A couple of years after Hurricane Katrina I moved to New Orleans. It was the best of times, etc. New Orleans is truly both a magical and a brutal place, and it will always hold an incredibly special place in my heart. When I left a few years later, I had one “experience regret”: I never did get to eat at Commander’s Palace.
A year ago my husband Bruce gifted me a trip to New Orleans (he’d never been), so that we could hang out with our dear friend, and New Orleans resident, Rachel. She asked me for a wish list to make the visit extra-special, and since it’s New Orleans my list was all about the food (Bruce didn’t understand that until he had his first bite of food at Jacques-Imo’s the night that we arrived. Five words: shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake – which our waiter surprised us with as a welcome to NOLA). But at the top of that list was brunch at Commander’s Palace. Rachel made my wish came true.
Now, I could go into the details of how amazing our meal was, but I’ll just say that the food was the greatest food I have ever tasted in my life. I was on the verge of joyful tears with almost every bite. No exaggeration.
I promise that this is going to relate to libraries – stay with me!
What I want to instead share with you was the strongest memory/impression that I have from my time at Commander’s Palace, and it wasn’t the food –
it was the staff.
I had been so excited to try the food at this restaurant, that I had never considered what the rest of the experience would be like. I mean, I had my fancy new duds, so I thought that I could blend in with the more “elite” people who dine regularly at this restaurant. But I did find myself being incredibly self-conscious while waiting in the foyer for someone to seat us (“They all know that I’m a middle-class impostor trying to fit in with a better class”).
Here’s what made this experience magical: as we were being led throughout the many hallways, EVERY SINGLE SERVER SAID “WELCOME!” I mean, there was even a group of servers obviously having a brief meeting, and they stopped what they were doing, turned, and every single one said in the most genuine way: Welcome! (not all at once – that would’ve been creepy – it came out naturally staggered with some of them even slightly bowing). It was almost overwhelming, and I was probably bright red as I stammered many thank yous.
Now, I’ve been a customer service trainer prior to my library life, and greeting customers was always number one on my list. But when I would tell employees to welcome/greet customers, I never thought of using the actual word welcome, instead everyone (myself included) would greet people with a hello or something similar. Side note: if you want to work at our library, but don’t want to greet everyone who walks into our door, then spoiler alert: you will not work at our library.
Another thing about the Commander’s Palace Welcomes! were that they felt 100% genuine. I mean, we have a grocery store here in the Midwest where their slogan is about how “there’s a helpful smile in every aisle.” And when you’re shopping there, employees say “hi” and a “how are you?” But you know what? Many times it feels like they’re obligated to do so (cuz they are). And of all the grocery stores that I’ve been to, this one has the nicest atmosphere where I know that I can ask anyone a question and they’ll help. But would I rave about their customer service? Nope. I don’t want to belittle that practice, but it really stood out after my experience in NOLA.
I think that I’ve only ever used the term welcome when people are visiting my home for the first time, or if I’m telling a loved one “welcome home.” And I think that’s why this simple word is so incredible: it’s something that is generally reserved for people you’re genuinely happy to see while letting them know that they can come in and be a part of your home.
And you know what? I’ve tried it a few times at our library, and it really feels awkward! I’ve been thinking about this a lot and why I hesitate to do the practice of Welcome! And I think that it’s because of the intimate association of the term. It was way easier to say Welcome! to every single person who walked through the door at our Kitty Cafe event, but there were so many new people excited to be there that it felt like a party. But isn’t our library special enough, and our staff like family? Why shouldn’t we want to truly welcome everyone?
A week after our Kitty Cafe event I saw one of our regular patrons coming up with her children, and I got up and went out to greet them since other staff members were busy with other patrons. She walked in and I said “Welcome, everybody!” and I saw her do a literal double-take! She stammered out a smiling thank you and then went about her normal library routine. But in that moment of her stun, I saw what those servers must see on every new person’s face. It was pretty awesome.
And you know what? I haven’t used Welcome! as much as you think I would have after that experience. It still feels really weird. Isn’t that weird? And I’m hoping that writing this post might help me work through the process of why it’s a struggle for me even though it’s like the bestest thing that I’ve ever realized in terms of customer service. And I still plan on incorporating it into as many greetings as possible, but I hope that it becomes more natural over time.
