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‘Controlling the Building Through Customer Service’: How Collaborative Decision-Making Resulted in Safer Buildings, More Consistent Service, and Happier Staff

Johnson County Library
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Innovation Summary

JCL reduced theft by 67% and streamlined staff time spent on correcting behavior by implementing three strategies: deliberative dialogue, employee engagement, and administration buy-in. The library also achieved consistency in policy enforcement and customer service through the process, by using consensus-building forums and active learning.

Problem Statement

Disproportionate time spent correcting patron behavior, staff discomfort and diffidence, and rising theft threatened to exhaust our two greatest resources—our staff and our collection. Staff struggled to enforce our policy for patron conduct and address potential theft. Among locations and workgroups, distinct policy knowledge gaps existed. Previous efforts to empower staff yielded mixed results. Implementing RFID security and automating patron check-out allowed us to realize some efficiencies, but comparable investments in staff were required to truly secure materials and provide consistent service across all locations. Our customer service model had devolved into catering to the person in front of us. While our employees were given plenty of flexibility when dealing with patrons, the result was not better service, but unsustainable, over-accommodating, and inconsistent service. While some flexibility was helpful and necessary, our staff needed a framework for consistently utilizing policies to curb bad behavior. Often, the library atmosphere suffered from staff feeling obliged to placate clamorous patrons.


Employees learned to handle patron behavior problems through initiative, accountability, and active learning. Designed to encourage engagement and place accountability in employees’ hands, ‘Controlling the Building through Customer Service’ utilized a civic engagement model of deliberative discussion, comprised of forums for all staff to attend and contribute. Forums included recent recorded patron incidents, which staff collectively organized into three tiers of severity. At each forum, groups were tasked with associating patron behaviors with staff responses, creating a shared set of guidelines for policy enforcement. Negotiating these responses together gave staff familiarity with the patron conduct policy, exposed staff to their coworkers’ viewpoints, and required the group to establish a shared balance between empathy and order. Administrator and manager participation through this process was crafted to encourage staff participation and give administrators a real view of their constituents’ fears and stumbling blocks. A framing statement was created to bring employee and administration attitudes toward customer service closer together. This framing statement also provided a way to both capitalize upon employees’ successes dealing with difficult patron behaviors; and sow confidence among other staff. Time and space were provided for employees to learn, practice, and gain mastery of the new policy and its attendant guidelines. Training focused on building confidence; addressing discovered stumbling blocks; sharing helpful phrases and approaches; and encouraging employees as they became more assertive and proactive. Classes included video of JCL employees successfully addressing common difficult behaviors, individual guidance from a seasoned security officer, and customized dice. Staff broke into small groups and rolled ‘scenario’ and ‘patron type’ dice, role-playing to untangle one of eight common patron situations. The activity removed ‘what-if’ questions, built empathy by placing staff in patrons’ shoes, injected levity into challenging encounters and encouraged staff to learn from one another in a safe environment.


Progress was measured through pre- and post- surveys of all staff. Employee confidence and comfort in enforcing the policy jumped from 69% to 93%. Employees now share clear sets of definitions and vocabulary to discuss patron behaviors. This creates a responsive culture around our procedures, bringing its own inherent rewards; staff are encouraged when problem behaviors are dealt with consistently. As patrons are educated on acceptable behavior, they are less likely to become repeat offenders—at one or multiple locations— freeing up staff time across all locations. Individual employee responses to this initiative were overwhelmingly positive, expressing gratitude for the scope and resources applied to this culture-changing initiative. Front-line staff, especially those who tend toward introversion, reported tremendous value from the opportunity to simulate real-life scenarios. Immediately after the training, managers observed employees putting new knowledge into practice with patrons. A marked change was also observed in patron incident reports: reports are clear and concise, demonstrate learning applied from the training, and show staff action to resolve incidents, instead of solely reporting. This initiative has been presented at JCL’s state library conference. Conference-planners also asked for an encore session, an honor only given to one in fifteen sessions. Employees now see themselves as the front line of theft prevention, working in unison with RFID security and using gate alarms as an opportunity to converse with patrons rather than confront. According to incident reports, theft has dropped by 67% since implementation. Managers report less incident escalation and more empowered employees, clear evidence that employees are handling incidents promptly and smoothly. Our employees now deliver effective mission-driven service by managing the library environment to balance excellent customer service with a pleasant atmosphere for all our patrons.