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

Johnson County Library, KS
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Innovation Summary

Johnson County Library has established the use of deliberative discussion, commonly used by libraries externally to engage communities, to address an immutable issue among all libraries: managing patron behavior consistently and proactively.

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 maximize our gains and to 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. Crafted to secure engagement and place accountability in employees’ hands, ‘Controlling the Building through Customer Service’ utilized a civic engagement model of deliberative discussion. All staff participated in forum groups that first collectively organized patron behaviors into three tiers of severity, then developed a unified set of staff responses. 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 constituents’ fears and stumbling blocks. Forum responses from staff accentuated the need for a framing statement on customer service. This framing statement brought employee and administration attitudes closer together and provided a way to both capitalize upon employees’ successes and sow confidence among staff. Time and space were provided for employees to learn, practice, and gain mastery with the policy and new set of 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 learning tools. 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.


Our profession recognizes the value of deliberative discussion to solve complex problems within communities. The participation of all employees in this process resulted in an organizational culture change. We discovered that utilizing deliberative discussion techniques internally engages, validates, and galvanizes library staff to address organizational issues and make decisions. We crafted a clear, concise, and much-needed procedure as a unified group, rather than by administrative committee. Employees now share clear definitions and vocabulary to discuss patron behaviors. Employee confidence in policy enforcement jumped from 75% to 97% and theft dropped by 67%. Managers report that employees handle incidents promptly, smoothly, and independently of manager intervention. As patrons are educated on acceptable behavior, they are less likely to become repeat offenders, freeing up staff time across all locations. Employees now see themselves as the front line of theft prevention, using gate alarms as an opportunity to converse with patrons rather than confront. Front-line staff expressed gratitude for the scope and resources devoted to this culture-changing initiative, reporting tremendous value from the opportunity to simulate real-life scenarios. We now deliver effective mission-driven service, managing the library environment in balance with excellent customer service Employees have transformed their experience with deliberative discussion facilitating the same discussion across our state. Facilitating patron-behavior forums state-wide: 1. Initiates constructive conversation among library staff on patron behavior 2. Immerses library staff in deliberative discussion techniques to solve problems internally 3. Introduces library staff to deliberative discussion techniques for community engagement.