Entrepreneurship marketing

What Your Business Can Learn From the Philadelphia Library System

Libraries, Late Fees, and Things That Drive Customers Away

If you were to develop a list of the top places where you’re most likely to find business inspiration, it’s safe to say the Philadelphia library system would not be on it.

But perhaps it should be?

Business inspiration often comes in the most unlikely of places – like a public library system. And when it does, you better listen up!

Philadelphia Library System Says, ‘No More Late Fees’

Libraries and late fees – they’re sort of synonymous. In fact, they’re so relatable that you’ll even see references to library fines in pop culture.

In the third season of the popular TV show Seinfeld, one of the episodes opens up with Jerry arguing on the phone with a Lieutenant Bookman, who claims he’s had a book checked out for the past 20 years. Jerry explains that he has a distinct memory of returning book – even recalling what his date was wearing at the time – but Bookman isn’t buying it. The entire episode is a comical deep-dive into the preposterous nature of late fees. But if Jerry were to fast-forward to today, he’d be happy to learn that late fees are going out of style.  

Just recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia – the 13th largest public library system in the United States – announced it’s doing away with library fines and late fees. The decision follows similar changes in other major cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

While there are caveats to this new rule – new books can’t be checked out until overdue ones are returned; lost and damaged books have to be paid for or replaced; etc. – it’s surprisingly straightforward. Library customers can bring in late books and won’t be charged for their delinquency – even if it’s been checked out for 20 years!

Why the sudden change of heart?

Well, it’s not really a money issue. While late fees did generate some revenue, it wasn’t a significant amount. The real issue is that late fees at these libraries actually limit foot traffic and undermine the purpose of the organization.

The objective of eliminating fees is to remove any sort of barrier that makes people feel like the library isn’t a place for them. Furthermore, there are hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of important items that have significant overdue fines on them. The hope is that this decision will help the library system reclaim a large percentage of these items so that they can be reintroduced back into circulation.

Library late fees are typically capped at just $3 to $4. However, the mere existence of late fees has a negative impact on the relationship between the library and its patrons. Most people believe in a Seinfeld-esque myth of an infinitely-accruing fee – so they just stay away.

In reality, this isn’t about library fines and late fees – they just happen to be caught up in the story. What this is really about is addressing friction and dealing with things that frustrate customers.

The Philadelphia Free Library recognized that overdue books aren’t actually helping the library – they’re essentially keeping customers away. In other words, what’s long been a key part of the organization’s business model has actually been counterproductive.

If you’re honest, there are certain aspects of your business that aren’t actually helping you reach people, increase revenues, and/or improve customer satisfaction. By eliminating or revising your approach, you may be able to propel your business forward.

8 Things That Drive Your Customers Away

Customers can be fun, engaging, appreciative, and cooperative. They can also be annoying, pretentious, aggressive, and impatient. Regardless, you have to treat them like gold. Otherwise, some other business will sweep in and steal them away.

As a business owner, it’s not the glaring problems that threaten to undermine your business operations. Truthfully, it’s the small points of friction – the little library late fees, if you will – that push people away.

Not sure what these small points of friction are? Here are a few that are pretty commonplace:

  1. Failing to Do What You Say You’ll Do

There’s one simple piece of business advice that every entrepreneur should learn early on: Do what you say you’re going to do. It sounds simple, but few people still take this value to heart.

The quickest way to frustrate a customer is to not follow up on something you promised to do. Likewise, the easiest way to wow a customer is to follow through. In today’s business world, you don’t even have to go above and beyond. Simply meeting expectations is enough to set you apart. (Though it’s never a bad idea to under-promise and over-deliver. Just make sure you don’t over-promise and under-deliver. That’s where customers get ticked off.)

2. Making Customers Wait

Today’s culture is built on convenience and demand. If you want to watch a movie, you don’t have to drive to a theater or movie store. You simply pull up Netflix. If you want food, you can have delivered straight to your doorstep in a matter of minutes. If it’s a certain product you crave, same-day delivery from Amazon will have it to you in hours.

As a society, there’s no longer much delay between desire and gratification. People don’t like waiting – and your customers are no different. If you make them wait, they’ll go elsewhere.

In today’s context, waiting looks like:

  • A website with longer than average page loading speed.
  • Shipping that takes longer than a day or two.
  • Waiting for longer than 60 seconds in the checkout line.

Patience isn’t something most customers are willing to tap into. If you want to keep your customers around, you have to find ways to speed up your processes.

3. Being Unreachable

When customers need you, they shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to get in touch. Unfortunately, this is often the case.

