Meet a Marketer Who Owns Customer Experience

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Columbus Metropolitan Library Reinvents Its Customer Experience
Columbus Metropolitan Library Reinvents Its Customer Experience

Those who get the lion's share of their information online may question the relevancy of the public library. Not so at Ohio's Columbus Metropolitan Library, where there are 17 million visitors a year and a commitment to growth and expansion, says Alison Circle, the library's chief experience officer.

Circle, a marketing veteran who's experience includes nearly a decade at agency Jack Morton Worldwide, is using her marketing prowess to guide that transformation—and to ensure that Columbus Metropolitan Library continues to be relevant for the foreseeable future. During her keynote at the 2014 CXPA Insight Exchange, Circle shared the five steps that underlie her approach to creating and maintaining a customer-centric culture.

1. Change the conversation

There are few organizations more transactional than the library, Circle pointed out. “You check [books] out and check [them] in,” she said. “That's no longer enough in this age of information.” So she's been leading the charge to “reimagine the customer experience” and evolve and change Columbus Metropolitan Library to meet the needs of its community and customers. 

“People remember the highs and lows of their relationship with a brand, and their last interaction with it,” she said, adding that for too many library customers that last interaction was paying a fine for an overdue book. “That's not a good experience, so we're eliminating fines by 2015.”

That's $800,000 in fines annually that will come to an end. “Our board of trustees said, ‘Why do we have fines?'” Circle said. Often, the cost of a book being even a day or two late means that some of the library's customers—often at-risk children—wouldn't have access to necessary resources. “We're blocking our most vulnerable customers from our services,” she added. “We had to get beyond that and do something bold. We needed to find an incentive for people to be responsible and return books, not punish them for being late.”

The library, Circle noted, should be about access, not penalty. Now, a book auto-renews up to 10 times if no one else has requested it; and if someone does, the library will reach out to ask for a return. “This eliminates the shame and embarrassment of a book being late and turns around the experience for our customers,” she said.

2. Remove barriers

“We need to provide access to what our customers need when they need it,” Circle said, adding that the library is “in an ambition and aggressive rebuilding program” that includes major renovations, as well as adding several new libraries over the next few years. 

One new building opening in July will be spacious and open with lots of light and windows, instead of the often dark, brick libraries of the past. “Libraries were built as warehouse for books, to house collections,” Circle said. “We're building them to be about connections.”

But the changes go beyond the buildings. The library has a “library on wheels” truck that brings books to the community, as well as a team that goes to the homes of at-risk families, such as teen moms and their children, and brings them books that will help them in school and life. “One of the greatest predictors of success in kindergarten is books in the home,” Circle said, noting that unfortunately, most teen parents won't go to the library. “We can ignore it or we can do something about it, so we go to them.”

One growing area of outreach is homework assistance. Ohio has what it calls the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. Third graders need to pass a reading test to progress to fourth grade. Sixty percent of kids in Columbus recently failed the test. So the library is stepping up its efforts to help. “How is library still relevant?” Circle asked. “By helping kids pass third grade.”

3. Redefine the experience

Library renovations and rebuilds are a significant area of renewal in terms of its customer experience. One 6,000-square-foot building is expanding to 20,000 square feet with a performance space in the center of one room. Additional building renovations include a Kindergarten Readiness Zone with interactive whiteboards and other items common in today's classrooms.

The library isn't about books, it's about learning, Circle said. So the customer experience at Columbus Metropolitan Library is all about how it can help its customers do just that.

4. Hire differently

“We have to change who we hire,” to fit within the library's increasingly customer-centric culture, Circle said. But she's “in a pickle” because as part of the local government the library has restrictions on changing the status of current staff; yet, some employees are retiring within five years and are resistant to change or don't care.

Another challenge is that the library's own culture is that reference librarians, who work near the library entrance, typically don't talk to children. But somebody needs to be there to greet children so they feel welcome. As a result, Circle hired a group of people this past March to work three hours after school each day to be greeters and learn kids' names. “They're on fire and loving it. We have people who have so much passion for what they do,” Circle says, citing the homework help staff as another example. “And they can impact the community in a positive way.”

Of the many customer-centric employees in the library's employ, several are award-winning within the Columbus Metropolitan Library system and in the industry—and Circle makes sure to call out their accomplishments. For example, she's created a Wall of Fame to showcase their successes. “We have a culture of appreciation, and that builds trust,” she says, especially when encouraging employees to embrace shared values.

5. Managing change

Another way Circle is building shared values is through a common language for change initiatives. She and her staff all read the book Managing Transitions and now have a shared language, and consistent four-step process methodology that illustrates the why and how of each initiative.

Circle explained that the library is shifting to focus on outcomes instead of output. “How do we take our data and tell a different story?” she asked. “We need to dig into that.” For example, how many kids who came to the library passed their third grade reading test because they came to the library? That's difficult and potential costly to figure out, but it's where the library is headed.

“We're trying to dream big,” Circle said. “If we're not envisioning greatness we're doing a disservice to our tax payers.”

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