The British Library is synonymous with knowledge, information, the printed word and academic learning. But the term “customer relationship management” does not spring automatically to mind.

British Library worked on 37 separate systems One of the world's largest research libraries, the British Library loans documents to readers, business and industry, researchers, academics and students, in the UK and worldwide.

In its vast collection it holds around 14 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 58 million patents and three million sound recordings.

Each year six million searches are generated by the British Library online catalogue and nearly 400,000 people visit its reading rooms. The Library also takes on a copy of every book and periodical published in the UK.

The Library staff are trained to help readers and researchers every day, answering everything from basic queries about opening times, to in-depth requests for access to rare or obscure documents. Its customers range from large pharmaceutical firms researching patents to students working on an assignment and authors writing a novel.

Servicing its customers and the mountains of data the Library accumulates is a major challenge and five years ago, the organisation found itself with 37 disparate customer related databases. The databases and the systems they supported tended to work as silos, with little interaction between many areas.

"We have around 50 staff within Customer Services, of which 30 members actually answer questions. They are all very knowledgeable seasoned hands," said Andy Appleyard, head of document supply and customer services at the British Library.

But, he said, the staff had a tendency to not record this knowledge and little information was systematically gathered after exchanges with customers. This lack of process was partly because of the number of disparate databases in use.

"With so much customer data spreading across a number of different databases, it was becoming hard for our team to maintain the required level of service expected from an institution such as the British Library," said Appleyard.

The lack of central information also meant meeting legal requirements was a hurdle for the Library.

"Any challenges associated with legal requirements, such as Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information were very difficult to manage given the spread of databases. Put simply, we had to consolidate data."

The Library's executives decided they needed a customer relationship management (CRM) system that would help record information on interactions with customers and help the organisation gain a transparent view of those interactions.

A key aim of the CRM implementation was to bring the information on its 37 databases into one system.

Appleyard described CRM as a "step change" for the Library. "Streamlining all systems into one single point of customer contact has made a huge difference. We are now able to tailor our service provision in order to achieve our aims of delighting end users and reducing internal costs."

Having decided to invest in CRM, the Library chose to install Microsoft Dynamics CRM, with the help of their system integrator Vodafone Applications Group, formerly called Aspective.

By 2008, the Library had whittled its databases from 37 down to 4, with the CRM system holding more than 250,000 records, with around 10,000 new customers being added per month.

Andy Appleyard believes in increasing customer delight"About a year ago we embarked on a review of the customer services function with a view to firstly improve efficiency of back office processes and secondly improve the customer experience, by providing a 'one stop shop'," said Appleyard.

For Appleyard, the customer experience is paramount. The Library has strived to "delight the customer, not just go through the mechanics of responding to the customer".

Despite the successes in streamlining the back-end databases, the Library still struggled to get employee adoption of the CRM system. The review found only half the customer services staff were actually using the software. As a result, said Appleyard, the Library embarked on a change management programme.

This involved working with employees via focus groups, monitoring how they worked, and gathering their feedback on the current CRM screen formats. From this, Vodafone Applications Group designed a standard operating procedure for the CRM system that would better suit how the Library staff and customers interact.

The next step was widespread training for all staff on the CRM system.

"We did encounter some resistance, but we took great care to explain why we were changing, and we ensured all viewpoints were considered and no one was alienated," said Appleyard.

As a result of these system improvements, the customer service employees spend less time retrieving files, and can access the history of each customer every time they call. What's more, library workers have a "better understanding of the customer" because all information is in one place, according to Appleyard.

This also helps the British Library meet its objective of delivering a better level of service to customers, because queries are handled faster and more efficiently.

Another boon is the ability to meet legal obligations around the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information.

But, Appleyard insists, "We are still near the beginning of the journey."

"The system will evolve and improve, as will our processes and understanding of what we need to do to deliver systems which helps the business progress while keeping the customer happy."

The British Library and its partner, the Vodafone Applications Group, are working on extending the CRM system to other areas of the library and linking to other systems, such as the ticketing application Box Office, and the marketing team’s software eMarketing.

"We now have a tool which is integral to many areas across the British Library and the services we provide," he adds.

"It is vital, especially in the current climate, that we help keep our existing customer base. And with our current CRM system, we have a tool which helps facilitate that."