Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Law Firm Library - Customers & Consumers

Who are your Law Firm Library's customers?

One of the most recent AALL press releases included a Strategy + Business article link, In Search of Overhead Heroes. And just as the AALL press release had suggested, it got me thinking about the many layers of satisfaction a law firm library must deliver.

As most law firm librarians will tell you, as well as any other non-fee earning manager in a law firm, we serve many masters. Effective delivery of our public product (research services) only scratches the surface when it comes time for our year end evaluation. Some 'other' items can include: cost recovery for research services, cost recovery for online databases, effective budget management, and delivering 'value added' projects (to name a few).

The reporting process to the higher-ups will likely focus on the cost effective administration of your services, and at times can seem devoid of measuring the delivery of quality service. In my mind this is fair, and expected if you consider their role. In a for profit business, librarians can't lose sight of their role as the budget gatekeeper. Ultimately the person you report to is responsible for cost control, and you are the only avenue they have to keep things in line (without micro-managing your every move). And because this individual or committee is ultimately writing the cheque, they should be seen as your customer.

Delivering quality service, on the other hand, is judged by your consumer - the legal researcher. Does this consumer care about the cost effective nature of your service? Optimistically I'd say 'Rarely', but when I snapped back to reality, I'd say 'No'. While I've heard rumblings about firm librarians who won't talk to you without a matter number in hand (which might force them to care), I'm convinced this is the exception rather than the rule, and really it's only an obstacle rather than forced caring. :-)

The truth is, legal researchers consume your service, they don't buy it. And they don't want to know how much it costs. The irony here, is that your COO (or whatever cost control reporting relationship you have) is interested in how much it costs, but is only marginally interested in quality delivery. So there you have it - your customers are not your consumers, and your consumers are not your customers. Is it getting tricky yet? (and please, don't look up customers or consumers in the dictionary - this is a blog for garsh sakes!)

In so many ways, the law firm library is all about bridging (or even just managing) this gap. If there is a secret to all this, I think it's recognizing that we're managing two different relationships. One group only sees the numbers, and one group only sees the service. There are very few individuals who ever see both sides of the coin. ... and if they are that 'well rounded', perhaps you have a future Library Partner or committee member on your hands! :-)

By waging your PR battle on two fronts, I find you begin to understand the balance required. If either side is seriously unhappy (and I don't mean sporadic complaints), chances are things need to be re-aligned. We all know that this business can be intensely political. And when things get really bad, more often than not, it's cultural issues - rather than library issues - that are to blame. Keep that in mind the next time you're stuck in the middle.


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