The Trader Joe’s Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part III)

One of my highest read, and most satisfying post for me to write, was the Apple Way for Libraries (a Manifesto?).  In this post I summarize Apple’s customer service, user experience, and products and services and what libraries can learn from them.  I followed up this post with The Starbucks Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part II), in this post I will highlight lessons from Trader Joe’s and their secrets for success.

Trader Joe’s does many things extremely well.  They are exceptional at employee loyalty, customer service, and customer loyalty.  I remember attending a LACONI library program in which a team captain from Trader Joe’s told us about their amazing customer service philosophy.  I also remember living in Grand Rapids, MI and listening to coworkers talk about driving to Detroit or Chicago to shop at Trader Joe’s.  They would take up lists from all of us for those specialty items we couldn’t live without.  I don’t think they made the trip solely to go to Trader Joe’s but certainly made it a priority of their travel.

So what is it about this company?  The first thing you notice about Trader Joe’s are their employees.  They are dressed in brightly colored Hawaiian shirts.  They are easy to spot and request assistance from.  And they move throughout the store with an attentiveness to their customers.  I know that as an employee, I hated the notion of uniforms, but man does it make a difference for customers.

We also see that Trader Joe’s employees are happy.  Like make me puke cheerleader happy.  As I will outline below, this is from Trader Joe’s employee selection process, compensation, culture and staff training program.  The experiences that these happy employees create for us customers truly sets them apart from their competition.  Let’s be honest, Trader Joe’s products are not that great.  They are actually kind of cheap, but the user experience blinds us to that.

Trader Joe’s pays their employees well.  This has always bothered me about libraries.  We pay our frontline staff darn near minimum wage.  We are then surprised at high turnover, poor customer service and low morale.  This is a very shortsighted philosophy.  Not only would higher pay lead to better performance, customer service, and improved morale, staff would work harder.  If staff work harder then you need less of them.  In the end, libraries could reduce overhead, and create better experiences by paying staff better.  Heck, even Starbucks and Apple recognize that a Walmart pay philosophy leads to poor customer experiences.

The higher pay allows Trader Joe’s to focus on the second key to their success, hiring exceptional employees.  I have long lamented that libraries just fill their organization with warm bodies.  This leads to such bad experiences for our patrons.  Trader Joe’s spends considerable time selecting their employees.  They run them through a vigorous training program.  They engrain the Trader Joe’s culture in them, and teach them exceptional customer service.  All Trader Joe’s captains (store managers) are promoted from within.  As a result, employees see growth potential.

I want to swing back to staff training.  As I continue to examine excellent organizations I have noticed a key trend.  Exceptional organizations have systematic employee training processes.  In the libraries I have worked in, lead, or asked about, the general trend for employee training is here is our policy manual and staff handbook please read them and sign this form.  Starbucks, Apple and Trader Joe’s would not let an employee anywhere near a customer until their employees are trained in the company’s expectations of customer service, educated in the company’s philosophy, and deeply exposed to the company’s culture.

The customer, or patron in our case, needs to be given consistent service.  Organizations ensure this through staff training programs.  My students just did the typical reference experience assignment in my introduction to reference course.  It is really surprising, and saddening, to hear about the number of students who went to the same library and got very different levels of customer service.  Solid staff training leads to consistent (and hopefully exceptional) customer experiences.

Trader Joe’s has engrained staff training and customer service deep into their culture.  The more I examine organizations and organizational excellence, the more I realize that the mostly invisible culture of organizations are what leads to its status as exceptional or mediocre.  This explains why library A and library B can have similar budgets, staff size, patron base and yet one can be held up as a great library while the other is mediocre (or worse).

A big part of Trader Joe’s culture is derived from its 7 Core Values:

  • Integrity. In the way we operate stores and the way we deal with people. Act as if the customer was looking over your shoulder all the time.
  • Product-driven. Our strategy emphasizes price, product, access, service, and experience. We want to excel at one, be very good at another, and meet customer expectations on the others.
  • Produce customer wow experiences. We celebrate the special way we treat and relate to our customers. We think retailing is all about customer experience, and that is what really differentiates us.
  • We hate bureaucracy. We give everyone a license to kill bureaucracy. All officers are in cubicles. The CEO is in a conference room. We have very few layers—a very simple organization.
  • Kaizen. Each one of us every day is trying to do a little better. This is infused into our training programs. We really stress teamwork and working together, while we do not do elaborate budgeting at the store level.
  • Treat the store as the brand. Individual products are not the brand. The store is. Brand is really the covenant between the company and the customer, and the real key is day-to-day consistency in meeting and satisfying needs. Last year we were very surprised and proud when an article came out in Entrepreneur magazine said three companies that got branding right were Krispy Kreme, Nike, and us.
  • We are a “national/neighborhood” company. Our customers benefit from our national buying ability, but we want each store to be close to the customer and really a part of their neighborhood.

Almost all of these core values are applicable to libraries.  As I read through them, I need to remind myself that these were not written for libraries.  Trader Joe’s employees need to read and memorize these values.  You can even find flashcards online that employees have made to help them pass the core values test.  Does your library have core values?  Do you know them by heart?  What about it’s mission and vision statement?  These types of artifacts are visible representations of the library’s culture.  If you don’t know them, it speaks volumes about the library culture. How these types of artifacts are created, and how your library is managed.

The core value I want to highlight most from Trader Joe’s is its commitment to kaizen.  This is a relative old management concept that is derived from the work of W. Edward Deming.  He helped shape this concept in Japanese manufacturing at the end of WWII.  It is a process that focuses on continual improvement to products, services and processes.  A kaizen philosophy is a focus on improving the experience for the patron at all levels of the organization.

We see an adaption of this philosophy in the Google 20 percent process which is also found at 3M and many other innovative companies.  The idea is that you give each employee 20 percent of their work time to work on projects that are important to them.  I was happy to see the results of this when I introduced it at Prairie State College.  While I couldn’t give the full 8 hours, I encouraged employees to take 4 hours a week and devote it to projects they are passionate about.  In 1 year we rolled out an institutional repository, held a one book program with the 11 public libraries in our college district, and rolled out some participatory services.

The lesson in kaizen, and from Apple and Starbucks is to empower employees.  Empowered employees feel more connected to the organization.  They take a deeper ownership over their work, and they are more committed to creating wow experiences for the patrons.

It takes me a lot of time to deeply examine these organizations.  I read a lot about their training programs.  I go to their locations and experience their customer service first hand.  I wish that libraries approached customer service, culture building and staff training the same way we approach cataloging.  We catalog through OCLC to achieve consistency in records, to reduce cost, and to share the burden.  Libraries should unite together to create stellar staff training programs and customer service philosophies.

Do you know of libraries that excel at this stuff?  Do you know of a great library staff training program?  I would love to read them, so please feel free to pass them along.


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One response to “The Trader Joe’s Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part III)

  1. Hi Anthony Thanks for this – lots of good points. You ask if anyone knows of a great library staff training program? Opening the Book’s online courses in reader development are tailored customer care for libraries and have been taken by 11,000 staff who testify to how they change culture. They originated with public funding, were developed with library staff feedback and we keep prices well below commercial rates to make them affordable. There’s a live unedited feedback at The State of Victoria in Australia recently completed a 3-year program reaching more than 1000 staff in libraries across the state with only 6 non-completers. They used our course but the credit for the quality of the rollout is entirely theirs. 48% of a sample of 230 said the course had changed their view of their library and their job. It is possible to create stellar staff training programs! Rachel Van Riel

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