Thursday, August 03, 2006

Is the Customer Always Right?

This is an interesting question. I picked up on a post from C-Net (which I have added to my Bloglines) a link to the Chief Happiness Officer who lists business maxims that need to go. He starts by noting that "The worst of these old maxims are not only wrong, they're bad for people and bad for business. Businesses who use them are making their employees unhappy and are harming the bottom line." His list is in priority order (not David Letterman style) and #2 is "The Customer is always right." He wrote a longer post on this. He concludes his more recent list with a new maxim: Happy employees means happy customers.

That is almost heresy in this part of the country. A successful dairy business nearby has two rules carved in stone outside each of its stores. Rule #1: The Customer is always right. Rule #2: If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule #1.

Now I have heard the founder speak, and I have heard his son (and current corporate president speak). They speak eloquently on this topic, and make a very strong case for their least in retail. Part of what they have been able to do is to create an incredible brand loyalty because they actually act on their two rules. They even reward and recognize employees who break other rules to observe the two engraved in stone.

We in Libraries are not in retail. We have two sometimes conflicting service imperatives: helping the public meet its needs and guarding the resources which have been entrusted to our care. A case in point, yesterday afternoon, I received a call from a member of the public. (When you sit where I do, that is usually a sign of a problem.) She had returned some overdue media items, and wanted to negotiate the fines. She wasn't happy with what the branch manager said. She did not even have a good reason why the items were late, and freely admitted that they were!

What am I to do? I think that it is lucky that I can tell the truth and say that I do not know how to waive fines in our automation system (which I do not, I have simply not learned, and do not have occasion to do it often enough). I listened a lot, and then talked to the branch manager. Now this particular manager is usually one of the more flexible when it comes to fines and such. And we all acknowledged that the items had been returned. I went with the decision of the branch manager, which was to offer to cut the fine in half as a one time occurrence. However, I also had the branch manager deliver the message. In a way, I really resented being called in as this patron tried to weasel out of a legitimate fine. By the way, she went to the branch today and paid that fine!

So, was I right or not? Fines are imposed as an incentive for the timely return of materials. They are not meant to be excessively punitive. When an item has been returned, my managers have a broad latitude and can use their discretion to waive and reduce fines (although that funding stays with the Library, and supplements the City budget).

I'm with Alexander Kjerulf. The customer is not always right. Happy employees are going to deliver better customer service in the long run. I try to act that way!

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