Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: In Defense of No

One of my first jobs as a teenager involved working at a high end department store unique to Southern California, sort of a local Macy’s. One day a woman stood in front of my co-worker trying to return a pair of jeans without a receipt. The problem is, these jeans were a brand of jeans that we didn’t sell. In fact, they were the the name brand product line of Kmart; it was impossible to buy them anywhere but Kmart. So my friend told her she was sorry, but we couldn’t return those jeans because they were not in fact ours. This woman then proceeded to throw a verbal, hostile tantrum similar to those thrown by my 2-year-old. It wasn’t pretty, and more importantly – it wasn’t nice.

You can guess what happened next. The store manager came out and apologized for the store clerk and proceeded to return a pair of jeans that were then thrown in the trash because there was nothing we could do with them. In effect, this woman had now stolen basically $50.00 from our store, all under the guise of good customer service.

Somewhere along the line we developed the mantra that “the customer is always right”. But the truth is, they aren’t. And today I am going to make the controversial claim that sometimes, it’s okay to tell our library patrons no. This is controversial because I have seen time and time again that in order to provide good customer service, we should always say yes. We’re only a library some will claim, a dangerous thought in itself because if we devalue ourselves, why do we expect our patrons to value us. The truth is, sometimes saying no is in fact the right answer.

Let’s start with a basic premise: Library policy and procedures are good for a variety of reasons including:

1) Through analysis and discussion, library personnel develop a framework of policies and procedures that help ensure that a library system can meet the greatest number of needs for the greatest number of people in the most equitable way possible. They are a way of managing shared resources for a diverse community.

2) Library policies and procedures help staff to know and understand not only what behaviors are expected of them, but how to respond to various situations while working with the public in a way that promotes equal access to the library’s resources. They provide library staff with guidance by outlining expected behaviors.

3) Library policies and procedures helps patrons understand their responsibilities and the expectations of the library to further help make sure we can provide the highest quality of service to the greatest number of people. They help patrons understand what is expected of them to ensure that they can use these shared resources while also making sure that their fellow citizens can also use the same managed resources.

A basic scenario: Library A has put together a policy in which they state that overdue DVDs will accrue a fine of $1.00 a day for every day that a DVD is returned past its due date. So one day, when the patron comes up to check out, they are informed that they have $10.00 in fines for a DVD returned over due. The patron pays the fine, checks out, and goes about their daily task.

Later, another patron comes up to check out and learns that they also have a $10.00 fine for over due DVDs. The difference is, this time the patron gets angry. They start yelling at staff, they demand to speak to a manager, etc. The manager looks at the patron record and sees there is a note where staff state that just three months ago, the same scenario happened. So this argument the patron has made that they weren’t told about the due date or the fines and fees is all bluster, we have a record that indicates that they are familiar with the library’s fines and fees structure. But because the patron insists, the manager waives the fines and the patron checks out.

So patron A pays the fines and patron B gets off the hook for the fines.

This, I think, causes several problems:

1. The staff feels unsupported and, more importantly, confused about what their expectations are. They begin to fear enforcing the policies because they know they won’t be backed up. But they also fear not enforcing the policies, because they fear getting in trouble. They are now in a situation where they are unsure of what the correct course of action will be with each patron interaction.

2. The library has now treated patrons in very unequal ways. Some patrons are being made to pay fines while others are not. This is especially problematic when it becomes arbitrary as this can lead to scenarios of preferential treatment among some types of patrons and discrimination against others.

3. In addition, we have now reinforced this behavior in our patron and they have learned that if they are loud enough, if they are difficult enough, they can manipulate the staff to get their way. In fact, we have also just condoned the abuse and harassment of a staff member and a fellow citizen. There is a good chance when they want to get their way in future library transactions, they will resort much more quickly to engaging in aggressive behavior to try and force the library to suspend the rules for them.

And I use fines as an example, there are many more to choose from.

I recently read a discussion from someone who was upset because they went into the library right before closing with no library card and no photo identification to pick up a hold. Their hold was going to expire that day. They were very mad because the staff wouldn’t take their word that they were who they said they were and they went home empty handed. They were mad because the library asked for confirmation that the person standing before them verify their identity before handing materials held under a specific name for them.

