Liar, Liar

What do you do when the customer is clearly lying?  We recently had a book returned with dog chew marks all over the spine.  The book was withdrawn from the collection.  The customer insisted that she had borrowed the book in that condition.  A lot of times when we have empowered staff on the front desk, we are asking them to use their judgement.  And a good portion of that judgement is based on whether we believe the customer or not.

Several times a week we have customers that insist on things:  they returned the movie/book on time, they paid that fine already, the item was in that condition when they borrowed it.

I could write a book on the number of times the insistent customer was proven to be wrong.  In general we have already given in to these customers.  This is especially true if they don’t have a track record of losing/damaging items or having fines written off.

It’s a balancing act.  Customer tells us something.  We have to determine if we believe the story or not and then we determine whether to write off the fines/damaged item.   I’m always a little fascinated by the liars because they are assuming that extreme denial will get them off the hook for paying when chances are if the item is relatively inexpensive and we have other copies and the person has come to us and just honestly told us what happened, we’re going to write it off.  But lying puts us off.  Most times we might have a sense of lying but we can’t know for sure if they returned something or borrowed it in damaged condition.  But, there are times when there is NO doubt a person is lying.

In the case of the dog chewed book, what the customer didn’t know is that she was the only person to borrow that book.  We had about 25 brand new copies in my office being used to fill book club requests.  The copy she borrowed was from that pile on my office floor.  She was trying to create doubt by raising the idea that another customer had damaged the book  and she just happened to borrow it in that condition.  But, there was no other customer before her.  She was lying.

This bothers me.  It removes the opportunity to give the person the benefit of doubt.   In the end, we wrote off the damaged book because we had so many copies; but, it really bothered me that she lied so freely to us.    It is hard not to knee jerk punish her by leaving the fines on her record.  I don’t really want to be that person and I don’t want us to run our department that way.  If we had left the fines on her record it would have been to punish her for lying because in the bigger picture it was an item that was easy to write off and one we would routinely write off in different circumstances.

Each instance where a customer perspective differs with ours brings the opportunity to negotiate; but, when faced with undeniable proof, for some reason, we automatically lean towards feeling that there is no need for negotiation.  I beg to differ.  At our library we reached 1 million circulation last year.  Even if we remove renewals from the equation and had a check-in error rate of just 1% (which seems impossibly low to me), we would have 6,000 human errors.  And customers make mistakes too, they damage things; they think they returned things when in all actuality the item is in their kid’s backpack or under a car seat or stuffed behind a couch cushion.

I consider all of this part of doing business and honestly the more errors on our part and lost items on the customer’s part means that we are doing a lot business.    Any business factors loss into the budget.  At another public library, where I worked as the Fiction Librarian, we would purchase the full collection of Donald Goines paperbacks twice a year because they were stolen so frequently.  A lot of libraries would stop purchasing them; but, we felt that the cost associated with this practice was low enough and the demand for the books high enough that it was worth the loss.

We are going to encounter customers who lie; but, I believe it is in the best interest of the institution to resist automatically punishing this person and to make your decisions based on all the factors that you would ordinarily use to negotiate the outcome.

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