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Creating customer loyalty among library users

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Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Libraries are losing customers – what are they doing about it?

The complaint has become a mantra –- libraries are losing customers to a range of competitors, most of them web based. And what are they doing about it? Some have tackled the problem head-on, others have tinkered around the edges, and still others wring their hands and continue to witter away impotently. What few have done is to try understanding their customers better and to build a closer relationship with them; yet surely these are prerequisites to building customer loyalty rather than a debilitating draining away of custom.

Understanding customers and building relationships

This is certainly the view of James Barnes, professor of Marketing at Memorial University of Newfoundland, as espoused in his excellent article, "Establishing meaningful customer relationships: why some companies and brands mean more to their customers". This has much relevance to the marketing of information services and is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to understand the client base of such a service, how to meet its needs, and how to encourage its growth.

Meaningful interactions

Barnes (2003) maintains that very few organizations have "real" relationships with their customers, which means that they do not enjoy meaningful interactions. Is this an issue? Absolutely, for it is through meaningful interactions that an organization begins to build up "brand loyalty" as distinct from mere repeat transactions (that could easily be diverted to more attractive environments). He goes on to maintain that it is a matter of offering value, and there are two kinds of value:

  1. Functional value, which incorporates ease of use, time-saving and convenience.
  2. Emotional value, which makes the customer feel special, providing interaction, providing respect/recognition/appreciation.

Emotional value

Most libraries and information agencies are pretty successful at creating functional value, or they would have died long ago; however, much less attention is paid to emotional value, which is harder to implement and difficult to measure, yet which leads to a deeper and longer-lasting relationship. For example, a library may guarantee that a virtual reference query will be answered within a certain number of hours –- this is good functional value. But emotional value is provided when the service provides a correct and full response, and perhaps goes "beyond the call of duty" to recommend additional sources in a closely related area, and reminds the customer that they are welcome to come back for more. As a result of this the customer may feel a deeper connection with the service, and become much more likely to return time and again.

Professor Barnes also describes a number of strategies that can be used to create meaningful emotional relationships with customers, and these, too, speak directly to information providers. These nine strategies range from "associate yourself with and support things that are central in the lives of your customers" to "earn a reputation for being thoroughly reliable".

Excellent, well-explained advice here for any library manager, which makes this article a very highly recommended read.


Barnes, J. (2003), "Establishing meaningful customer relationships: why some companies and brands mean more to their customers", Managing Service Quality, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 178-186.