A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

“Claims Returned” and Other Customer Service “Tails”

by Larry Neal on March 2, 2015

In spring 2014, just as I was about to travel to Washington, DC, for a PLA Board meeting and ALA National Library Legislative Day,1 one of my rollicking Irish setters suddenly required urgent medical attention. Dreading the call to Delta Airlines to find out what the penalty was going to be for adjusting my flight, I was pleasantly surprised when the random person at the call center not only expressed empathy for my dog’s situation but waived the $150 fee and efficiently rearranged my flight without further ado. Needless to say the agent mentioned casually that she needed to “make a note of the reason,” but that was the end of the discussion. The incident got me thinking a lot about the customer service my library provides and wondering whether my frontline staff members, who are equally capable to the Delta employee, would feel comfortable waiving $150 in fines on the spot. Unfortunately I believe the answer is currently “no” and I accept much of the blame.

Although my goal is to have a staff that delivers excellent customer service based on organizational values rather than strict adherence to policies and procedures, this is far easier said than done. In short we strive for:

  • People-oriented service—Our customers are human beings whose needs go beyond access to library service. They will feel warmly welcomed and respectfully listened to if they have concerns.
  • No hassles—Our policies will be easy to explain, concise, and set our customers and staff up for positive library experiences and interactions.
  • Empowered employees—Whenever possible the customer’s problem will be resolved by the first staff member approached. Staff will be creative and resourceful within the context of basic policies to create successful outcomes for customers.
  • Consistently applying values—Staff members will have the training and confidence to consistently apply the values of fairness, respect, and quality adapted to the circumstances and individual perceptions of the customer. Fairness is a balance between what is best for the individual and our customer base as a whole.
  • Learning and growing—There are very few life-or-death decisions in library service. Basing service on values over policies and procedures will result in mistakes that are accepted as part of the growth process.

Although this sounds good in theory, several issues over the years have caused me and my staff to lose focus on this approach to customer service that we plan on remedying in the near future.

To start, financial challenges have put the pressure on to stretch staffing, increase productivity, and raise revenues from alternative sources. While self-check systems greatly help productivity, they also cut out many of the easy transactions and opportunities for a more personal touch and positive interaction with customers.In stretching staff the opportunities to meet face-to-face or allocate time for training have been minimized. Further, increasing fines while raising revenues in the short term can have unintended negative consequences in the long term, in the form of hastening customers into having privileges blocked and deterring use because of the concern of incurring fines or even being sent to debt collection.

While I don’t dismiss the responsibility of the library to protect the public’s property, the ill will and negative interactions do not bode well for breaking the rules-laden stereotypes of libraries, suitable fodder for a Seinfeld episode. Of course people can return materials on time to avoid fines but life happens and we need to better accommodate people. One encouraging development is the automatic renewals feature becoming available in automation systems and perhaps it is time to consider actually reducing fine rates. Self-checkout machines offer many benefits but how about training the frontline staff to regularly query customers as to whether or not they found everything they were looking for or to at least thank them for visiting today?

Sometimes our library jargon sets us up for negative customer-service experiences. How many of us have a “claims returned” status in our automation systems or even a “claims returned” form that we have customers sign? I challenge anyone to use the verb form “claims” with a positive connotation. Put yourself in the shoes of a customer who can remember plain as day returning five items to the library only to be told that one was not. In the customer’s mind the item has been “lost” or is “missing” from the library. In our minds it has become lodged between the front passenger side door and seat when the customer sped too fast around a corner. Yet in response we invoke the “claims returned” process. I can see the cartoon now, “this customer ‘claims’ to have returned this book and discovered a cure for the common cold.” No wonder we set our staff and customers up for an unpleasant confrontation. Although statistically likely, why have we fallen into a “guilty until proven innocent” approach with our customers? In my rethinking of my library’s policies this is one whose days I believe are numbered. We still need a procedure, of course, but framing it as an unfortunate circumstance and sending out a joint search team comprising staff and customer without pointing fingers seems like a much more positive and productive approach.

The last mistake I believe I have made is fooling myself into thinking that we’ve been proactive in annually asking the staff for input on changes to make policies more customer-friendly and easier to implement. While I greatly value the feedback from my staff, as they are the ones who have to carry out policy on the frontline every day, it also makes us more susceptible to responding to the “squeaky wheels” and exceptional cases. As I asked in my last column, when was the last time we shortened a policy rather than adding another provision? Related, I have also failed to use our organizational values as the filter to review each policy. If a provision doesn’t fit the test, it should not be retained or added. This has been further worsened by being short staffed and not taking the time to walk through policy changes face-to-face. Instead of using such changes as an opportunity to review the reasons behind them and using a values-based approach to implementation, they are reduced to a quick email to remind everyone to review the changed words on a page. Rather than focusing on the exceptions why not involve a panel of customers to comment on policy changes? After all, they are the taxpayers and may bring a very different perspective to what we are trying to accomplish and clarify things using their words and not our jargon. I suspect that we would have never implemented a “claims returned” policy in the first place had we done so.

Thankfully the situation at my library is not as bad as this may sound. We receive nearly 2,500 responses on our biannual users’ surveys and always receive high satisfaction ratings, although we are still striving for 100 percent. This was also further confirmed with our success last summer in getting a 40 percent increase in local tax support approved. Yet, while I truly believe that my library offers very good customer service, I now think we have a great opportunity to make it excellent. I have no doubt that I have a capable team that can deliver, and that it has mostly become policies and training that are holding us back. In fact we are going to try to do even better than Delta by authorizing frontline staff to waive up to $250 on the spot. Last, if successful I’ll feel very comfortable in “claiming” that my dog (who is 100 percent recovered and doing just fine) helped my library make great strides in customer service.

I hope this issue of Public Libraries inspires you to think about customer service at your library!


1. The American Library Association’s 2015 National Library Legislative Day is May 4-5.