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TL v60n1: Ann Clapp
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 1



It's My Opinion!

Staff Development


Ann Clapp


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You Want WHAT???


“Excuse me while I go get my magic wand,” I heard my employee mutter under his breath.  I chuckled, knowing that feeling...when a patron seems to want something impossible.  Sure, let me drive to Kansas and get that ILL that you need for your paper…Of course I’ll break into the current patron’s house and get that hold that you missed while on vacation…Yes, I understand that you just sent your son to an Ivy League school and should not have to pay the $1.50 overdue fine that you have (perhaps you could reach down in your $10,000 couch and find some change).  Too frequently, though, the patron says things that sound insane trying to express something completely sane.  And because we get wrapped up in the details of insanity, we miss the big picture.

Most patrons really want the same things that we want, both in and out of the library.  Patrons want to be heard, want to be loved, and want something special.  To fulfill these needs, we do not have to cling to the misguided “the customer is always right” mantra, nor do we have to give them the same solutions that they propose.  We simply need to adhere to the Golden Rule, to value patrons above policies, people above procedures, and to learn to communicate these values effectively…not always easy in a profession full of introverts and organizers.

First, patrons want to be heard.  We all want to be heard.  I sent a complaint to on Black Friday and received a completely unrelated form letter.  This response irritated me more than the initial problem, so I sent an email clarifying my complaint and received (not kidding) the same form letter responding to my complaint about the form letter.  I then asked (in all caps—yes, I meant to yell) “CAN ANYONE THERE READ ENGLISH?”  And no, I did not really care about the literacy rate of Wal-Mart employees; I wanted to be heard.  

How many times does it seem like we do not hear because we only chant our policy mantra?   “It’s our policy” rarely soothes anyone because it does not show that we have heard the emotion or the specific problem.  “If I understand you correctly, you feel frustrated that you were charged overdue fines when you were on vacation.  You feel like fines should be waived if you are unable to come in, such as times when you are out of town.  I understand this frustration…I have had similar experiences.  We have discussed this issue to determine the fairest policy toward all of our patrons balanced with our responsibility to manage the taxpayer’s resources…We try to be fair and consistent…”   This story could have several endings, but the patron should feel “heard” at this point, and people who have been heard make better listeners.

Second, customers want to be loved.  Uh-oh, you’re thinking…exactly what sort of bookstore did she work in before coming to libraries?    Patrons, especially long-term patrons, want to feel like they matter, want to feel like their loyalty matters.  Few things infuriate me more than standing at a counter while employees finish personal conversations.  Besides not caring if my cashier prefers being loved to death by the hot vampire or hot werewolf, I want to delude myself that the person helping me thinks I matter more than her conversation, especially if I have been a loyal customer.   

Very few organizations care about loyalty anymore: companies lay off lifetime employees, the best television shows are replaced by reality shows about vacuuming, and GM stopped making my midlife crisis car.  People crave loyalty…the idea that we know their names, that they belong here, that we wouldn’t allow such a small thing as a library fine to break up a long-term relationship.

Third, patrons want something special…not because they think they are so special (although some people certainly do), but because it shows that they matter to us.  And everyone is special, in some way…not in a “more equal than others” way, but in a “you are not a number” way.  Remembering patrons’ names, sincerely asking how they are doing, and suggesting other titles all make patrons feel special…even if they know that we do this for everyone (ideally).  Special does not mean different…just appreciated as an individual.  Often, just showing sympathy or expressing the willingness to pass the complaint to decision-makers makes the patron feel special and costs us nothing.

So before reaching for our magic wands (even if it is to cast a killing spell), we can stop and think about the big picture.  What is the patron really asking?  Likely, he wants to be heard, he wants to be loved, and he wants to be special…just like us.


Ann Clapp is Head of Reference & Acquisition at The Brentwood Library, Brentwood, Tennessee and is the co-chair (with Beverly Simmons) of TLA’s Staff Development Committee.  Before coming to libraries, she served as a district manager for a retail bookstore chain.  Interested in free library training materials?  Please visit the Library Skillbuilders website at


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