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15 Aug 2007 / Julie

IM versus Chat: What’s better for customer service?

In Maryland (as well as many other states in the nation, and countries around the world) we have this great resource- a state-wide virtual reference service linked to an international coop of librarians who are available any time of the day or night, all year long, to answer the questions of whoever comes in through whichever local service.

Because librarians are huge on cooperation, we see its greatness, but i’m not convinced our customers do.

Customers log in to the chat because it was a link on their local library’s “contact us” or “get help” page and all of a sudden they’re chatting with a librarian from another state who, while cool, has no resources or access to answer the customer’s pin # question. (Policy pages are great, but without local access, the customer still has to “contact their local library” even though they already thought that’s what they were doing.)

The focus for me, and all of us, should be our customers. We should think of ourselves as businesses, our patrons as customers, and make sure they’re getting the best service possible. In the interest of “the best possible service” we should be “moving the question, not the customer**” when we can’t answer something ourselves. Currently, when we can’t answer the question, we refer it somewhere else. We either move the person by telling them to call x, y, or email z, or we mark the session “Follow up by Patron’s Library” (apologies if you don’t have QuestionPoint, as this is local lingo) for someone else to contact the person with their answer (hopefully).

To move the question, requires a vast intergalactic network of librarians, subject specialists and other such folks who can answer just about any question that comes down the pike. A question about locating a 5th century Asian war map? No problem. A question about resetting a pin number? Fuggedaboutit! The customer “comes in” to the library however they choose (face to face, email, phone, fax, text, im, chat, or courier pigeon) and we, their local librarians, are able to answer it for them (with the help of this stellar network we have at our disposal).

This also speaks to a big thing in every business’ customer service plan: limit the number of people a customer deals with. It makes them feel better, happier, and gives both of you the opportunity to build a relationship.

Being able to build a personal relationship with repeat customers is another huge part of the customer service thing. Getting to know your customers enables you to help them better than a stranger could. My parent’s generation has stories about the guy who ran their local soda shop (or whatever) who gave them a free float when they passed their big test. My generation doesn’t have that. We don’t have relationships with store owners; I can’t even find a company i’m willing to be loyal to!

We need to build relationships with our customers. Relationships change lives. Relationships create fan clubs, folks who are willing to help you out when you’re in a bind (like when your library needs $$, or an individual is going through a crisis). The only thing that can build relationships (besides, actually caring to), is “face to face” time; if you don’t have contact with someone more than once, how can you build a relationship with them?

I want all libraries to have huge fan clubs full of folks who have individual stores of how their local librarian helped them and how it changed their lives, or at least their day. I want to be able to walk up to just about anyone on the streets and have them be able to tell me an awesome story about how a librarian touched them (no gutter comments, please).

Through our current system no fond memories will be built of me- and I’m one of the good librarians who use their real name, try to build rapport with her customers, and talk to them like their my best friend! Even if the same customer is on the same time i’m monitoring, with that huge network, there’s very little chance I’d be able to pick the person out of the queue, or get to them first (less chance assuming their not from my state or local library, as there are rules, you know). We’re pieces in the big reference cog- it’s no wonder so many ppl get caught up in the robotics, mechanics of it all and end up coming off as curt or rude to the customers.

What am I saying? I swear I have a point. In the interest of customer service, and moving the question, not the customer, our vast network should be behind the scenes (ppl should know about it, but not be smacked in the face with it).

This is a huge vote for IM in the IM v chat debate (the way it currently stands). As we all know (since we’ve all looked), there is currently no way to provide IM collaboratively. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps this is the light bulb moment we should be looking at sideways, instead of straight on.

Perhaps the way to make sure folks are getting the best service possible is to have IM as our internet point of contact (w/ in-site widgets for those who don’t have an IM client already DLed), along with email for local librarians and have a national VR service without any local brands for that 24/7 access to research help. Through IM, local folks would be able to answer the local questions like “what’s my pin #” or “i can’t seem to renew my books.” When we aren’t on IM (it’s okay not to be 24/7… leave your IM on, with an away message used as a resource guide, or note of library hours or phone numbers), customers would be able to find their pin info on our very easy-to-navigate, full-of-information websites that had been user-tested out the wazoo. If they can talk to anyone, our nationally-branded service is available 24/7.

Having a national service (which is what we basically are anyway, local branding just confusing things) also has another benefit- standardization. Yes, the 24/7 coop has standards, best practices, and policies, but since we’re all also our own local brands, it’s really hard to make everyone who’s in the coop pay attention to these rules. (I think MD does a great job, but is it so hard to listen when the coop says “don’t reject sessions?”). Standardization helps quality which helps customer satisfaction. It’s all connected, folks.

Okay, so I’ve got ideas on the customer end, how about this intergalactic network of awesomeness I keep talking about? I know the Global Reference Network exists, and no offense to those folks who spent time and effort growing that, but i don’t think it works to my streamlined purposes. Nothing exists yet that would make me feel good about abandoning our local brand chat service and start up IM and a nationally branded VRS.

** Moving the question instead of the customer is a note i wrote during Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Diana Sachs-Silveira, and Vince Mariner‘s presentation on “the state of VR” at the Collab VR Symposium in Denver a few weeks ago… my apologies if i was quoting someone, for I can’t remember. Kudos to me if it was a semi original thought. :-)

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