An odd comparison you might think, but my very recent user experience of the one made me wonder about the other.
A centralised rental car system (such as in Phoenix) works as follows: As the consumer, I still have choice about who I book with. But I have no choice about where I physically go to deal with the booking on arrival; there is only one bus stop to find at the airport, one type of bus to look for to travel in and one place to pick the car up. With all rental car services under one roof, all the car servicing, checking, 'keys handing over' is dealt with completely separately to the booking-in system. One building means economies of scale, and so I have access to food, bathrooms, and lots of frequent buses getting me to and from the airport.
What's not to like? I suppose there was that slight frisson of worry when the bus set out on what appeared to be a 3 hour long journey to the rental centre from Phoenix airport, with no information given out about how long it would take to get there. 'We must remember to allow plenty of time when we come back', we muttered to ourselves.
For a customer, car rental services have certainly done their homework and worked out exactly what it is that people want. Customers clearly still want choice, they want a person looking after their needs on the other side of the 'Alamo' (in my case) desk, and someone to hold their hand as maps are explained in order to negotiate the hellish road system about to be confronted. But the process of getting to the centre, documentation vetted, through to picking up the car (two upgrades, and a free bottle of water to cope with 35 degree temps merely 10 mins later), and then the utter relief of how easy it was to return said car and get back to the airport in plenty of time for the return flight was brilliant.
So why think of libraries? The car rental service was centralised and the process was beautifully efficient and effective. I assume it's cheaper to run it this way. But in our second airport they were in the middle of changing over from one system to another and I accosted the poor (yes, Alamo) lady at the service desk and asked her what the change to a new centralised system was like from her perspective. She was very kind and, though slightly shocked, gave me two answers that I thought rang all too true for the current library centralisation scheme I find myself in the middle of.
• Firstly, she didn't like change. Not rocket science at all, but it makes the clear point that many of us do not like change, especially change that we cannot understand especially well and, by definition, that change management is absolutely crucial to win over good people to a new system. Just because one person thinks centralised is good certainly doesn’t mean that the next one will.
• Secondly she worried about the lack of control over the bus drivers: they would not belong to the company, Alamo, any more, but just be generic drivers employed to run buses for ALL the rental car services. Would they be loyal? Would the service desk people know the drivers' names? How easily could they deal with problems? Would the service the bus drivers offered match their current standards. Wow! Familiar or what?! What good would a generic library assistant be at my issue desk wondering where the heck we had stashed the ... extra barcodes; the sellotape, the reservation keys, a spare pencil etc. I’ve experienced this – and it was BAD!
She finished by saying 'But I'm sure it will all be ok'!! Well, day 1 of the new system we returned our car and I think there were some niggling problems they were facing ( eg the new buses were all much longer than the previous ones and causing traffic jams!). Funny how often the devil is in the detail. But, on the other hand what a relief for us to catch a bus that runs every 5 minutes to the airport, rather than waiting (as we did on arrival) all tired and worn out, for 20 minutes before an Alamo bus came our way.
So - I was left with a few questions - what is perfection for our customer? What does that look like? Have we 'got it' yet? Can we combine the premium offering of REAL choice, along with useful centralisation in our libraries? Is it possible for Cambridge, that extreme bastion of choice and 'boutiqueness', to get something right and combine the quality and engagement that personalised service choice offers with a few choice centralised polices and processes that actually make a difference, or will they muck it up? Only time will tell.