or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Does Customer Service Go Both Ways

   July 3rd, 2013

Just a quickie pre-4th of July post. This picture surfaced on Reddit awhile ago, but I still find it interesting:

sign with different prices for being polite

On the surface this sign is great, and almost makes it worth it to charge for library materials just so we could do this. But then it also implies that we would treat people differently, which I don't like. It's tough to politely serve some* library patrons, but that's what we're there for. I wonder if rewarding polite patron behavior actually increases it, or would it breed obstinacy in patrons who otherwise would be perfectly fine but don't like being told what to do.

Not to mention that this sign kind of punishes shy and anti-social people, through no fault of their own. I think stores and restaurants where the workers shout "Good morning!" or "One in the door!" from across the room should have to charge less when it makes customers uncomfortable.


*Threatening or insulting behavior is a whole different topic

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8 Responses to “Does Customer Service Go Both Ways”

  1. Patrick W. Says:

    Some great insight here. Mandating polite behavior via any means would probably be disastrous. One additional consideration is that because this sign is directed at everybody, somebody who is already polite on a consistent basis might take it personally and be hurt. They might choose not to go there anymore because they felt the staff were being rude – maybe not to them, but generally.

    For myself, I try to always greet people who work in customer service of any kind and ask how their day is, and to ask for what I’d like instead of placing an order. This is because I remember working retail/customer service. I remember how low I felt at the end of the day, being subjected at one end of the line to a steady stream of, “I want I want I want,” and encountering an upper management that saw me as a cog in the engine at the other end. Treating somebody like a human being instead of a desire-facilitator is a choice for me, because I want to lighten their day and remind them that they are not just a cog.

    I am very happy to be working in a profession now where I don’t feel like that, where when I do something for somebody it is recognized and appreciated, and it goes toward building up both the library I work in and the people I serve in tangible, effective ways.

  2. Marcie Says:

    Yes, library workers are supposed to treat everyone the same and for the most part we do, but don’t you sometimes bend the rules a little bit for someone who is polite but be more of a stickler to someone who makes demands? I know I do. Maybe I’m a softie, but if the patron is nice and apologetic, I do what I can to help them out, but for those people with entitlement issues, I am less inclined to go an extra mile.

  3. Jami Says:

    I think if you read sites like Not Always Right and Retail Hell Underground you’d understand the reasons this sign would go up.

    Yes, we’re suppose to treat everyone the same. But it’s really hard sometimes. I’ve been screamed at over a quarter. Had someone use homophobic speech because they wrongly assumed my favorite singer is gay. (He’s not. But they just think he is.) Yelled at in front of a priest by someone demanding help with computers – which I’m not suppose to do as I’m just a clerk. (And the librarians won’t help her because she’s so bad she once actually chased one of the librarians into the bathroom demanding he kick someone off the computers for her.) Even spent 15 minutes on the phone with a woman who returned a book in our bookdrop sopping wet. Oh, and then there was the woman who was outside on her cellphone that came in and told me I should’ve been keeping an eye on her son for her when he put $20 into the Friend’s box. (Did not know the boy was Autistic and if he “can’t understand money” why did you let him come into the library *alone* with $20? Since when am I your psychic baby sitter? He seemed like a normal 12 year old to me and I had other patrons to serve.)

    Sometimes I wish Miss Manners had super powers and could show up in the library like Nightcrawler from the X-Men and put rude patrons in their place. Because it’s REALLY hard to be polite to some.

  4. Mary Jo Says:

    If I were to come across that sign, I would be completely amused and also appreciative that the business was making an attempt at raising public discourse to a kinder level while also trying to make a better work place for its employees. But I am easily amused and I appreciate simple gestures.

    At our library we encourage staff to treat even the grumpiest of visitors with the same level of kindness they would treat all others, and when grumpiness gets out of hand, to pass the customer up the chain to a manager who can start fresh with the customer. We try to raise the discourse to a kinder level through our actions and reactions.

    If you read that sign from bottom to top, it suggests that if you are willing to pay more, you can be as rude as you like…seems to go against the library philosophy of equal service for all.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    I agree with @Jami that it’s just human nature to be more friendly to people who are friendly to us, and I’m sure I act the same way. However, my library probably runs more like @Mary Jo’s description – be nice and consistent with everyone, and if something gets out of hand to refer it up a level. There are lots of types of patron behavior that don’t fall within the desk staff’s job description, but just by virtue of being in public service, I think there’s way more that do.

    It seems like the only best-case scenario for working with the public is to own your own store – that way, you can tell rude people to leave and never come back. Public employees and people who work at chain stores don’t have this luxury, but I admit I would love to have that freedom sometimes.

  6. Mary Jo Says:

    We have actually banned people from the library for repeated behaviors that were offensive/intimidating to staff or other members of the public. You need a posted Code of Conduct which outlines unacceptable behaviors and mentions the possibility of a ban (temporary or permanent) and you must offer due process (a time period during which the person can appeal the decision to the Board). So we do have some freedom in extreme cases.

  7. Emily Says:

    One thing that has become clear to me from working in libraries (as opposed to working in retail, which I did for ten years): some people’s inability to be polite is more of an “illiteracy” rather than an inherent rudeness. Behaving in a way that will get you better service is a social skill, and some people are not taught it, or don’t understand it, and for people who are already disadvantaged or in difficult situations, this makes it all the more impossible to get the things which make our lives better.

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mary Jo: we’ve had to go to that extreme in the past, but thankfully not lately. And our policies are only posted on our website, but no where printed in the building.

    @Emily: that’s a very interesting idea – and I bet you’re right. I remember my parents really drilling manners and being polite into my siblings and me, so it’s just second nature now. I’m sure it is foreign to many people – not that they’re not nice or good people, but you’re right, it might just never occur to them. Huh.