MLA 2009: Customer Service

Now! That’s what I call customer service!
Julie Strange, statewide coordinator for Maryland AskUsNow
Cathay Crosby, operations assistant for Maryland AskUsNow

Focusing on customer service with chat and email reference, with an into that includes some basic customer service points.

Customer service basics

  • “customer service” – business term that can bring lots of negative associations w/in the library – experience your customers have with your organization at all of its touchpoints.
  • interactions between staff & customers today
  • doesn’t cost anything to provide great customer service – way of life
  • customer should always understand how they are being viewed
  • good CS is priceless — people who have an excellent experience become your advocate. but people who have a bad experience tell even more people.
  • moments of truth — every contact between employee & customer is important
  • first impression counts but if the customer sticks around you have other opportunities to win them back – the moments of truth
  • empowered staff – even if organization is very open, librarians like rules. not necessarily a good thing. some don’t feel comfortable straying from the rules, front line staff don’t want to bend/break rules and get in trouble.
  • red rules: safety, etc. should not be changed/bent for any reason ever. core rules, not many (ie no smoking)
  • yellow rules: situational, may have some flexibility with a management intervention.
  • green rules: more like guidelines. what your front line staff knows they can change situationally and know they will have backup from mgmt.
  • example of Nordstrom staff handbook: Only rule: “Use good judgement in all situations. there will be no additional rules. “ (requires well-trained staff and management who will back them up on the fly)
  • focus on your customers
  • don’t exist without them
  • most important thing is your attention on them & providing service to them
  • acknowledge them – very important – even just a little nod

Chat reference

  • online: pick the customer up quickly (chat) – greet them right away, acknowledge their question.
  • in person: acknowledging question is important, even if prefaced with “this is a silly question”
  • active listening – not anticipating what the customer is going to say. (first question is not their actual question.) easy to give cues in person.
  • online active listening is hard – clarify questions, paraphrase, don’t just jump right in. respond to things they say (chit chat)
  • watch out for self-disclosure – put themselves on the line when they say they need help. acknowledge
  • use inclusive language – let’s do this now (brings them in as a co-creator of their answer)
  • be personable & friendly! makes it easier to get the info you need out of them to answer their question.
  • set expectations: tell them what you’re doing – in chat all they know is you’ve stopped responding. tell them 5 minutes if that’s what you need. check back in to reset expectations.
  • use all of your tools – don’t get into tunnel vision, remember there are colleagues and other people who can help you.
  • let them know what’s possible & let them decide what they need.
  • “don’t be a barrier, find a way.” put them on the path. “it is never just a no. but if it is a no give an alternative”
  • follow through at the end of the interaction. “anything else I can help with?” “good luck!” “good night”

Email reference

  • been around for a long time compared to chat reference. still around? still useful? what are people doing?
  • how do you work with patrons when they’re not in front of you?
  • over email & chat: more questions about policies & procedures, access; quick answer questions (what is? who is?); they asked to just get the answer (not so much asking for “help with,” want the “answer to”)
  • in person – one question leads to more (clarifying what they want). not as much online.
  • email reference – can use the lag time to step back & think more deeply
  • email address vs webforms: public libraries mostly using webforms. regional libraries (3) – 2 w/ email 1 w/ form. special libraries (7), 4 email, 2 webform. academic libraries (34): 20 webform, 10 email, 1 both.
  • email address: easy for patron; wide open to any question; hard to track & provide timely responses if you get a lot of email. (me: why do some places still say “2-3 days to answer your email?” annoying & unrealistic, set up an autoreply when you are closed, or in a large system use a shared address and rotate coverage); browser will try to open email software that you don’t want to use or don’t have set up (confusing for some patrons.
  • forms: fields can help patrons think more specifically about their question, or they can just be confusing; can get too specialized/confusing if you have a form for every possible use; tracking easier (QuestionPoint has lots of tracking features for email)
  • email: you can offer all kinds of resources to people and they can take it or leave it.
  • challenges – asynchronous/one-sided interactions

Good email reference interactions:

  • 5 elements to a good email answer: opening greeting, acknowledge question, answer, teachable moment, closing.
  • “it seems like this is what you’re asking, so I’ll take that tack, let us know if this isn’t quite right.”
  • don’t sound like a robot, be personable.
  • map out your steps in some way, so you know what you did if they come back with a follow-up question.
  • sign your real name in some way, not just “your librarian” — more personable. give contact info for them to get back to you personally.
  • email is here to stay (me; well, not really for the millennials, wonder if we will see a drop-off in the next decade or so. is this drop off hitting colleges first?)


Is it appropriate to ask them to call/ask if you can call them if the exchange is going to be too difficult over chat or email? especially for complex questions, technical support, etc. ok to shift modes no matter how the question came in