Services run on processes.

That’s it. That’s the punch line and thesis statement of this post. Services run on processes.

I just got back from a long day at my retail job. For those of you who don’t know, I work part time in library technical services, and part time in what might be called retail technical services. Since November 2012, I’ve worked for a retailer on the higher end of high-street that specializes in women’s apparel and homeware. I’ve stayed with this company across three states, through my wife’s stint in library school, my stint in library school, the post-libschool job search, and, for the past year and change, alongside my first post-libschool library job. During this time, I’ve held just about every kind of role there is in the store. Direct sales, visual merchandising, display fabrication, receiving, operations, management. Right now I mainly do operations tasking, with just a few hours per week on the sales floor; my specialty is fulfilling online orders from the store’s inventory and preparing them either for in-store customer pickup or for shipping. It’s what I’m best at and most enjoy, and I’ve earned the seniority to be frequently assigned my preferred role.

Now, when I’m doing this type of work, unlike at the register or in the fitting room, the customer never interacts with me or sees my labor. My performance, though, still directly impacts the quality of the customer’s experience, and my excellence is driven just as much by my care and concern that the customer have the very best experience that I can deliver. Am I sending exactly the right style and in the right size, color, and quantity? Have I selected an item that’s in perfect condition? Is it presented well – have I folded and wrapped it so nicely that it feels like they’re opening a gift? Is it packaged so well that it could not possibly become damaged? Have I included all the relevant paperwork: receipt, reurn label, catalog, promotional code? If a mistake does happen and a customer issue arises, am I able to troubleshoot and make it right? Have I managed my other work effectively enough that I am able to do all this in a timely manner?

And my ability to perform the process well, thus ensuring that we are providing a meaningful service for our customer both in and out of the store, doesn’t rely just on my own talent and industry. It’s dependent in large part on how other storewide processes are running. Are we making enough money to pay me to spend enough time proportional to the amount of work I have? Are others also trained well and performing well, or do I have to apportion time for correcting others’ mistakes or cleaning up chaotic workspaces? Have we done a good job protecting the product from theft or damage? Is our stock room well organized? Have we ordered all the supplies I need?

All of this is process-based, and all of this, no matter how unglamorous or invisible, ultimately affects the customer’s experience and their interest in continuing to do business with our company.

Layoffs in the retail sector have skyrocketed in 2017, far above the typical post-holiday slump. Although my company is not hurting quite as badly as most, I’ve still felt it as our payroll has declined and an increasingly larger proportion of associate hours are apportioned to direct customer service. Despite the best efforts of the operationally-inclined among us, our processes are currently adequate at best, at worst in shambles. And there’s been a corresponding increase in mistakes made, product that can’t be found or is too damaged to sell, supplies that haven’t been ordered in time despite a predictable need, and inevitably, customer issues and complaints. Despite apportioning a relatively greater amount of talent to customer service, we aren’t able to give customers the experience they expect.

If I have learned anything from working in retail and libraries at the same time, it’s that America runs on Dunkin’, but services run on processes. No matter how good the service on the floor – or at the desk – it can only go so far if there’s a breakdown behind the scenes. In Ithaka S+R’s recent post highlighting takeaways from their 2016 US Library Survey, library directors anticipate that they will grow their libraries’ public services functions significantly, while making major cuts to technical services positions. Erin Leach discusses the numbers and their impact in a bit more detail on the Unified Library Scene.

While I am sadly unsurprised by this data, I am grievously worried. And although I am an early-career professional currently on the market for a full-time technical services position and with hopes of a long and fulfilling technical services career to come, my worry isn’t only selfish. My worry comes chiefly from the understanding that even the best front-end public services talent in the world can’t deliver an excellent customer/patron experience without time and talent dedicated to the back-end. Without excellent processes, services will fail. Without excellent technical services, libraries will fail. I hope that doesn’t have to happen in order for library directors to realize their mistake.

Written on April 20, 2017