That’s The Policy: Explaining the Rationale

By Olivia Buck

Communication is key in customer service, there’s no question about it. How we frame our interactions often directly correlates with how patrons respond. If we come at an issue focusing on what we can do instead of what we can’t, the conversation generally goes much smoother. When working at a service desk, especially one where dealing with fines, lost items, and damaged materials is so common, it can be easy to slip into the mode of giving what I like to call the “policy speech.” It sounds something like, “I’m sorry, our policy is x,” or “I cannot do y because of our policy.” However, I know there have been times when I wasn’t satisfied by the “that’s just our policy” response. I think in those situations, I would have really appreciated understanding why the policy worked that way and what effect that policy would have. Yet, I think we’re all guilty of saying “That’s our policy” at some point or another.

Once, soon after taking over as the Donation Day Coordinator, a first-time volunteer came up to me with arms full of books. They were in nearly-new condition, hardly even dusty.

“I think we should keep these; they look like they’re in great condition,” he said.

Upon giving them a closer look, I discovered that they were a set of encyclopedias from the 1970s. As a library worker, I have had to learn to squash my instinct to save every book that comes my way. Sometimes books come back to the library with various maladies, from torn-off covers to being scrawled on with permanent markers; sometimes there’s just no saving a book. At first, it felt wrong to pitch the books, but after a book came back covered in an unknown, oozy, sticky slime (complete with hair, crumbs, and another book stuck to it), it started to hurt a little less to discard damaged books. Often, my Donation Day volunteers also have to squish down the impulse to save all the books coming in, and they have much less time to get used to the idea of getting rid of books that the library cannot keep. This is especially difficult when the books seem like they are in good condition, but are too old or are items that become outdated very quickly, like the encyclopedias this volunteer wanted to save.

Understandingly, I explained, “Unfortunately, the library cannot keep encyclopedias because they become outdated too quickly.”

“But they’re like new!” he exclaimed, eyes widening in surprise. “We should definitely keep these.”

Again, I explained to him that the library wouldn’t be able to keep these. Our policy during Donation Day was to send on all encyclopedias to another facility to be recycled.

“But that makes no sense. Look at them. They’re like new. Somebody should keep them.”

Occasionally, I get volunteers who struggle to get rid of something, so this was already familiar territory for me. However, he was steadfast in his opinions and insistent. I tried not to feel impatient when he wouldn’t accept my answer, and clarified, “Unfortunately, the library can’t keep these books. Lots of things have changed since these books have come out and they are outdated. We wouldn’t be able to add them to our collection or sell them in our Book Shoppe.”

Again, he insisted that someone would want them.

I replied, “If you’d like to purchase them, you may do so. Otherwise, the library will not be able to keep these books and they should be sent on to be recycled.”

“Well, I don’t want them. What use would I have for them? But the library should keep them.”

At this statement, I was a bit at a loss for words. I’d used all the responses that had worked for me in the past, and I still hadn’t been able to convince him that these books could not stay at the library. I shuffled through all of the knowledge that I had about Donation Day and racked my brain for something that would help ease his conscience about letting these poor encyclopedia volumes go onto the next chapter of their lives. Eventually something sparked in my brain.

“Did you know that the library actually gets money back from the books that go on to be
recycled? These books would be best helping the library by going to the other facility.”

And there it was. The fight in his eyes faded and, with a grimace, he acquiesced. “Alright, I suppose that’s okay then.”

Reflecting on this incident afterwards, I realized that I had fallen into the trap of explaining policy instead of telling him how this was actually the best course of action. I walked away knowing that I had to find a new way of approaching this type of situation with volunteers. As a result, I implemented a new training plan which included explanations for why our policy is what it is and how that works out best for the library.

I have found that using this same approach in other situations has been helpful all around. Even if I say what the policy is, following it up with an explanation has made a huge difference in my conversations with both patrons and volunteers. My conversations often look more like “We handle it in this way because x,” or “Because of y, we have to do this.” I have found that most people appreciate hearing the whole story, not just the policy.

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