Friday, July 07, 2006

20 Points of Library Customer Service, a couple of exceptions

This list has been picked up by a few of the blogosphere's library sector people, and overall, it is a very good list that likely should be framed and made public. The list is the "20 Points on Excellent Customer Library Service" posted by Blog About Libraries. However, I usually don't jump on bandwagons, and I usually tend to have a corollary or two in mind when one of these nice lists come along. So here are my caveats/disagreements:

Number 16: Treat patron complaints as opportunities to get better. Don't take it personally, either.

Actually, I don't really have a problem with that other than to say it sounds easy in the ideal world, not that easy when some patron decides to get abusive verbally or otherwise. In that case, it certainly becomes personal because I don't tolerate that behavior from anyone, and I will be happy to tell the person as much. I may remain calm, but don't expect a smile out of me if you decide to throw an F-bomb (ok, if you choose to tell me how I can go fuck myself) in my direction. At that point, the complaint or issue is not an "opportunity to get better." At that point, it becomes a "call the police and have the person escorted out." Reason I mention it is because all these trendy lists tend to forget that sometimes patrons are not right.

Number 17: Don't hide behind policies and procedures. Empower staff to make exceptions.

This is one of my personal peeves, the people who are always willing to make exceptions. While I am all for flexibility, rules and procedures are there for a reason. They may be for your protection (legal or otherwise). They may be in place in order to be able to treat everyone fairly, equally, and consistently. They are not there for you to bend them every time your gut gets soft, and you get a moment of "what harm can it do?" Let me tell you what harm it could do. Very often an exception means the patron will expect the same the next time and time after that. Does that mean you know break the rule every time? And, if your coworker is the one to deal with the returning patron, by you making an exception, you just put your coworker in a possible aggressive situation when the coworker actually enforces the rule you should have enforced. I know because a couple of my coworkers are notorious for making exceptions only to leave the mess for other librarians to clean up. And yes, some of these people with a now new sense of entitlement can get quite mean. So, next time you decide to feel "empowered to make exceptions," think ahead to who else may be affected besides the patron and you. I am not saying don't make exceptions. Sure, go ahead and forgive that small fine or extend a loan period (do these and others within reason), but otherwise, if there is a rule or procedure in place, follow it. And no one is saying rules and procedures should not be revised or revisited. Revision is part of the learning process as well as part of improving your customer service. But if a rule is in place, and especially if you were there when it was agreed upon, you are expected to follow it like anyone else. Maybe a corollary should be, "if you can't follow rules, maybe you should be in a different line of work" (this is a play on number 10, which is very true: don't enter a service profession if you do not like helping people). I like service, or I would not have followed the career path I have. But if there is anything I have learned as a teacher, librarian and a few other service jobs is the necessity of treating everyone fairly, equally, and consistently, plus with common sense. Maybe that rule needs to be reworded to "empower the staff to use common sense."

Now, someone will say, "oh, but you are just worried about covering your behind." You bet I am. Another thing I learned in my years as a educator. Always cover your ass. In the litigious land we live in, not doing it is just foolish. Making some exceptions just opens you to all sorts of vulnerabilities that are better avoided. Why would you do that to yourself, or to your colleagues? So, very nice rules, very true, but take them with a grain of salt, as one should probably take a lot of things in life. And just use some common sense.

Update note (7/12/2006): The Blog About Libraries has a follow-up replying to feedback about Rule 17 above. I am not terribly convinced since the author seems a bit dismissive about the slippery slope argument. How do I know if some people will buckle and break/bend a rule? Simple, there is always the one or two who will buckle anyways. My problem with those folks is not their good intentions; it's that they make it hard on the rest of the staff when they have to enforce the rule, and more often than not, it is a patron problem rather than a customer service problem. He cites Shep Hyken on flexibility, which seems a bit more reasonable. Like Hyken, I believe the customer is not always right (they may think they are right, but that is a different story). The Hyken idea is to make the customer happy, within reason, and I think a lot of this boils down to good judgment and reason, along with some consideration for the rest of the staff when you decide to bend a rule because "it does not harm anyone else" (yes, I have actually heard that line used). The blogger's final line is important, and it seems to go back to what I was thinking: "You can't just tell staff to go ahead and make exceptions on their own if everyone is not on the same page." As I said, common sense.


Caryn said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Sorry to "shout", but I just agree so totally with what you wrote. When I read the list, I, too, had the same disagreements with those two points--especially the second one, which has been an issue in my recent non-library job. Yes, on occasion exceptions are a good way to keep a patron/customer happy, but some people feel so entitled to get the same exception every time. Somehow my "Count yourself lucky that you were given this special treatment last time" doesn't cut it with them! :-)

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Caryn: Thanks for stopping by. Are you a writer? I did visit your site, and you mention you left English teaching and have written books. Still at that? Was curious over the mention of a non-library job. Anyhow, I am sure people in other areas like retail or other service work go through the same issue. As of late, the service mantra and "give them what they want," often without thinking, seems to be the big next wave (or fad) in librarianship. Best of luck with your writing, and keep on blogging.

Jennifer said...

Angel, I enjoyed your response to the post from Blog About Libraries. Many times such lists are very idealistic - and sometimes unrealistic in the face of problematic patrons/customers. More . . .