I have been thinking a lot lately about how a library chat service is a great way to promote a library. It inherently has elements that makes your library look good: It’s prompt, friendly, convenient and provides real-time answers to questions without a trudge to the library.
We quietly rolled out a chat service late this past spring and it steadily has been attracting users during the quiet summer months. Come autumn, we anticipate a heavy increase in use.
Behind the scenes right now, we are planning how to staff the service, the best chat technology to use and how to market the service. All important stuff. But what really gets me excited — and where I think the library promotion bit comes in — is in thinking about how best to interact with users via the service.
Talk with Me
The more I think about it, the more I think the success of a chat service comes down to individual conversations. You might think it’s easy to chat (i.e., instant message) with a library user, but over the years at other libraries I have found that it entails tact, informality and gentle handling — a combination of relaxed writing and careful attention that the user receives excellent customer service — which is surprisingly hard (for me at least) to get right.
But here is the cool part: I have found that when a chat interaction goes well and a user swiftly gets what he/she is looking for, the interaction creates a satisfied user who is not only likely to use the service again but to tell others about it — thus creating highly desired ‘buzz’ or word-of-mouth marketing for the library.
It’s true: I’ve often seen it over the years. For users, the utility of the chat service is fresh and often a bit surprising: Their answer comes quickly, from a sincerely friendly librarian, and the user simply had to ask a question via a chat screen. This tends to create a lot of repeat customers.
But don’t take my word for it. A recent OCLC report ‘Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference’ essentially states the same thing. Based on years of research, the authors contend that the ‘ideal blend of convenience and service’ of virtual reference builds lasting relationships with users.
They state that for virtual reference to work well for users, libraries must focus on the relationship-building aspects of virtual reference: that is, they must improve how they market the service and how they interact with users virtually.
The authors’ insights and recommendations include:
- Apparently, the main reason people do not use chat reference services is not because they don’t think such services are useful, it’s because they simply don’t know they exist. Once people know about chat services, they tend to use them because they’re friendly and convenient.
- Following from the first point, libraries should market their chat service whenever possible, including, and perhaps most importantly, during face-to-face moments. To reinforce the message, libraries should hand out business cards with a QR code to the chat service.
- The authors also found that users really appreciate good customer service. In chat interactions, therefore, libraries should be positive, sympathetic, personalised and to emphasise what users can do instead of what they cannot.
- Also, humour and informality are very important. Users appreciate it when a librarian is (or attempts to be) witty, not overly formal and avoids using canned scripts. This tends to lead to the most friendly and personalised chat interaction for the user.
- Users are very sensitive to rejection and often worry they’re bothering the librarian. Therefore, librarians must take care not to end chat sessions abruptly, reprimand users, limit the time of the chat session or send users elsewhere without providing any helpful information.
- Users of chat services want answers quickly. Therefore, librarians should include search or information literacy instruction only after providing an answer and then only if the user seems receptive to receiving the information (determined by asking him/her).
- However, though users want answers quickly, librarians should ask at least one open-ended question early in the chat transaction to clarify (if needed) what the user is looking for. The report authors found that this increased users’ satisfaction with chat services tremendously.
Finally, and I think most importantly:
- Libraries must make access to chat services as ubiquitous as possible. Not only should access be from the library home page, but also from within VLEs, the university web pages, and online catalogs and databases. Also, ideally, chat services should be 24/7 (oh how I would love to see such a service in the UK for academic libraries!).
The report confirmed my sense that library chat services are all about the conversation. When the exchange goes well, users ‘are quick to virally market our services if they have had a successful encounter — and just as quick (or quicker) to spread negative reports if they have not’ (pp. 71-72 of the report).
Chat services can build ‘respect’ and ‘credit’ for the library (so says the report), but only if libraries sincerely try to build rapport with users and understand their needs. Providing accurate answers is just a part of the interaction.
Warmth and Humility
For me, the question isn’t whether we ought to provide a chat service — or virtual/mobile applications for that matter — it’s the 21st century, and for goodness sake — yes — we ought to as our users tend to be delighted when we do. The question for me is how to make the user experience the best it can be (short of giving out free candy).
For me, the question is how best to build relationships. In a chat interaction, it helps I think to be as sympathetic as possible to a users’ needs, and not just an expert purveyor of information. Users need the expertise, of course, but they do not need (or desire) a seemingly cold or disinterested librarian. This isn’t what it’s all about in the new world of social media. It’s about a conversation laced with warmth and humility — users will appreciate it, use the service again and, most importantly, tell others about it.
Now if we could just get more libraries to provide chat services and to market them better. More about that in future posts!
‘ask the brain’ image by Thomas Hawk
‘marketing intelligence’ image by Intersection Consulting
‘keep your conversation cheerful’ image by clotho98