“The Scottsdale Way: improving customer service during the economic downturn.”

ARTICLE | Jan 3, 2012

Like cities across the country, Scottsdale, Arizona, (217,385) has been affected by the economic downturn. In the general fund, the city’s primary operating fund, staffing levels are down 353 positions (13 percent) from the year that ended June 30, 2009. Discretionary expenditure levels in the General Fund are down $45 million (24 percent) from actual spending over the same time period [1].

Surprisingly, however, citizen survey results actually improved in a number of categories from 2006 to 2011. For example, Scottsdale citizens rating the services provided by the city as “excellent” or “good” increased from 81 to 88 percent; and the services provided by the public library from 88 to 93 percent [2]. Although spending and staffing are down, satisfaction has increased. This is consistent with Scottsdale’s mantra throughout the economic downturn to “cut costs, without cutting services.”

The Scottsdale Way

Within this economic reality, the Scottsdale Public Library used innovation to meet community needs. In 2010, the library captured this approach in a service philosophy known as “The Scottsdale Way.” Everything the library does from frontline service to building design is centered in these three core statements that were initially developed collaboratively by a cross-functional work group:

  • Utilize market research to provide best service concepts
  • Enable the customer so they receive what they want, how they want it
  • Empower staff to reach decisions in favor of the customer

Each of the 146 staff members and the 708 volunteers at the library’s five branches is oriented and trained in these concepts. Library management uses them to make decisions based on the needs of internal and external customers.

This approach is popular with customers. The library’s main branch, the Civic Center Library, was recognized last year with the Phoenix New Times, “Best of Phoenix Award.” The recognition was accompanied by the following explanation:

“In a world of electronic communication, libraries are feeling the pinch. But Scottsdale Civic Center Library has figured out a way to move gracefully into the Digital Age while maintaining a healthy respect for the printed word. This airy, modern building hosts a broad spectrum of events, from opera-appreciation groups to an after-hours battle of teen bands. Charitable programs benefit local food banks while helping you work down your library fines. The courteous librarians give the impression that you are checking into a swanky Scottsdale resort, a feeling that continues as you settle into one of the many comfortable seating areas. And did we mention that they have books? ” [3]

Utilize market research to provide best service concepts

Staff surveyed library users and non-users to find out what they wanted from a library app. While a number of key features were already available and easily accessible, customers wanted a recommendation function that would work similar to that available on commercial web sites -- “If you like… then we suggest…” Staff realized they could use library staff book reviews posted in the online catalog and on GoodReads.com to meet this need. Customers can now ask “Gimme!” at http://gimme.scottsdalelibrary.org/ for a recommended book in their category of choice and then reserve the book online. The books suggested in “Gimme!” are those that may be older than or not as popular as some of the best sellers, so many customers can pick up their requested item within 48 hours.

The library also directed all telephone inquiries to a single phone number, 480-312-READ, rather than publicize separate numbers for each branch. Research had determined that most questions were not branch-specific, but could be answered by any staff member. This effort eliminated the need for staff to be tied to the phone at each of the five locations.

Enable the customer so they receive what they want, how they want it

Staff was trained to take a proactive approach to customer service. Instead of waiting for customers to ask questions, employees are encouraged to approach customers with “How can I assist you?” Staff training is focused on showing the customer how to look up materials on library computers, instead of performing the task for the patron. This new approach helps the customer and improves efficiency over time as fewer customers require assistance.

Customers also can receive special attention via email, text and unique one-on-one appointments.  These 30-minute meetings with a staff expert cover specific customer needs on questions ranging from helping a 10-year-old boy to read, to developing a business plan. Scheduling is managed so that when a question requires the expertise of a professional librarian, one is always available on the floor.

In response to rising demand for public computers, the library expanded its bank of 222 computers by five percent. Public computers are also used to teach classes on resume-writing, job searches and job skills. These programs help unemployed customers and those unable to afford internet fees. Rates of internet usage within the library have increased 14 percent in recent years.

Empower staff to reach decisions in favor of the customer

“The Scottsdale Way” also empowers staff to make decisions when it comes to customer service. In the past, employees were required to ask supervisors to handle special requests. By empowering lower-level decision making, customer service improves and decisions are reached more efficiently. For example, if a customer comes into the library to complain about a late fee – but has a good reason why they cannot pay or why they are late returning materials -- the employee has the authority to waive the fee instead of handing the decision off to a supervisor. This allows staff to “own their decision.”

All staff is cross-trained in library functions, so customers can get the library’s signature proactive service at any service point. As a result, nearly all customer questions and task requests can now be handled by any library staff member. This cross-training increased efficiency in handling customer requests and getting basic tasks completed while improving the experience for library customers.

The library also was able to cut staffing by about nine percent primarily by outsourcing cataloging functions to vendors – a reduction with little impact to customers. In addition, behind-the-scenes staff was transferred to front-line service positions to directly assist customers. This helped Scottsdale handle an increase of eight percent in library visitation with fewer employees.

Scottsdale’s “Focus on Quality Customer Service”

The Scottsdale Public Library’s story of riding out the recession is just one of many in the City of Scottsdale. It exemplifies the approach outlined in Scottsdale’s Employee Values, particularly “Focus on Quality Customer Service,” which states “We provide quality service and strive to exceed the expectations of our customers.” Exemplary customer service is a hallmark of Scottsdale as an organization. A recent survey found that 96 percent of Scottsdale employees rated this value as “essential” or “very important” to them as employees.

In spite of the economic downturn, decreasing expenditures and smaller staff levels, Scottsdale has increased citizen satisfaction and demand for city services by increasing efficiency. This has in turn improved customer service by increasing service response times and tailoring technology to fit the needs of the community. These changes were made by improving the data available to make decisions, and by adjusting service models in response to these trends.

Population served: 217,385 (70% have a library card)
Customers served: 1.7 million
Circulation: 4.0 million
Total annual budget: $10.2 million
Budget per capita: $46.90
Percent of budget spent on materials 13%
Computer use: 601,000 uses
Number of staff: 146 (24% professional librarians)
Number of volunteers: 708 volunteers worked 46,359 hours
Branches: 5 (Civic Center, Appaloosa, Arabian, Mustang and Palomino)
Web site: www.ScottsdaleLibrary.org

For more information:
Carol Damaso, Acting Library Director
Email: cdamaso@ScottsdaleAZ.gov
Phone: 480-312-READ


[1] Scottsdale’s citizen-friendly annual “Report to Our Citizens” is available at www.ScottsdaleAZ.gov/finance

[2] Full citizen survey results are available at www.ScottsdaleAZ.gov/citizensurvey

[3] http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bestof/2010/award/best-library-1886419/