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When you don’t tell the truth to customers . . .

I was thinking about three events lately that bothered me. There’s a library related question here at the end.

Why do employers ask their employees to tell known untruths to their customers?

Story No. 1

I am sitting in my seat on a plane and listening to the pre-flight announcements and safety training. Our flight attendant gets very aggressive on this point. She states that all phones must be off. “I said off people. I didn’t say airline mode, I said ‘OFF”. Your phones must be completely off for this flight. It’s a safety issue,” she is now shrieking at paying customers angrily. I’ve seen this performance to often.

It’s also total B.S. One, we turn our phones off because of cel flooding on the ground for normal phones. A plane full of phones floods many land-based cels at once as it flies over the country and uses up bandwidth space for local ground-based users. It interferes with ground communications, not airport or plane communications. Two, honestly, if our mobile phones were so dangerous, they’d be collecting them at the door! Remember this is the same place that makes all of our shoes come off because one (1) person once made a bad shoe. They cup our underwear because one (1) person once rode a plane with bad underwear, and we put our liquids in small bottles and a baggie because they fear someone might try that but haven’t yet. If phones were that dangerous they should be checked, but they’re not, so they aren’t.

And, yet, we listen on EVERY flight how our phones, if left on,


our flight safety. Hmmm, believable huh? So why would an airline bring down disrespect on their employees and the safety system by crying wolf and insist that staff present false information to customers en mass every flight? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Story No. 2

I am attempting to pay for something in a store with a credit card. The store cashier asks to see photo ID. I don’t carry photo ID since I don’t drive and I resent being asked for my passport in my own country. I am disallowed from purchasing the item. The cashier tells me that it is for my own protection. This is also total B.S.

The store has negotiated with the credit card company that they will get an additional discount on their store credit card fees (credit card companies make (big) money both ways). It has nothing to do with my credit safety.

Now the interesting decision is that the store’s management has trained all staff to tell customers that it is for their own protection. Who trains their staff to lie to customers? I now tell staff that I won’t be frequenting their store and making the purchase in front of them if they insist on photo ID. I point out that this has nothing to do with the reason they gave me as I complained. They say they know that but management insists that they tell the lie. Sometimes an empowered employee just puts my purchase through, other times they lose the sale and often give me attitude, but it’s a principle for me.

Story No. 3

I am paying my fines at the library. Like most librarians I manage to get a few and so does my family. We pay them and it’s not a hardship for us like it can be for many. For fun, I ask the clerk why they charge fines. She says that it’s to get the books back on time and to punish borrowers who are not obeying the rules. Interesting. I doubt that’s the real reason but it’s the one I got. I suspect that for some libraries it’s a small revenue stream and for some libraries they have political masters who feel that these punishments are moral.

I know that I have heard of some studies showing that:

1. Libraries are unusual in their use of fines as an intended ‘motivator’ for good behaviour. Hmmm. I wonder if that works?
2. Fines have the opposite effect by causing some books to be returned very late or not all. Overall they delay the return of books and have a negative effect on key markets like families, teens and children.
3. Individual fine forgiveness requests can put people in challenging economic circumstances into embarrassing situations of having to be cap-in-hand supplicants to desk staff in the public setting of the library.
4. Fine forgiveness events (days, weeks,months) often result in overall circulation increases after the events when people no longer fear having fines accruing in the library’s system.
5. Some staff treat fines in a ‘Gotcha!’ kind of way that results in a negative circulation transaction and the decline in the public image of the library as a friendly, approachable open place for service.
6. I hate it that the most popular interest news story about public libraries so often involve fines. We’re soooooo much more than that!
7. Who else uses fines? Police, parking officers, . . . These are for infractions of the law, not the rules. Even dying retailers like Blockbuster stopped fines years ago.

Either way, what are we asking our front line staff to say about fines? And can we make the transaction nice and positive. I know some libraries offer food for fines events and that’s neat. Any libraries offering pay-it-forward fine forgiveness where friends of the library can pay the fines of the needy? Any other good ideas? Have you reviewed your fine communication strategy and training lately?


Posted on: February 24, 2011, 7:22 am Category: Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. This is a good question — and one that I’ve never thought about! I work at our library’s circulation desk, and I’ve never been asked why we have fines. While it provides a tiny amount of revenue, fines always seemed like a good deterrent for college students. Now I’m definitely going to look into reading some of these studies.

    During the holidays in November and December, we accept food for fines that go to a local food bank. I think we are going to look into possibly doing this year-round.

  2. I also wonder about the purpose of fines at libraries.

    It seems like there has to be some way to ensure that materials come back, whether borrowing restrictions are applied if material doesn’t come back in a set time, or there is a limit to the number of items a user can have checked out at once (a la Netflix).

    As a side note: I have long had a Netflix account, so I am not positive what Blockbuster has been doing lately. As I recall, though, when they announced that there would be no “late fees,” what they actually did was charge you for purchasing the DVD if you did not return it in a certain time frame. If you returned it after this charge, you were then assessed a “restocking fee.” Have they done away with this practice?

