Are you focusing on your “customers”?

February 7, 2012

I just finished reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson–it is well worth the 550+ pages and does a pretty good job at being balanced.  The story of Steve Jobs is fascinating–rather a control freak, but it worked for him and Apple in the context of being able to create and anticipate new products and services.  I also read one of Seth Godin’s posts this week on customer service (Who is your customer?).  In this era of customer service, does your library approach its services from the point of view of “who is your customer”? 

Jobs stated:

 “…Some people say ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach.  Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do….People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” 

Jobs also didn’t care about those who didn’t use Apple products–he felt their products and designs were superior and created a “tribe” (Godin’s word!) of loyal customers.

Godin asks the question “Who is your customer?” and states that the answer is not obvious. 

All libraries have a mission, whether it be to enrich learning in the public community, support students and faculty, or serve a specific constituency, such as attorneys.  Perhaps these missions are too broad, though, particularly when it comes to public libraries.  Public libraries are to serve the public, and therefore they try to be all things to all people.  This is admirable, but in the context of ever-shrinking budgets, is there a better way? 

In a library marketing class I took a year ago, we did an exercise on defining our core customers (for me, in the context of the corporate environment).  I was able to define 3 main segments of customers and had to come up with a plan on marketing services to them and continuing the relationship over time.  This really helped to focus not only on our core customers, but also on those people we were missing.  Public libraries could benefit from such an exercise as well.  Who are your customers?  Are they senior citizens and young parents with children?  Businesspeople or professionals?  Teachers? And who do you feel you are not serving well? The answers depend on your community’s characteristics and other resources (or lack thereof) to which your community has access. 

As Godin urges in Rule #2:

“…the only way you can treat different customers differently is if you understand that their values (and their value to you) vary. It’s easier than ever to discern and test these values, and you do everyone a service when you differentiate.”

Sometimes the idea of “differentiating” seems off-putting.  Both Jobs and Godin talk about how to focus on the customers that use your “product” and how to leverage that.  It is impossible to be all things to all people, and if you try, you will just have a watered-down version of customer service.  Once libraries can successfully differentiate their core groups, they can then move to what Jobs referred to in figuring out what people want or need before they know it.  As you discover your core customers and their values, innovation in meeting those customers’ needs will likely drive new customers to your library. 

As libraries sometimes struggle to find a place in an ever-digital world, consider the above approaches in order to find new niche “markets” for the services you provide.  Building a reputation on superior customer service will further strengthen your library’s position.  There is nothing wrong with focusing on your “customers”–they will be your lifeblood and defenders, your “tribe” in a tough world.


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