Friday, March 31, 2006

Dumping rules by the light, er, dark of the moon

Maybe it was the new moon on the 29th, but at the same time I was writing about Nordstrom's one-rule employee handbook, Sophie Brookover was eloquently expressing her frustration with all the rules and red tape that libraries inflict on their customers. (see: Pop Goes the Library: Red Tape = Patron Kryptonite)

In Robert Spector's book "Lessons from the Nordstrom Way" he devotes a whole chapter to "dumping the rules". Spector suggests, rightly so methinks, that every rule -- EVERY rule -- is a barrier between the library and the customer. If you feel resistance to this idea and start thinking about all of the reasons you need the rules, I ask you to ponder: Do the rules make things easier/better for your customer?

It amazes me that Nordstrom is still one of the few stores out there to have a true no-questions-asked return policy. Most stores think that a return policy that liberal is a recipe for customer abuse. And you know what, some customers DO abuse it. But Nordstrom's philosophy is to focus their attention and energy on giving great service to their great customers--the ones who never abuse the policy and greatly appreciate being able to return something 3 months later without getting a dirty look. What Nordstrom gets in return (seriously, no pun intended) is an extremely loyal and vocal customer base. Do they lose a little money when they take returns on items that other retailers wouldn't even give store credit for? Sure, they lose a little. But they gain so much more. Do they "reward bad behavior" when they take a return on a leather jacket with the elbows worn away? Nordstrom (wisely) doesn't look at it that way.

So are your rules designed to prevent the worst customers from taking advantage? Does someone on your staff suggest that dumping a rule is equivalent to "rewarding bad behavior?" Have you considered the price you are paying by punishing the majority of your good customers to deal with a few of the bad?

Suffice to say, I empathize with Sophie B's frustration, and agree that we need to seriously evaluate the rules in our rule books and question the value of every one of them - from the customer's perspective.



At April 01, 2006 8:21 PM, Blogger zgirl said...

Libraries need to get rid of fines – period. They are a waste of energy. Who do they benefit? Libraries probably don’t even make enough off of them to be beneficial. Do you really want your circ staff constantly quibbling with library users over 30-cent fines??? Is that the best use of their time with the public? See, part of the problem is that libraries got it all wrong from the git go. They immediately made fines seem like a negative – a punishment, penalty, something shameful and irresponsible. Library fines are now something that gets lumped into all those tired, stereotypical library-related things like shushing, bespectacled, spinster librarians wearing sensible shoes. It’s too late now to go back and try to change it or put a different spin on it because fines are fines and will always be something negative. The spin ship has sailed, I’m afraid. Maybe after the apocalypse, when the world starts to repopulate itself (could that even happen after an apocalypse? Well, anyway…) and libraries start being built, some savvy librarian will do one of two things:

#1 – NOT institute a fine policy (this is the preferred choice), or
#2 – Put a whole new spin on fines. Something positive, like this:

Welcome to XYZ Library where you can rent books. The first 3 weeks are absolutely FREE!!! After that, if you wish to keep the item(s) a bit longer, the rental fee is just 10 cents a day!

Let me draw a picture for you:
FINE = :( (oh no!)
FREE RENTAL = :D (that’s great!)
MODEST “RENTAL FEE” :) (what a bargain!)

If the savvy librarian chooses option #2 (but I really hope s/he chooses #1), s/he could even post a sign that lists what the rental fees will be used for. Be creative, and keep your users in mind, for example:

Free coffee/tea for library users
Biscuits for the canines in your Read-to-a-Dog program
Fish food for the gilled critters in the children’s dept. aquarium …. Etc., etc.

The savvy librarian has another spin option – don’t call them fines or rental fees, but instead refer to them as “donations.” Don’t require them, simply ask. Perhaps even let the library user decide on the amount. Make them optional. (I’ve heard that this has worked in some libraries!)

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe libraries don’t have to wait for the apocalypse and repopulation of the world. Perhaps I was a bit hasty in saying so. It’s time to remove the stigma or remove the fines – either way, it’s an improvement.

- Former Circ. Clerk (turned librarian) in both fine and non-fine libraries.

At April 02, 2006 4:06 PM, Blogger Janie L. Hermann said...

Wow ... I like the way you think zgirl! Thanks for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking) response.

Are you currently working in a NJ library that doesn't have fines? I would love to know which one!

At April 03, 2006 10:34 AM, Blogger Liz B said...

I love the idea of getting rid of overdue fines. Keep charges for lost or damaged material; and try to figure out a viable option for something overdue with outstanding holds (fines then? Or a restriction on checking out more items? I'm not sure, but something fair and not punitive; with the idea being, the person waiting for it shouldn't wait forever.)

I also would like to see removing limits on number of items checked out; and number of hold items.

I also think that anytime our response to customers is the customer having to learn the library way, we should stop and think whether that is necessary -- or whether its time for the library to look at it from the customer's perspective.

At April 03, 2006 10:49 AM, Blogger Janie L. Hermann said...

Good ideas Liz.

In fact, we don't have a limit on number of items checked out or the number of holds you can place. We do have a limit on how much money you can owe the library. If you owe us more than $20 then you are cut off (or you need to give us enough to keep the amount owed at $19.99 or less).

At April 03, 2006 6:17 PM, Blogger zgirl said...

Janie, I do not currently work in a library, but the one with no fines was an academic library in NJ (I'd rather not say which one).

At April 10, 2006 8:57 AM, Blogger Geoff said...

Great original article and great comments. I totally agree that libraries have to figure out a way around the fine issue. I've tried to convince my board that we should get rid of fines. It's difficult to convince them to give up a funding stream, especially one as traditional as this. Fines are killing us, our customers have so many other alternatives if something doesn't change we'll "fine" ourselves right out of existence. Every time you fine a customer it makes them feel like a naughty 7th grader, I know *I* don't like that feeling.


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