Before I was married, I was Karen Maidenname. While I was in high school, my dad got remarried to a woman named Karen, so now she also was Karen Maidenname. In what I can only say is an incredible coincidence, our birthday was on the same day in the same month, though obviously several years apart. This woman was a mean, manipulative, dishonest woman. I lived through my early twenties fearing that she would one day walk in and wipe out my very unsubstantial bank account.

Years later, as I worked at the public library, I interacted with all kinds of people. People who were trying to find ways to escape abusive and controlling partners. People who were fighting family members who were trying to steal their money. People who were being stalked, people who were being threatened, people who were trying to deal with personal matters quietly and discreetly. And this is why patron confidentiality is so very important. This is why it matters that library staff know you are who you say you are. This is why we insist – and we should in fact insist – that patrons verify they are who they say they are before discussing any information about a patron, including handing them books put on hold. You don’t want to accidentally give personal information to the wrong person and put another in any type of jeopardy.

And the flip side to this is that when we are dealing with public libraries, it is easy for the public to forget that there are financial costs involved. I have seen patrons with fees upwards of $500.00. You really want us to make sure that the person standing before us is who they say they are because there are monetary costs attached to your library card.

Sometimes a no is about protecting patron privacy. Sometimes a no is about protecting the pocket books of our patrons. Sometimes a no is about making sure we are treating all of our patrons in the same, consistent manner.

We live in a world full of many, many people. Over 7 billion that last time I heard. Rules help us function; they help make sure that your rights and wishes don’t trample over your neighbors and their rights and wishes don’t trample over yours. And I’m not saying there are no bad rules. If you find that your library staff is repeatedly being asked to bend or ignore a rule, then it is time to re-examine that rule and whether or not it is the best model for serving the library and your community. There are, for example, many libraries that operate without charging overdue fines and if you find that you don’t really feel the need to enforce these rules, then dropping them seems like the best alternative.

We live in a world with mottos like “your way, right away” and “the customer is always right”. But the truth is, sometimes no is in fact the right answer. Sometimes no is the best answer because it means that you are treating all your patrons consistently and fairly, because you are protecting your patron’s privacy, and because you are protecting your community’s investment in your library by protecting your materials and resources. Sometimes, in fact, no can be the best patron service.

What Does Customer Service to Teens Look Like in the Library?

I was recently asked an interesting question:  what should customer service to teens look like in the library?

The truth is that customer service to teens should look the same as customer service to any other library patron looks.  Every library patron who walks through the library door should get the same high quality and friendly service regardless of race, gender, disability and yes, age.  Your library should have one and only one approach to customer service and it should apply to every one.  Anything less then consistent, quality customer service to all patrons is both discriminatory and bad for business.

Hopefully your library has a strong emphasis on customer service and provides routine training.  If it doesn’t, discuss putting some training in place with your administration.  And as your library’s teen services representative, make sure you are a part of the planning and decision making in your library to make ensure teen teen interests are represented in the discussion.  Some library policies, like obtaining library cards and Internet use, can be more complicated with the teen audience.  You want to make that the unique challenge of teenagers are at least considered in the discussion.

So, what should good costumer service to teens look like?

It should be friendly and approachable

Every patron that walks through your library doors wants to feel welcomed and valued.  Staff should be friendly and approachable.  Smile.  Interact with patrons in a professional and courteous manner.  As part of your training have staff think about their positive and negative customer services experiences.  Ask them what made those experiences stand out in their minds.  As you discuss and outline these experiences you will come up with positive and negative examples of costumer experiences.  By having staff reflect on their own experiences, it will help them realize the hallmarks of good customer service.  The golden rule of life applies to customer service: treat others as you would want to be treated.

Remind staff the importance of good customer service because customer service is PR.  Patrons are much more likely to go out and share their negative experiences with 7 to 10 people.  This type of negative PR is very hard to counteract and your best defense is a good offense; make sure patrons walk out of your library with nothing but good experiences to share.  Today it is easier then ever to share one’s experiences.  Many teens have Facebook or Twitter accounts and all it takes is for a teen to get online and share with their 200+ friends that “Generic Public Library HATES teens”.  But we can also use this to our advantage by giving them reasons to share their positive library experiences with 200+ friends.

