NLB had already begun their publicity campaign. Members were informed through all kinds of mediums about this policy, the rationale for its implementation and also the additional perks that would be introduced to soften the impact. Forums and focus groups were set up to gather public feedback and subsequent communication efforts were made to address concerns. When the policy rolled out, there was less resistance than expected.

Establishing a good communication plan is very important to keep customers satisfied. We are suckers for information especially in matters that concern us personally. More than that, we want to know that our opinions are being heard, valued and addressed. Just think about how crucial it is for couples to have open communication and you get the idea. Unfortunately, I don’t understand why companies love to hoard information or are fearful of engaging feedback. Perhaps it has something to do with pride and esteem.

I tried to apply these three principles to my own organisation and unfortunately there seems to be too many barriers and ‘what ifs’ involved. First there is the issue of cost – initiatives like this cost a lot of money and they have to be justified, justified and justified. Then there is the issue of hierarchy. We are not empowered to engage with the public on many of the policies since the ultimate decisions are not made by us. So to err on the side of caution, we simply block them all out, effectively blunting our educational efforts. Who wants to listen to a teacher who only teaches but don’t listen?

And lastly, I have come to realise that to have a really effective marketing cum customer education department, the team hierarchy has to be really flat. Employ people who are passionate, creative and gutsy and give them a leader who has clear directions and is able to think objectively and logically. The more levels of hierarchy a team has, the more decision points which means that any ideas originally raised will be distilled, cut up, torn apart and shredded into pieces by the time it is makes it out to the public.

I used to think that a good team needs to have a good balance of the optimists and the pessimists, the idealists and the pragmatists. But the problem with this is that every head in the cloud idea will be countered by a firmly rooted to the ground argument. The result is an equilibrium of sorts, a product balanced between two opposing poles and in other words, mediocre. To be truly fascinating, all ideas need to be given nice fertile soil to take root and grow and not weeded out at the first instance of ‘impossibility’. If we keep to being safe and doing things the way we have always done so, how then do we progress from being normal to excellent?

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