Make the first move: three ways to initiate relationship-building conversations


Over the past few years, I’ve seen discussions of customer service shift from measurements of individual interactions to programs that track and analyze all of a customer’s activities. That is, rather than focusing on what makes for a good sale or a good complaint follow-up, the trend is toward examining the entire “customer experience.” I’ve seen dozens of programs and hundreds of articles that aim to help us capture every tweet, post, like, click, thumbs-up, visit, and phone call in an attempt to “know the whole picture” for a customer.

That’s a good step forward. No one interaction happens in a vacuum. But I think it also misses the mark when it comes to library services. What we do is still incredibly hands-on and, for many library users, very personal and creates an experience that’s more than the sum of our analytics.

A recent conversation with Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Chief Executive Officer Gina Millsap brought that message home to me. For her library, they’ve moved beyond customer service and customer experience into a relationship-focused strategy.

Community dialogue drives strategy

What does a relationship-focused library strategy look like? For starters, it means getting serious about including relationship goals in your formal, written plans.

“At the end of the day, our vision and goals are all about relationships,” says Gina. “And to scale and reach our whole community, we must have powerful marketing and branding strategies that help us tell the library’s story, respond to people’s wants and needs, and develop lifelong relationships with them.”

For TSCPL, the relationship with the community drives everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Gina says four out of five of the library’s impact goals (that double as their vision statement) are focused on the community. And she’s quick to add that there’s an underlying assumption they won’t meet the goals if community members don’t have a relationship with the library!

What’s Gina’s secret sauce? A true focus on being transformational, not transactional, and an aspiration that everyone in the community has a rapport with the library.

What steps are you taking to start relationship-building conversations with your community? Click To Tweet

You should make the first move

Most people I talk to say that the key to a successful relationship is good communication. But having a serious, meaningful conversation—a true dialogue—can be difficult. And you shouldn’t wait for your library’s users to step up. By the time they bring something to your attention, it may be a problem that needs to be fixed. And that’s not the best time to start a conversation.

I know—it’s hard to make the first move. But it’s easier than you think. You can get started in just three steps, inspired by TSCPL’s journey.

  1. Look inside: Build strong internal relationships with staff. Get everyone involved in telling the library story. And make sure they understand how their role helps achieve your vision. Essentially, create internal library ambassadors.
  2. Stretch yourself and be out in the community: Starting a conversation often means going to where the other person is. Every community is different; every library is different. For an academic library, this might mean holding events in the dorms, and for a public library it could be stronger partnerships with local businesses and schools.
  3. Use data to make better decisions:The more you know about patrons and your community, the easier it is to find commonalities that can form the basis of a relationship. Assess all the ways you gather information and how it’s used. What are the opportunities? What are the barriers?

 The methods you use to grow the relationship might take some getting used to. But if you strive for two-way, meaningful interactions, people will return the favor with loyalty and word-of-mouth.

And remember: this is a long-term commitment. Advice from Gina: Don’t make assumptions—learn actively and continuously. After all, relationships aren’t stagnant, they’re always growing, shifting, and transforming.

This doesn’t have to be a huge shift for you. Libraries know customer service, and they understand customer experience. Now it’s just a matter of improving your relationships, one conversation at a time.

You can find additional community engagement resources at