Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chat Reference is a Weird Beastie


We've had chat reference at my library for a while now, but I'm still getting used to it. Don't misunderstand me: I've read a bunch about best practices and good customer service. Also, I've been using chat clients personally for a long time, so I'm well aware of how to communicate in that way. I think I'm pretty good at transferring in person skills to online. Here are some of my personal best practices:
  1. No matter the venue, it is still a reference interview. Usually, I ask lots and lots and LOTS of questions before I get started answering them. The need for this approach is even stronger without visual cues and tone of voice to help me figure things out.
  2. Juggling between someone in person and someone online is difficult, but if I have to shift my attention from the person online, I always let them know. Same goes for the person standing in front of me.
  3. I try to have some personality, but remind myself that words are a ridiculously small percentage of communication. Without body language or tone, I can be misunderstood as easily as I can misunderstand. To address this, I use emoticons and such, but those only go so far. I could be more business like, but I really want to make sure that the person on the other end of the line knows they are dealing with a human being.
  4. As I do with any kind of teaching (and make no mistake: reference interactions are teaching), I give them a path back to the information. When it comes to chat reference, this means offering to email them a transcript of our conversation.
  5. Another part of the regular reference interview that is even more crucial online is making sure the patron has what s/he needs and feels the information need has been fulfilled.
It's that last practice that has me thinking enough to write a post, as it led to an interaction that reminded me of the importance of the "chat" part of chat reference. You see, I was done helping a student with whether or not we had access to the full text of a specific psychology journal, and this is what happened next:

     Me: Is there anything else I can help you with?

     Student: Actually, yes. Who would win in a fight? A bear or a tiger?

I could have laughed it off and ended the conversation right there, but I wasn't particularly busy. I decided to go with it. The Bear V. Tiger part of the conversation didn't last long, but it was fairly detailed. We established that it was a Kodiak Bear vs a Siberian Tiger, both had cubs to protect from the other, both were hungry enough to want to eat the other's babies, and they were fighting on the moon but suited in a way that didn't impair anyone's ability to use their natural defenses/offenses. After spending time establishing the parameters, I voted for the tiger, as any cat person might.

"Tiger 9" is a Creative Commons licensed picture by Bart Rousseau.

Here's the thing that has me still thinking about that interaction, even though it happened almost two weeks ago: how do I bring that sense of play and fun into chat reference more often? That means I have two questions for you this week: (1) Do you have anything to add to my personal best practices for chat reference?, and (2) How can we bring more personality to chat reference interactions? 


  1. I just did an hour on Question Point this morning, and noticed that the scripts provided by the patrons' home libraries tend to be extremely formal and dull. So while I use them, I only keep the key information and modify all the niceties. (So, instead of "Thank you for using our chat service," I say, "Thanks again for your question -- have a great day!" or something similar.) I'm also a big fan of a well-placed, but not overused, emoticon. :D

  2. When I first respond to the question as stated in the initial chat message, one thing I like to do is express interest in the question "Wow, that a new one for me! Sounds interesting...lemme think about that for a moment." "Ya know, I've never been asked about that before. Sounds like a good challenge for me." As much as I can, I try to express my newly shared interest in their question and let them know that I'm on their team.

    I also always wind down a session by asking, as you do, "is there anything else I can help you with" and then later when it is clear that we're done inviting the student to return ("feel free to come back if you need more help...this service is open around the clock."

    I've often engaged in banter or offered up personal details when it seems like they might establish the friendly, casual tone I strive for in my chat interactions. Because our chat service is a cooperative one, I get a lot of interesting reactions from students who learn from my scripted greeting that I'm a librarian in New York City. If you are part of a cooperative service, stating your location in your initial greeting then can serve two valuable goals: (1) letting the patron know right away that the librarian they are chatting with is not from their home institution and thus may not be able to handle all the policy-type questions that come up and (2) offering up a piece of personal info that humanizes you a bit and may lead to some off-topic interactions that enrich the relationship you want to build with your patron.