Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#65, August 4, 2000.


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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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Drop me a Line

Want to comment, ask questions, submit articles, or invite me to speak or do some training? Contact me at: marylaine at

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Talk Back

Where I will post any comments you want to make public. E-mail me and use the words "talk back" in your subject line.

Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related. NEW STUFF ADDED in January

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Best Information on the Net
The directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway. .

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
August 4: historical markers, heart-healthy recipes, what was the name of that song? and more.

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My resume
Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops.

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine -- always keeping in mind that in response to readers, I may add, subtract, and change features.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Favorite Sites on___:

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My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence


It's a given that we all make mistakes. But our individual mistakes may be compounded by failures in our systems. I offer this true life adventure as an example of how we can analyze mistakes to look for system failures, to prevent their happening again.

When I had 64 mb of RAM installed on my computer in February, 2000, I knew nothing about PNY, the company that produced them. Thanks to months of unsuccessful efforts to claim the rebate they offered, what I now know about them is that I will never buy anything from them again. Whatever public relations value they expected to get from the rebate offer has been negated by an initial mistake they made compounded by their truly impressive lack of interest in solving the problem.

I submitted the claims for two $20 rebates on February 25. To each claim form, as required, I stapled the slips Best Buy printed out for me containing the UPC and proof of purchase. In April I received two postcards from PNY, each stating that they would not send my rebates because I had failed to submit my UPCs, and would I re-file my claim and attach these. I couldn't do that, since PNY already had the UPC slips, stapled to the forms which they DID receive.

System Failure One: Closed information loop
A company denying a claim might reasonably be expected to supply an address or phone number to contact. PNY supplied an 800 number, containing two recorded messages, neither of which applied.

System Failure Two:
Nobody at the company routinely reads and answers e-mail. I tracked down the company's web site and sent an e-mail message; a week later I sent another. It took ten days to get an answer.

System Failure Three: Rudeness.
When I called the company to explain the problem, I expected customer service people to apologize for the error and fix the problem. Instead, the woman I spoke with insisted that if I had no documentation, that was my problem; PNY had to demand documentation because how were they to know I wasn't trying to scam her company?

I suggest a company should weigh what it might lose from scams against what it loses in customer good will and future business by suggesting that the customer is dishonest. Nobody has ever impugned my integrity, and I damn well resented that.

System Error Four: Failure to Respond
On April 24 I faxed the copy of my purchase slip from Best Buy, along with a letter detailing the whole history of my purchase and unsuccessful attempts to get the rebate. I heard nothing from PNY - no apology, no rebate.

System Error Five: Outright Lies
I called the company again on May 17 to ask what was happening, and was told that a check had been sent on May 5. That was a lie. I sent another e-mail in June pointing out that I hadn't gotten a check, and, glory be, received an e-mail response saying they would send the check in the next pay period. It is now August 4. I have received no check, and no answer to a reminder I sent them in mid-July.

System Error Six: Failure to apologize.
We will forgive many offenses if somebody just admits they made a mistake and apologizes profusely, but at no time did anybody in the company ever say "I'm sorry, let me see what I can do to fix it."

Now, you may say that this is just a rebate claim, and that it says nothing about the competence of the company in performing its REAL mission, which is supplying computer memory. Similarly, an error at circulation implies nothing at all about the quality of reference service, and vice versa. But this was my only contact with the company. If this is their idea of customer service, why would I expect to get any better service from their tech support people?

The point of this story is not to get revenge on PNY (well, not ALL the point, anyway). I offer it as a cautionary tale, because, aside from outright lying, these are system errors that we ourselves could commit.

How many of us have closed information loops on our voicemail systems or web sites, offering a series of options, but no human being to contact if none of those options apply?

How many of us who invite e-mail responses on our web site haven't assigned anybody to read it and reply to it on a daily basis? [see story below]

How many of us, by words or tone, radiate the assumption that our patrons or customers are wrong?

How many of us, when we have offended a patron or customer, have forgotten to apologize?

How many of us forget to ask ourselves if we've treated the patron as we'd like to be treated ourselves? Or, if we were them, would we ever want to come back?

If THAT isn't enough, try this: How many of us stop to consider that the person we've offended might have powerful connections? Might we next be hearing about this particular system failure from our bosses, or in the newspaper? Suggestion: Ask yourself how you'd handle a particular situation if the person involved was the mayor's wife or a reporter for the local newspaper -- and then handle EVERYBODY that way.

Does your organization have a system in place to report and evaluate problems and mistakes? Do you fill out incident report forms so that superiors are not blindsided when one comes back to haunt your organization?

What I am suggesting is that when we make mistakes, we should analyze them to see if individual errors were compounded by system failures. If so, we can improve the systems to try to prevent such failures in the future.

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According to Newsbytes (, the second annual Rainier Web-Index study found that, of the Fortune top 100 companies, 23 of them could not be reached by e-mail from their web sites. Of the 77 that did offer e-mail contact, one third of them, including Walt Disney and Motorola, didn't respond to repeated requests for investor information. To me that indicates a failure on at least two fronts.

First of all, it's a failure to understand the expectations the net engenders. When we go to the web, we expect instant information and two-way communication. We expect quick replies to our e-mail questions and complaints.

Secondly, this report suggests that many organizations still regard their web site as something independent, that has nothing to do with the way they conduct business; they apparently regard it as something for show rather than as a primary instrument of communication with potential customers and investors.

If snail mail requests for investor information are answered by investor relations, why aren't similar e-mail requests? The same people who handle snail mail requests for product information should handle the e-mail requests as well.

Again, from the customer's viewpoint, that one contact -- or failed contact -- with the company represents the company. If the company won't respond to these requests, customers naturally will assume the company won't be any more helpful when it comes to technical support. The web site was an opportunity for the company to make a sale; the failure to respond closed the door on it.

If you have a web site, you either make sure it's a two-way communication system, and respond rapidly to your e-mail. Or you pay the consequences.

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What I hope to do is change your thinking from "build it and they will come" to "build it right and they will come back."

Kim Gunether. "The Evolving Digital Library." Computers in Libraries, February, 2000.

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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:

Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.