Libraries and overdue fines go together like peanut butter and jelly, but why? More and more libraries are taking the plunge to eliminate late fees for various reasons but the vast majority of systems are sticking to their policies. Whether you agree with overdue fines or not, the fact remains that handling fine related accounts are the most difficult among customer service issues. This particular post is inspired by my husband who is not a librarian but a customer service representative for an unnamed company. Long story short, he complains about receiving negative feedback on his customer service surveys due, in large part, because he refused to make a fee waiver of some sort. The background story for each customer is different but the end result is the same - the customer is unhappy. I liken this story to libraries because it is similar; a library customer pays for a service (usually through property taxes,) he/she gets a late fee or is charged for a damaged book (like overages on your cell phone bill,) and the customer either pays or disputes the charge.
Most library staffers fall into two categories when it comes to late fees - the Rule Follower and the Rule Bender. The Rule Follower adheres to library policy that the customer is responsible for overdue fees that have accrued and expects the customer to hold up their end of the deal. It's only in extreme circumstances that the Rule Follower will make an exception and, even then, he/she will often request documentation. The Rule Bender, however, is a pushover and aims to please the customer at whatever cost. Living in a world of gray area, the Rule Bender often empathizes with the customer to the detriment of the Rule Follower (who had previously told the same customer "no.") I'm purposefully polarizing the two types to make a point because it begs the question 'when should we break the rules and when should we stick to our guns?'
Let's consider a few scenarios which repeatedly rear their heads:
The Storyteller - This customer has a long story detailing exactly why the books checked out to her are extremely late and now total a fine upwards of $70. She demands that it's not her fault and she shouldn't have to pay the enormous late fee.
The Beggar - She knows that the books were late and that there would be a fine to pay but she wasn't expecting the fee to be in the hundreds after returning the 60 children's books a couple weeks late. She begs you to have mercy and not make her pay that full amount.
The Screamer - This customer usually feels affronted by the library when he is told that his outstanding balance is $25 and he insists that this has already been taken care of. Yelling is his natural way of letting you know he's unhappy and he usually will not relent until the issue has been resolved to his satisfaction.
The Innocent - The just-turned 18 year old didn't realize that mom made a card for her when she was 12 and ran up a large fine. She pleads that she can't be held responsible for her parent's mistake.
The Payer - This customer loves the library and repeatedly racks up fines and pays them consistently without ever arguing. He/she has probably paid thousands of dollars over the last several years in overdue fees and never complains.
The Habit - A habitual customer who has repeatedly had fines forgiven. He knows the game and will always ask for his fines to be taken care of.
In some of the real life versions of these scenarios I've seen customers throw up their hands and say they will sever ties with the library when the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction. In these situations was there nothing that could be done to save the relationship? While every situation is different, I can only think of one where a library would want to purposefully sever ties with the customer. This would involve stealing library materials and it is rarely the case. In the end, an unwavering library staffer risks turning the customer away from the library and an empathetic librarian may waive too much when he/she could have bargained for more.
So where is the fine line? It varies for each individual and finding it can be difficult. How do you handle these scenarios without losing the customer's support of the library?