Salami, Provolone or E-book: Providing Excellent Customer Service

By Mike Parchinski and Scott R. DiMarco

A man walks in to a supermarket deli. There are a few people in front of him waiting to be served. The woman at the front of the line is impatient and rude. The man behind her is shy, inarticulate and indecisive about what he really wants. The next couple has contradictory ideas and appears to be taking their frustration out on the worker behind the counter. Each interaction has the potential for success or disaster, depending on their interaction with this worker. All of the customers have choices to make and different places they can go for their desired items. The lessons that can be learned in this deli environment are applicable to a library situation.


Job advertisements often include the phrase “customer service” in the “Job Description” or “Job Requirements” sections. What does customer service actually refer to? In simple terms, customer service is assisting a client or patron interested in a product or service. The “assisting” includes separate activities performed, and it directly affects how successful this outcome will be. One important factor is the level of customer service quality provided or not provided. Someone can know all about a product, including the positive and negative features of different companies’ versions, but if he or she is unable to clearly explain this information, the customer can be dissatisfied.

The scenarios described above can occur whether a customer is in search salami or Shakespeare. Individuals that work in a specific job field can benefit by looking at best practices from outside their profession. For instance, a library director attended a three-day seminar covering a delicatessen’s outstanding customer service practices (Hilyard, 2012). The director used many concepts discussed in the seminar to create a successful training program titled “Customer Services: Hold the Pickles.” The purpose was training staff to apply these delicatessen practices to their own workplace. One example is patrons were encouraged to fill out a form on the good and not-so-good aspects of the library services offered. Librarians review these forms to define measurable goals, and management encourages new ideas for improving customer service. Managers reward employees who incorporate these new practices, and administrators better define procedures based upon new information (feedback).

The purpose of this article is to explain how customer service activities that happen in a deli can be applied to a library environment. The examples described are based upon the authors’ work experience in different types of libraries and delis. The interaction with these three types of customers is covered in more detail. 

Different Types of Patrons

The woman at the front of the deli counter is impatient. Normally she is polite and calm, but today she is stressed out because of a tight deadline for scheduling a women’s leadership breakfast this week. She speaks loudly and is very rude to the person behind the counter. What she needs is the same “thing” that any good library employee can provide – a polite individual really listening and providing the correct resources to meet her information needs. Acting in a professional manner can lead to a more meaningful conversation. On a side note, there is a difference between rudeness and verbal abuse. In the case of verbal abuse, the worker should physically leave the area to prevent the situation from escalating. The department manager or another worker with experience handling this kind of situation should be notified immediately to speak with this customer.

Another example of a typical customer or patron is the shy and indecisive person who is not really sure what he really wants. This is a very common occurrence at a reference desk. Sometimes a patron appears to know his or her topic of interest but is unsure what specific information is needed and cannot articulate these needs to the librarian. This can lead to frustration unless the librarian takes the time to ferret out the details of what really is sought. The librarian can suggest possible topics in an attempt to find the desired information. 

The next example is a couple that has contradictory ideas and appears to be taking out their frustration on the person behind the reference desk. They cannot articulate their desire and appear to be getting more stressed. As a result, these patrons might blame the person who is trying to help them. The librarian wants to give the patron the best information based on what they really need and not just what they say they want. More time may be needed in this instance and can be a balancing act where patience and solid customer service skills are essential.

Three Levels Of Customer Service Quality

There are three levels of quality in customer service:

  1. No communication. The worker is aware of the patron’s presence but does not make any attempt to assist them. This may be due to loud, ongoing multiple conversations between individuals (including on cell phones) that are quickly walking by in different directions. This condition can disrupt the worker’s normal routine of assisting patrons separately.
  2. Acknowledging the individual by making eye contact and greeting them. The conversation should begin with an open ended question to clarify the specific information requested. This exact moment is an opportunity to learn more about this patron. The amount of time for interaction can determine the quality level. An example of second level assistance is a greeting and a short discussion followed by pointing to a specific shelf, or “small talk” (brief conversation on nonconfrontational topics) that builds a stronger rapport and increases the probability of high service quality (Retail Selling 101). 
  3. Exceeding the patron’s expectations. This “achievement” can occur when the interaction leads to the patron obtains useful information AND is impressed with the librarian’s professionalism. Speaking confidently, actively listening and making direct eye contact are examples of professionalism. These customers will remember the exceptional service received and tell other people about their positive experience. The likely result (and goal) is more individuals visiting the library, which is competing with for-profit companies that increasingly market their own information resources (Coakley, 2006). A good skill in any customer service encounter is ascertaining what the customer needs as quickly as possible and satisfying that need. A good way to clarify the specific information needed is by asking closed-ended questions that require a “yes” or “no” response. The transaction should be closed by the librarian asking did you find what you needed and was your question answered. This interaction is an example of better customer service because additional time was taken to successfully help the patron.


Providing a high level of customer service quality leads to loyal “customers” returning because of their positive experiences. Library staff must always be available to customers from the time customers enter the building until they leave (Miller, 2012). Taking the extra step needed to help a customer includes providing additional information without the person’s request. The result and also goal, is making a good and lasting impression and, hopefully, a repeat customer. One way to achieve this goal is by workers feeling personal satisfaction from helping individuals. This can be reinforced by receiving a customer’s verbal compliment as well as management rewarding the worker in some fashion. A positive work environment is created because this worker feels appreciated and useful. While the cynic might say a librarian may easily be replaced by anyone with a customer service background, what really must be understood is that good customer service skills are really just one of the tools a good librarian needs to get the job done effectively and efficiently on a daily basis.

Librarians must strive to provide the highest level of service quality. A key factor is ongoing training and includes reviewing customer feedback followed by adapting operations to better meet patrons’ needs. A part of this process is librarians attending seminars covering how businesses outside of the library field implement effective practices followed by applying these to their own activities. Each member of the staff benefits by being actively involved and seeing improvements from their hard efforts.

Mike Parchinski earned a Master of Library Science at Southern Connecticut State University and has Master of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees in Environmental Science. He works in the retail industry, reviews scientific publications and volunteers in the Technical Services department at a public library. 

Scott R. DiMarco is Director of Library and Information Resources at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He earned a Master of Library Science, State University of New York at Buffalo and a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Arts from the State University of New York at Brockport. 


Coakley, Candace. “Becoming a Great Place to Work: the story of Wegmans.” Northeast Human Resources Association. October 23, 2006.

Hilyard, Nann Blaine, ed. “The Not-So-Secret Keys to Great Customer Service.” Public Libraries Online. May/June 2012, Vol. 51, No. 3.

Miller, B. “What Is Customer Service?” May 20, 2012.