Part Three: Client Engagement in Special Libraries—What are the skills and competencies for engagement?

November 28, 2017
In our first two posts in this series, we defined what customer engagement is in the special librarian’s context, and outlined an approach to building a special library focused customer relationship management system.

Now, let’s ask ourselves what are the major competencies required for success? What should we invest our personal development focus on?

No discussion of competencies would be complete without referencing the SLA Competencies for Information Professionals which, in an updated version, was approved 13 April 2016 by the Board of Directors of the Special Libraries Association. It’s a very useful piece for your position descriptions and hiring activities. In the current version, relationship competencies are considered ‘enabling’ competencies. Here is the paragraph:

“In addition to these unique core competencies, information professionals also possess other essential competencies that are shared by professionals in other fields. These “enabling” competencies are vital for professional success and career development. It would be possible to produce a very long list of such competencies, but the following is a short list of those that merit the greatest attention:

  • Critical thinking, including qualitative and quantitative reasoning;
  • Initiative, adaptability, flexibility, creativity, innovation, and problem solving;
  • Effective oral and written communication, including influencing skills;
  • Relationship building, networking, and collaboration, including the ability to foster respect, inclusion, and communication among diverse individuals;
  • Marketing;
  • Leadership, management, and project management;
  • Life-long learning;
  • Instructional design and development, teaching, and mentoring; and Business ethics.”

To my mind, there are a number of skills and competencies that need to be present for great relationship management and engagement. While these are quite ‘human’ competencies, some folks have them more developed than others. The ‘practice’ of special librarianship means we continue to get better as we immerse ourselves in our profession and the ecology of our employers. Three competencies that I’ll highlight here, and that I believe are critical to being a great information professional in special libraries and knowledge management are:

  • Knowing thyself
  • Listening
  • Employing social skills in our work context

Know Thyself

I am a big believer that knowing yourself is one of the greatest things to know. Not just understanding your weaknesses (which I don’t find very motivational), but knowing where your strengths lie. I recommend this book and online test, by Tom Rath and Gallup, to help lead you to a greater understanding.

StrengthsFinder 2.0(photo:

About StrengthsFinder 2.0

“Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade?”
–Benjamin Franklin

Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day? Chances are, you don’t. All too often, our natural talents go untapped. From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to fixing our shortcomings than to developing our strengths.

To help people uncover their talents, Gallup introduced the first version of its online assessment, StrengthsFinder, in the 2001 management book Now, Discover Your Strengths. The book spent more than five years on the bestseller lists and ignited a global conversation, while StrengthsFinder helped millions to discover their top five talents.

In StrengthsFinder 2.0 Gallup unveiled the new and improved version of its popular assessment, language of 34 themes, and much more. While you can read this book in one sitting, you’ll use it as a reference for decades.

Loaded with hundreds of strategies for applying your strengths, this Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and USA Today bestseller will change the way you look at yourself — and the world around you — forever.” []

And to build a greater understanding of yourself, (and to let the librarian ‘book’ thing in me out), please consider these as well:

The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World(photo:

The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World
Paperback— Feb 1 2002 by Marti Olsen Laney Psy.D.

Introverts and Extroverts in Organizations: Understanding the Importance of Both Personality Types(photo:

Introverts and Extroverts in Organizations: Understanding the Importance of Both Personality Types — Apr 4 2016 by Louis Bevoc.

All of these readings go beyond the standard MBTI Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator test you likely know. MBTI is another tool in your kit—that is neither evaluative or judgemental—to assist you in exploring your strengths and how you relate to others in the workplace and beyond.

I am not a huge believer in self-help books. However, I do think that by delving into our own understanding of ourselves and our strengths, we empower ourselves to achieve more. In the end, you’ll have a greater understanding of yourself.


The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.
–Rachel Naomi Remen

In my opinion, listening is the most critical skill for engagement. Librarians are usually great at this but focusing on it can never do anything but good for your career. Everyone loves a good listener. That said—personal disclosure here—as a very extreme extrovert, I struggle with this so I have to be self-aware enough to engage my listening skills effectively. I can’t be alone since a simple search on Amazon draws up thousands of books on the topic! There are also great online courses and websites to check out. Listening skills are critical to engagement, relationships, and the core of librarianship: the reference interview. However, my advice is to focus on (the below list helped me so I hope it helps you):

  • Attentive listening includes eye contact, posture, facial expressions, gestures and genuine interest in what the person is saying.
  • Reflection includes repeating and paraphrasing what you have heard, showing the person that you truly understand what has been said.
  • Understanding: Merriam Webster’s “definition of understanding includes a mental grasp (comprehension)—the power of comprehending; especially: the capacity to apprehend general relations of particulars; the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories; a friendly or harmonious relationship. Great listening builds relationships and avoids misunderstanding and assumptions.
  • Empathy: Empathy is the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. We’re not talking social work and psychology here, but great relationships in special libraries begin and end with an understanding of our colleagues as human beings and all that means. We need to understand the psychological ramifications on our services of our clients’ stress, confidence, prestige, and more. Knowing these can affect—over time—the quality of, and respect for, our services.
  • Follow through: Lastly, listening builds trust. Trust is the reliance on the integrity, strengths, ability etc. of our clients’ dealings with us. Over time we build hope and confidence and expectations of success and help. Therefore, following through on commitments is key to building trust, and that is the end point of the listening process—not just having listened. So, follow-through activities can include (showing active listening) following up to clarify, meeting a need with a resource, a thank you note, checking in on projects regularly and so much more.

You’re likely engaging in many of the colleague engagement activities already. You’re good at your role. However, to implement a client engagement strategy you need to up-your-game in this case. We’ll discuss this in the next post in this series.

Indeed, the foundation of great engagement is listening—create the opportunities for listening without being overly goal focused. You’ll be a better strategist for it.

So, there are the first three posts—the next post is tactical and gives a roadmap for colleague engagement in the various specialized settings of information professionals.

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

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