Today’s businesses spend so much time automating and streamlining customer service processes that they often make it challenging for customers to get in touch with living, breathing people.

There’s nothing wrong with having an automated voice answering service, but there has to be a way for your customers to get in touch with an actual human being. If they can’t, they’ll get frustrated. And in the age of social media, frustration can quickly devolve into a PR nightmare.

Make your business reachable and you’ll avoid these issues.

4. Charging for Every Add-On

Do you nickel and dime customers when they ask for additional support, added features, or complementary services that aren’t really intended to be part of your core product offering? While you have every right to, perhaps you should follow what the Philadelphia Free Library is doing and rethink this strategy.

A world-class hotel is a great example of a business that doesn’t nickel and dime its customers. If you’re staying at a nice hotel, they’ll go out of their way to get you whatever you need. Whether it’s a toothbrush, workout gear, or a phone charger – they’ll give it to you without even thinking about placing a charge on your account. They simply factor it into the overall guest experience.

Are there things that you can include without charging add-on fees? Your balance sheet might take a small hit, but you’re much more likely to cultivate long-term loyalty.

5. Offering Too Many Options

People want choices, right? Well, maybe not as many choices as you’d like to think.

There’s a famous study that was conducted by researcher Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University that proves too many choices can actually demotivate someone from making a purchase.

In the study, research assistants posed as store employees in an upscale grocery store and offered samples of jams. The experiment was conducted on two separate Saturdays. On the first Saturday, 24 different jams were placed on the table and 60 percent of customers stopped to sample. On the second Saturday, just six jams were put on the table and only 40 percent of shoppers indulged.

At first glance, it seems like the table with more options fared better. However, would you be surprised to learn that just 3 percent of customers purchased from the table with 24 options, compared to 30 percent of customers at the table with six options?

This type of study has since been repeated by dozens of other researchers using different formats and stimuli, but the results are always the same. More options attract more customers, but fewer options typically convert better.

Customers think they want a lot of options, but they actually end up feeling overwhelmed. So instead of giving your customers nine different choices, perhaps you should pare it down to just two or three. Your customers will feel better informed and you’ll see a higher conversion rate.

6. Being Generic and Impersonal

In today’s world of stock photography and drag and drop website builders, it’s easier than ever to get a business up and running. You can go from having nothing to having a logo, website, and social media profiles in a matter of hours. But just because you’re able to, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

The problem with all of these quick tools and platforms is that they suck all of the personality and life out of a brand. What’s left is a business that looks professional, but is too generic to connect with customers.

If you want to draw customers in and engage them, you have to personalize your business. Customer photography, unique logos, and distinct branding are all necessary in order to thrive.

7. Self-Serving Content

Content is king in the digital marketplace. It’s arguably impossible to thrive as a 21st-century brand without regularly creating and pushing out original content. However, not all content is created equal.

Far too many brands mistakenly assume that customers care about the company. As a result, they’ll publish boring content about industry awards and recognitions, technical case studies, and articles about mission statements and core values.

There might be a nicer way to put this, but let’s blunt about it: Nobody cares!

Your customers don’t engage with self-serving content. What they really want are blog posts, infographics, and articles that add value to their own lives. They want how-to posts, videos that make them laugh, and articles that make them feel something at their core. If you can’t create content that does these things, you’re better off saving your resources and investing in another form of marketing and branding.

8. Constantly Selling

There’s a saying in business that you should “always be closing,” but this might not be true any longer. The ways in which corporations and consumers interact has changed a lot with social media, email, and constant communication. If you’re always trying to sell something to your customers, you’re probably wearing out your welcome.

It’s okay to sell sometimes, but the bulk of your interactions should center on adding value. You should add so much value to your customers’ lives that they have no choice but to turn to you when they’re ready to buy something. This goes for face-to-face sales, too. A Consumer Reports survey discovered that 64 percent of people have walked out of a retail store because of a pushy salesperson.

Step back and analyze your approach to sales and marketing. You may need to revise your tactics and implement a softer strategy.

Shift Your Focus to the Long-Term

It’s tempting to get fixated on what’s happening right now at this very moment. We’re all guilty of it. But if you’re trying to build a sustainable business that continues to provide value for customers, employees, and all key stakeholders for years to come, you have to zoom out and look at the big picture. Sometimes this requires making a sacrifice today in order to better position your business for success tomorrow.

The start of a new year is the perfect time to reorient your focus. Paint a picture of where you want to be in one, three, and five years. Then work backward and implement targeted strategies that allow you to get from where you are to where you want to be. This is how you implement forward-thinking strategies that produce real fruit.

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