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Unified Service and Tiered Information Service

Houston Public Library
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Innovation Summary

In the face of system-wide budgetary and staffing reductions Houston Public Library challenged traditional service delivery methods, retooled staffing models, and reconfigured physical layouts at Neighborhood Library locations to provide seamless and intuitive services to customers and utilize limited staff as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Problem Statement

Upon entering a traditional library, customers encounter at least two service points. One is designated for circulation services and the other for reference. Increasingly, staff observed that the distinctions between circulation and reference desks had no rational meaning to most of our customers. Customers just want someone who could provide them with assistance. In fact, some customers appear confused when a seemingly basic transaction is transferred to another staff person; or when they had to wait for the next available reference staff to answer a simple query. In addition, the assistance sought by customers from the reference staff often fell into the category of directional information or technical assistance rather than true reference inquiries. Multiple service desks for circulation and reference assistance required that each service point had to be staffed regardless of the level of business at a given location. It also meant that customers were continually shuttling back and forth between service points based on their need. The existing model presented barriers to providing customers with efficient and timely service and often presented challenges with sightlines and safety because of the positioning of the service points. Budget reductions led to significant decreases in staff throughout the system. Consequently, staffing demands required by two or more service desks meant that other important staff work responsibilities were often put on hold. This led to delays and/or impediments in the availability of materials for the public, program preparation, community engagement activities and other customer services. It became clear to staff that an innovative solution was needed that would better utilize limited staff resources to deliver the exceptional services our customers had come to expect.


The Unified Service Model (USM) was being piloted in a new HPL location. However, system-wide budget reductions in 2010 and 2011 accelerated the expansion of the concept. USM provides a smart, easily visible and accessible single service point where customers can receive assistance for a variety of library needs. This model required major changes in operations, physical layout of facilities, and a new collective staff mindset about how library services were delivered. Extensive cross-training of all staff in circulation functions and basic information assistance was implemented. The goal was to ensure that any staff member—regardless of classification—could assist most customers, with referrals necessary only when advanced assistance was required. Tiered Services Guidelines were developed to clarify expectations in the new model. These tiers are briefly described below: • Tier 1. Addresses the bulk of our customers’ service and informational needs—including basic circulation, information, and technology questions; all frontline staff assist with these questions. • Tier 2. Encompasses more challenging and advanced reference questions that should be escalated to a librarian on site, or, if necessary, to Remote Reference services at the Central Library. • Tier 3. Focuses on specialized information that is found elsewhere and must be referred to Central Library or to Special Collections, or where Tier 2 assistance does not yield enough information. Additional operational elements of the model include: adjusting staffing levels during slower periods, scheduling staff to rove and complete other tasks, such as shelving, while actively engaging browsing customers, and making customer service a higher priority over scheduled tasks. To support operational changes and enable a smooth transition, existing service desks were repurposed and consolidated into one service area. Several locations received minor renovations to remove circulation and/or reference desks to create a single service desk to accommodate the new service model.


The Unified Service Model has successfully accomplished its four primary goals: 1) provide a high level of customer service with reduced staff levels, 2) improve the customer’s experience, 3) implement more flexible and efficient use of staff, and 4) improve staff morale. In two years, Neighborhood Library staffing levels decreased by 20 %. The provision of a single point of service combined with flexible staff scheduling ensured retention of service quality. The customer experience was enhanced by the following: 1) easily identifiable customer service staff, 2) one primary point of service, 3) reduced time waiting for assistance, 4) transactions completed with one person, 5) and proactive service. Staff ready to shift from shelving to reference assistance improved the timeliness and efficiency of customer interactions and productivity. As a result of the USM, customers expressed improved satisfaction with service because they encountered friendly staff who presented themselves as available to engage them. Survey results for the original pilot project at three locations showed that 99% of customers were able to locate a staff member quickly. In addition, 99% of respondents found the staff members were courteous and helpful throughout interactions. Interactions with staff received 99% approval for timeliness and efficiency, and 97% reported that the information and assistance met their needs. Staff experienced greater satisfaction with their ability to meet customer needs. In addition, staff gained greater awareness of each other’s responsibilities and respect for each other’s contributions. Incorporating staff suggestions improved the Unified Service Model training methodology and allows for continuous improvement of the model. Cross-training improved operational functions and improved team building. Additional benefits of the Unified Service Model include the entire staff teams in locations becoming more aware of HPL’s organizational goals and more attuned to the specific needs of the community.