  3. nonsense on the cell phone issue

    “The fact is: communicating with the control tower is difficult enough. Pilots aren’t sitting there chit chatting about fashion or pop stars. They are trying to take off and not get struck by another plane that might be landing seconds later, all while your phone’s signal is potentially interfering with communications.”

    And I suppose you expect the flight attendants to go row to row, checking to see if your cell phone is on for realsies, or just in airplane mode?

    Flight attendants are there for your safety. People can live without their cell phones for half an hour.

  4. While I agree with you that merchants are only thinking about the customer when they ask for ID, your reason isn’t quite right. Most major credit card companies, including Visa and MasterCard, actually have rules that say that a merchant can’t refuse to take your credit card, because you have no identification. Why then are the merchant’s willing to break this rule? Because it helps assure that they won’t get stuck with the bill, if you are committing fraud.

  5. No one said they weren’t there for my safety. I’d appreciate that more if they didn’t lie.
    And quoting an anonymous and very unprofessional flight attendant instead of the FAA reports doesn’t support your position at all. Really!
    Anonymous should stop being so full of b.s. and spreading unsupported information.
    The FAA investigations found that there was no fear of interfering with flight crew “potential” issues.
    Again, I ask, if cel phones being on are so provably dangerous as shoes and underwear that need 100% total airport process control, why do we leave cel phones on the honour method?
    And, anonymous, I love that you take such pleasure in crapping on your passengers and treating them badly! That surely matches a lot of my flight experiences.
    But then I have only flown 100-150 flights a year for 10 years so what do I know? I am pretty sure I’ve met your ilk many times.

  6. Della:
    At least they stopped asking for my phone number lately. That only potentially provided reverse phone book information about which homes were empty to rob. Since my personal and private information was so much more important than their needs for a discount . . . jeez.
    I know from personal experience that my business was refused unless I provided photo ID.
    I don’t enjoy the assumption that I am committing fraud. I NEVER go to that store again. Customer service doesn’t get much worse than refusing business on the basis that some kid on your cash register thinks you’re committing fraud (and has on occasion told me, so since I don’t carry photo ID)! Honestly, that just stupendously bad business! Epic.
    Maybe I should blog a list of these stores . . . they should be punished for bad training at the least. I suppose their punishment is that they can’t be customer centric merchants in the first place and shouldn’t survive anyway.

  7. I understand where you’re coming from regarding the issue of providing photo ID, but I personally prefer that stores ask for my photo ID when I pay with debit or credit. If my identity gets stolen (and this has unfortunately happened to a couple of my friends recently), I’d like it to be more difficult for the perpetrators to use my information. I don’t find it a hassle to pull out my photo ID, but I do have a driver’s license, so I wouldn’t have to be pulling out my passport or other document. I guess I don’t feel like I’m being accused of fraud when someone’s checking my ID; instead, I feel pleased that the associate actually cares whether my card is being used legitimately or not. Most of the time I am not even asked (in spite of actually having “SEE ID” written on the back of my card).

    Regarding library fines, I never really have seen them as negative. In my mind, they are more like insurance than punishment. I feel like it’s important for deadlines to be observed so the item can be available to more people. The fine may allow the library to recoup the loss of availability by buying another copy of the book for future use, or assisting in increasing the circulation in some other way (this is mostly speculation — I don’t have a clear understanding of how [most] libraries use the money received from fines).

  8. Pinkerton said

    I understand the desire to not charge fines, and maybe there are good ways to make that model work, but here is my anecdotal evidence… Out of the four public libraries I have worked in, one did not charge any fines. At that library, there were numerous occasions when a patron wanted a certain item, but when we looked it up on the computer it was weeks or months overdue. We actually had patrons get mad at us for NOT charging fines. College students were the worst, keeping their stuff out for an entire 16 week semester. Demand for material spilled over into interlibrary loan (if the patron was willing to wait a few days for it). Then, we would get into hot water with other libraries in our cooperative because their own patrons would eventually want the items we had borrowed for our patrons. By the time our patrons brought them back, we had received bills for replacement by the owning libraries. I now work at one of those other libraries in the cooperative, and long overdue books are not nearly as much of a problem.

    Late fees ensure that scarce materials are used as much as possible. If it makes the public feel better, call them “extended use fees”, set them low, don’t use them to belittle patrons, and forgive them right away if a patron gives a good reason for things being late. I don’t particularly like them, but it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’ve seen the flip side, and I prefer being damned for doing it.

    BTW, late fees make up about 2% of our budget. However, our collection of late fees has fallen nearly 50% since I started using email to remind people before their items are due.

  9. cary cox said

    The library where I work gave up charging fines at least 10 years ago. The result–items still come back on time since users can’t check out if they have overdue items, less work and stress for staff, and a much friendlier, cooperative relationship between staff and our users.