Customer Service is NOT Advocacy

As tempting as it would be to make the entire body of the post only two words (“see title”) or just the graphic, I reckon there would be a call for further explanation as to what I meant by the title. And here is what I mean: excellent customer service is not advocacy for the library. I’m writing this post because I believe that there is a certain level of complacency and a false comfort in the idea that by simply providing good customer service people will take action on behalf of the library.

This is simply not so. 

The terms “advocacy” and “customer service” are not synonyms nor share the same definition nor are interchangeable. Libraries will not remain open because the staff in the library were nice or friendly to their patrons. No decision maker will be swayed by such proclamations of good care by staff. What is required is the ability of the patron to demonstrate the value of the library to them. Customer service is just the fancy frame that encompasses the importance that the library holds in the life of the patron.

While providing good customer service will certainly assist in making people more receptive to being asked to take action (which is what advocacy is), by itself it is not advocacy for the library. It’s dangerous for the future of the library to confuse these two actions; customer service does not lead to effective patron action. In providing the patron with an excellent customer experience, that creates the opportunity to let them know how they can help the library maintain its funding, keep staff members and hours, and (in some cases) keep their doors open. Customer service is important as an avenue for the advocacy that is required to illustrate the value of the public service institution.

In case people need a reminder, I made a graph. Enjoy and use liberally.


17 thoughts on “Customer Service is NOT Advocacy

  1. Andy, customer service may not equal advocacy, but I’m curious about why you are even making the argument? Is there a voice or a movement out there in libraryland that suggests that customer service, alone, IS advocacy? Is there some need to clarify? What motivated you to write this post?

    While customer service may not equal advocacy, I’d argue that it is certainly part of the foundation upon which advocacy is built. Good luck doing advocacy if you give crap service to your customers!

    In the end I suppose nothing EQUALS advocacy, per se, because advocacy is a blend of many different elements, quality service being one of them. You could just as easily write posts that proclaim:

    “Demonstrating value is NOT advocacy” or

    “Having good relationships with stakeholders is NOT advocacy” or

    “Knowing how to communicate value” is NOT advocacy” or

    (just for fun) “Promoting your librarians as rock stars is not advocacy.”

    Etc., etc.

    While none of the above EQUAL advocacy, they are all (with the exception of the last example) important components of the multi-faceted and complex process, and the fact that they don’t, as individual activities, EQUAL advocacy, in no way belies their value and importance.

    So I guess my counter-slogan would be, “Customer service may not equal advocacy, but good luck trying advocacy without it!”

    I know, I know. That doesn’t lend itself as easily to a catchy little graphic.

    • Pete, I’ll be frank. This post came out of a gut feeling that has been stewing in my brain for awhile. I don’t have one instance or link or something I can point to where someone has overtly stated such a sentiment, but it feels like the culmination of impressions that I have gotten over time from reading, talking with people, and seeing what others have stated about their experiences.

      I do say that customer service does allow for advocacy; I don’t say you shouldn’t do it. However, my gut feeling is that there are people in this business who feel that by offering good customer service, they are creating advocates for the library. They are mistaken; they are creating loyal customers, but that does not translate into advocacy action.

      My issue is why those who think that they are equatable. I recognize that customer service (like many other things) are tools and ways to enable more effective recruitment of library advocates.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Peter above, though I don’t think I could have said it as eloquently, especially this early in the morning. Libraries (and others who are dependent on customers) more often forget how important it is to always (as much as humanly possible) be friendly, helpful, and treat each person as the next big donor. And in some cases, that is all the power one person might have in a library/system. It’s a lot in my opinion!

    • Oh, I agree. I’m not saying that customer service is not required; far from it! But I do think that there are people out there in libraries right now that think it is /enough/ and that it doesn’t entail specifically asking for help. That’s where I think the issue is.

  3. I’m anxious for the follow-up, where apples are not oranges. They still taste good, though.

    I think Peter hit all the main points with his comment, and I look forward to hearing your reply, particularly on where this feeling stems from. It almost sounds like you’re threatened that so much energy is being moved towards customer service? You’re always on point with digging up great topics and issues, so I’m curious to hear if there is something going on out there that I haven’t heard about yet.

    • What I said in replying to Pete sums it up. It’s just something I’ve felt for awhile and wanted to say. More importantly, I wanted to see if anyone else thought the same way or if I was just going down the wrong road on a hunch.

  4. I totally agree with what Andy is saying. Advocacy goes beyond customer service. I also have witnessed many that believe having good customer service equates advocacy. And sure, sometimes a customer is roused by excellent service to donate a random amount of money to the library. But, the point is, having excellent customer service should be an expectation for all libraries. Only those customers not used to excellent customer service might be motivated to throw a hundred dollar check at a library. Most customers will expect it (as they should).

    What should NOT be assumed, and judging by the onslaught of budget cuts lately, it isn’t, is that people understand the value of libraries and that they are willing to come to our aid in times of crisis. Now, those that have been served well will obviously be more amenable to the idea of advocating, but good service, if it is an expectation, cannot ignite a passionate advocacy campaign in and of itself. Advocacy must be cultivated over time- and not just during challenging times. People need to have a clear sense of who the library is, what the library is about, when and how the library can become integral to their lives, where the library aims to be in the future and why the library is valuable and important. People must have a clear sense of this to be inspired and committed to actively supporting libraries.

    I believe we are like parents modeling our value system to our children, the better a job we do, the more likely our values will be esteemed and future decisions will be made upon these values. If a parent caters to the whims of a child, but does not spend time talking to that child, the child may grow up materialistically satisfied, but spiritually defunct. Presumably the child will only place value on what she has without understanding the importance of anything. The child will be spoiled. If we serve our customers well, but do not engage them in meaningful advocacy discussions, we will have spoiled customers that will expect a high quality of service without caring or having any true sense of value connected to that service.

    • Agreed! And I love that last sentence. If I was going for a metaphor, I’d say that customer service is the gas and advocacy is the car. It will help make the car move, but it is not the only thing required to get it moving. It is but one part in the combustion line.

  5. I agree that many (especially smaller) libraries probably think customer service does equate to advocacy. The reason they do is because customer service does make the patrons feel good about the library, and in a smaller community that encompasses most of the people.

    The other reason is because advocacy is sometimes harder than customer service. CS does not ask anything of the patron (except maybe civility). Whereas advocacy is all about asking people to vote and give and support and speak out on behalf of, etc. Asking people to get outside their comfort zone to ADVOCATE for anything is not always easy.

    I also agree with Peter that the OCLC Awareness to Funding report is a HIGHLY useful tool to help librarians understand their community and how to develop advocacy campaigns to identify and reach the Probably Supporters as well as the Super Supporters.

    • I can understand the ease that makes it easier to ask a stranger rather than a friend; there is a fear of a personal rejection that comes from the friend than the stranger. In a smaller town, I can see that. I’d like to test that, though, to confirm such a hunch.

  6. Pingback: 21st Century Library Advocacy « 21st Century Library Blog

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