What is customer service in reference?

 This topic first started percolating in my mind when I read “On ethical reference service” (http://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/on-ethical-reference-service/) from Lane Wilkinson at the Sense and Reference blog. It queried whether it was good customer service to help users with their queries by showing them how to use the resources – rather than doing if for them. There’s more to it that that, so I recommend you read it.

Although it has its basis in academic libraries, a similar question can be asked in public libraries.

I know it is our responsibility to teach user to use the library catalogue/databases/ self-check etc, if they want to learn, but what if they don’t want to?  Should we make them learn?

This is the way it works for me, at least with catalogue help. If someone asks a question about an item they have found on one of our OPACs, I try to take them back to the OPAC to complete their query.  I assume that having begun their search there, they will appreciate knowing what the next step is, so that they know for next time. No issue there. This applies if I am approached in the library itself (away from the desk) or if its not too busy at the desk.

If we are busy, there is not usually time for a catalogue lesson, so I will usually use a staff PC or take them straight to the relevant shelves. If more information is required, I will go back to the OPAC first, with the person, to follow up. That’s OK.

But if its not too busy and they come to desk with a query, its a toss-up whether I take them to the catalogue or just complete the query at the desk.  But should I be focused more on one than the other?  Should every opportunity be taken to show our users how to use the catalogue?

I would have thought no at one stage, thinking that we shouldn’t force it on them. But with RFID, we had a lot of people who wouldn’t use the self-check machines for a number of reasons, including concern for staff jobs and thinking they didn’t have enough tech know-how.  However, once we have shown them how it works and that we are still here, they are usually impressed and enthusiastic.

So maybe its not about having a standard for every situation, but making a judgement for each situation – assessing your user, their need and the needs of the wider library at that time. Good customer service is still about meeting the user’s needs – we will do our best to meet  them every time, but the methods will vary.

What do you think?