A few more thoughts about my Commander’s Palace experience that I think relate to our jobs:
As we left, we got turned around and ended up taking the servers’ stairs down into the kitchen! We realized it halfway down, but there was a server behind us who reassured us that it’s fine – and gave us instructions as to what to do once we made it to the kitchen (turn right and go through the “YES” door). We walked into the kitchen and every single one of the kitchen staff who were facing our direction said “hello!” or waved. WOW! We were doing the wrong thing, and still, we felt welcomed and that the staff were STILL happy that we were there.
It wasn’t until I was writing this post that I realized how this last experience relates to library life. I mean, kids and sometimes adults wander back behind our circulation desk and/or into our offices. We’re all usually kind about it, but we point out that whoever is back there should not be back there. Sometimes I’ll tell kids “hello” but it’s usually quickly followed by a “you shouldn’t be here” type statement. What if we changed our attitude about that?
In an Iron Fist class, I learned to look at patrons as visitors to a new country where the rules/etiquette are different from other countries. It was our responsibility to help guide new visitors and let them know what’s expected. But, what if we treated our patrons like they’re visiting our restaurant for the first time? Just think about that for a bit. (“Welcome to your library, let me tell you about our specials…”)
This past weekend a five year old girl wandered back into our office at the Children’s Library, and you know what? Instead of telling her a “rule,” I asked her, “would you like to become a librarian too?” And she shyly smiled and went back to her mom. IT WAS SO SWEET!!! What if to any of those kids or parents who cross an invisible line, we say “Hi! Welcome to my world – want to learn more about it?” I mean, unless there’s private patron info visible, then why wouldn’t that be a neat thing to do?
Then I got to thinking about “chef’s tables,” which are very special tables that are within the kitchens of high class restaurants where you can eat while watching the chef and kitchen team work. What if libraries offered something similar now and then? A “get a look inside the library” to all ages (and not just school groups). Show off our library mad skillz? Wouldn’t this help our patrons have an even greater sense of ownership?
I mean, how many people might self-consciously approach our buildings, feeling like they’re not “smart enough” to be there. Maybe they’re intimidated by how “intelligent” and “professional” the staff seems to be? How heartbreaking would it be if they weren’t welcomed, weren’t helped, and not shown that we’re there to help them learn to enjoy their library? To drive this analogy into the ground: if they had a negative experience, then they’d likely leave and never want to return because of the bad taste left in their mouth.
Take a few minutes and read Brytani’s post on Protecting Patrons in the Library. Do you recognize how she promotes a culture of Welcome!? I wanted to give her the biggest hug imaginable after reading her post.
This has been a rather epically long post for me, but it’s been a pure joy for me to write (even though it makes me miss New Orleans more). While trying to find a picture or video to show off the staff of Commander’s Palace, I stumbled across this 17 min video about the Commander’s Palace culture.
This video should be considered continuing education for anyone involved with the public. Also, I squealed when I recognized our server (Tiffany McEntee) who is the featured image on the video. That should tell you a lot about how much the staff made this an incredible experience. Can you think of any server at any restaurant that you’ve been to who 1. you’d remember their name, or 2. would make you make a happy sound when you see them on a video?
Seriously, take some time and watch this video – it’s worth every minute (just don’t be hungry when you watch because you’ll get crazy-hungry which can lead to hanger. You’ll also hate me a bit because I’ve had some of this food):
What struck me most about this is that they talk about making their restaurant an experience and making memories which is exactly what I try and do at our library every day, but maybe not as consistently as I’d like. Up until now I’ve always said that I wanted our library to be like Pixar, but now I’m changing that to be like Commander’s Palace without the food. After all, Pixar isn’t customer-service oriented.
But how cool would it be to be known as a world-class library because of your atmosphere? That librarians want to work at your library because of how much you teach and train in all of the areas to promote growth? I would be beyond thrilled to have people go bonkers if they learn their friends are heading to Nebraska, and that tell their friends that “YOU HAVE TO VISIT THE GRETNA LIBRARY – IT’S INCREDIBLE!” Seriously. I want to make that a reality.
I may even create a presentation based on the above video and how to apply that culture to libraries – how fun of a presentation would that be?! I wonder if I could get Commander’s Palace to sponsor the talks and provide the catering… Heh.
I’ll leave y’all with this: please think about how welcoming your library space is. Choose a day to try saying “welcome!” instead of “hello!” to patrons as they come in and see how it makes both you and them feel (if you can tell). If you try this, then I would LOVE for you to give me the results of your experiment(s).