Nobody likes to hear criticism, whether it is somebody proof reading an article, testing a database, or negative feedback on a survey. It sucks. Depending on the situation sometimes the first reaction is to ignore the criticism or to even lash out at the person who just dealt you a mental body blow. I know, I have been on both sides of the coin. I have critiqued people’s work, companies’ products, and organizations’ services. I have also been on the receiving end too. Everything from a professional critique of an article, a vendor unhappy with my product review, to a patron complaining about library services.
Even though the first instinct is to respond with vitriol or over defensiveness, a deep breath is what should happen first. The next step is to look at the criticisms honestly. While there are some people who complain about everything, and some criticisms could be considered flames, criticism while painful can be very helpful. The people who criticize your library or your product are your users. Their input is extremely important. Yes you would love to hear nothing but glowing reports but sometimes growth doesn’t always come from those glowing reports. Growth often comes from people outside of the situation who see how something can be done better. Whether it is a different method of providing library services to a group of people or it is database that needs a better design, these critics have used your system at least once and see somewhere you can improve your product or services.
Years ago I was on the receiving end from some pretty intense criticism. I wrote an opinion of a product and the company did not like my opinion. The company emailed me and called me several times upset over my review. For a while it made my life miserable. I am sure the company probably thought, “Good, she made us upset, why not let her know how upset we are.” Sure let me know you don’t like my review, but there are ways better ways to handle things. By responding the way they did, they have turned me off to their product. Their response told me two things. First they found my criticism unfair (which I understand). Second and most important, it showed me they did not see the critiques as an opportunity to improve their product. I am not interested in products from companies that can’t see through the criticism and use it as opportunities grow.
My husband works for an online document management company as a web programmer. Often times he works with tech support and the programmers fixing or improving things within their system that their users complain about. Yes it can be frustrating but it makes their product better. He also told me a secret, they befriend some of their biggest critics. Why? They found that many of the biggest critics are also power users of their product. Some of these people use their product so much and so extensively that they find flaws that were never dreamed of but are never the less there. They become their go to people for finding glitches in the system. They are the first people they call on when discussing how to improve things. Some are beta testers, but not all. Many power users are too busy to be beta testers. Beta testing is helpful and necessary but it doesn’t find all of the glitches, your power users do that when the new system goes live. He said their power users are the first to see where the product can grow or be improved. It might grow into some previously untapped area that the company never knew was possible. The improvement might even be minor in the eyes of the company like website design, colors, or order the information is displayed, but there usually is a very good reason why they want something minor changed.
I sat down and thought about this for a minute. I can count on one hand the things I have reviewed that I rarely use. But there are many things that I use daily that I have reviewed or critiqued (and continue to do so). How many times have I critiqued MEDLINE both in PubMed and Ovid? More times than I feel like counting. In general it is the products I use, the ones I have the most interest in and want to see improve that I usually review. Sometimes the reviews are minor critiques. But there are times when I kick the tires of a product and one of the four ends up flat only to be patched with fix-a-flat. Fix-a-flat will get you to the tire store for repairs, but you can’t rely on it for daily driving. And still there are times the car runs great but the design and paint job is straight out of the 80’s, aesthetics are functional too.
While I don’t believe in the saying, “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” I think apathy is just as damaging as bad publicity. Apathy in a product means you don’t even care enough about it to hate it.
So what do you do if your library or your library product is on the receiving end of some criticism? Step back, breathe, and look at the situation objectively. We as a society are so used to our own bubbles and doing things a certain way, sometimes somebody outside of the bubble may have perfectly good suggestion. It may burst your bubble, but that might be a good thing. Depending on the criticisms maybe you need to create an advisory board consisting of a variety of your users. I am amazed at the library companies big and small that don’t have library advisory boards to keep them in tune with things. They think their product reps who talk with the librarians can do that. No. The librarians use the product in real world situations and are aware of library user trends that will impact the use of the product. Often times when they meet with product reps, the only information discussed is price, not the product. Certainly they don’t discuss the in depth issues of improving the product or the state of the library landscape (necessary to know to keep a product relevant) that an advisory board does. An advisory board isn’t just for library companies, it is just as important for a library to have a board consisting of a variety of users. All too often the library advisory board is a bunch of older administrators, who aren’t touch with many other core user groups needs. Perhaps a board isn’t necessary for the given situation, maybe schedule a lunch or just coffee to positively discuss ideas and changes and then listen to them with an open mind. Resist the temptation to rebut them, which is VERY hard to do.
By the way…
I have been waiting forever to post about this. It has been sitting in my Draft folder fully written for some time. I have been waiting for the most ideal time to release it. The reason I have been waiting to post it isn’t because it isn’t timely. Oh it is…. these days a comment on a product can spread like wildfire on Twitter. The reason is that I have been waiting for some lull time between visits from vendor reps. I think this message is extremely important to both librarians and library vendors, but it is not directed at nor the result of any one specific vendor. Therefore I didn’t want to post it a week after a visit from somebody only to get a call or email wondering if the post was about them. It isn’t. The message is much more important than just to be about one vendor or one library.