It should be consistent

A good starting point for customer service is to make sure your library has policies and procedures in place letting staff know how to handle a wide variety of patron interactions and ensure high quality, consistent services to all patrons.  The consistent implementation of policies and procedures helps both staff and patrons understand expectations and decreases the hostility that can arise from miscommunication.  Consistent policies and procedures also help ensure that the patron’s experience will be the same regardless of what staff member they are interacting with; when they come in on Friday and see staff member A they will get the same experience as when the see staff member B on Tuesday.  In addition, they will see the patrons around them being given the same high quality service and being asked to meet the same patron responsibilities.  The fastest way to create negative patron experiences is for the patron to see other patrons being given service that they are not.  Patrons – including teen patrons – like to have clearly defined expectations from behavior in the library to Internet use.

It should be informed

Helping staff understand teen development and your teen services goals can help to decrease staff anxiety about teens in the library.  As with all things regarding staff attitudes, communication and team building can help break down barriers and make staff feel more comfortable in serving the teen audience.  Make sure you have a clearly outlined teen services program with a mission statement, goals, and appropriate evaluation measures.  I encourage you to communicate with staff on a regular basis making sure they know about upcoming programs, new and popular books and readalikes, trends in teen literature and pop culture, etc.  With some basic information, some basic tools, in their belt staff will feel more confident when teens approach the public service desk.

To help develop your teen services and communication model with staff check out these previous posts:

The “Be”-Attitudes of Communicating with Staff
Marketing Teen Services to Non Teen Services Staff, Part 1
Marketing Teen Services to Non Teen Services Staff: A Teen Services Plan Example

YALSA has put together a helpful presentation on Guidelines for Library Services to Teens Ages 12-18.  I recommend consulting it as you help put together your library’s customer service model and training packet.

Reshaping Our Experiences

So often when we walk away from a patron service desk we walk into a back office and begin sharing a story about the horrible customer interaction that we just had, forgetting that there were 90 other completely routine ones.  But those negative ones stay with us and we need to process them, to process the stress of it and state our case.  There is a catharsis in getting it out and sharing.  But what if, after we discussed our negative experience, we made it our goal to always follow the negative with a positive.  To make sure, for ourselves and others, that we share ourpositive interactions and remind ourselves that it is more often good then bad.  As I discuss in one of the above mentioned blog posts, part of your regular communication with staff should be an emphasis on positive experiences between teens and the library.  Report statistics, positive feedback, and those stories when I teen came back and told you that they loved the book you recommended.

Reshaping Our View of Teens

When you understand teen development, it is easier to understand why they do the things they do.  Brain research shows that they literally don’t have the biological mechanisms in place to make the same types of decisions that adults do. Again, some of this is discussed in one of the previous posts shared above. When we understand behavior, it is easier to deal with it.  I also recommend making yourself and staff familiar with the 40 Developmental Assets and your library’s role in helping teens obtain assets and grow in healthy ways.  By reshaping the way we see teens, staff can be more comfortable when the clock strikes 3 and you get the after school rush.

Reshaping Our Staff

As we share our knowledge of teens and teen services, we invite co-workers to be a part of our teen services program.  To be a part of the team.  Teambuilding is important because as staff become a part of the team, they become vested partners in providing quality customer service to teens.  It’s no longer you providing customer services to teens, but the library providing quality service to teens.

You often hear teen librarians making a case for teen services by saying that “teens are our future.”  The truth is, teens are also our here and now.  Teens are members of our community with information, education and recreation needs.  They are making important decisions about who they are and who they want to become.  They are forming foundational opinions about the library and its role in their life.  They are deciding whether or not they will be library users and supporters.  If teens walk away from the library today, it will be hard to get them back later.  Today more than ever there is a lot of competition in programming, services, and informational needs.  If we fail to capture and keep our teen patrons today, it is unlikely that we will be able to do so later; make sure your teens feel welcomed and served by every staff member in your building.  And use the powerful force of social media by creating loyal teen customers that will spread positive words about your library.

More About Good Customer Service:
8 Rules of Good Customer Service at About.com
The 10 Commandments of Good Customer Service at About.com
Authentic Promotion: Giving Customers What They Really Want
How to Create a Customer Service Plan
What Do We Mean by “Customer Service” Anyway?

Other tools for you to use:
Visit YALSA.  They have a large variety of tools including some on advocacy and a bibliography of current teen related research.
VOYA, an essential teen librarian tool, often has teen pop culture quizzes that you can use with staff.
Frontline on PBS did a good report Inside the Teenage Brain that you may want to check out.