What would you say if I told you that some libraries discriminate against a certain type of customer? That some customers, because of the way they asked a question, were purposefully pushed to the back of the line, told to wait 2-3 days for an answer, and that they couldn’t get an answer to some of their burning questions … because they’re “that kind” of customer?
You’d be furious, right?
Well … believe it or not, many libraries are doing that RIGHT NOW – today, in fact. Take a peek at these email and chat reference policies for a sec, then come back and let’s talk:
- Note – not picking on any particular library – there are MANY MORE examples out there…
- New York Public Library: “We will make every effort to respond to your question within two working days“
- San Francisco Public Library: “In depth questions will be forwarded in e-mail format to subject specialists, who will try to get back to you within 2 days.” Their IM service – “The IM reference service works best for answering brief, factual questions.”
- Hennepin County Library: “We can provide brief answers to questions or suggest locations and sources to answer your question. We will respond within 48 hours.”
- San Diego Public Library: “If you are in a Library building, we highly recommend working with Library staff before using these online services” … “Library staff is able to provide short, factual answers.”
- County of Los Angeles Public Library: “Send us an email or fill out the form below. Reference staff will respond to your question within 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays).
- Houston Public Library: “You should get a response to your e-mail within 48-72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays … If you are working against a deadline, you may get a faster response by visiting or calling your local library …”
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: “Every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours.” … E-mail Reference Questions should be limited to those that have concise, factual answers … Individuals are limited to three Electronic Mail Reference Questions each week.” (check out this update)
- Kansas City Public Library: “Questions sent to the Library by using this form will be answered by e-mail within 48 hours excluding holidays and weekends.” Their chat service – “AskNow! is a live, online reference service for questions that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources.”
Ouch! Now, let me ask you this. If I walked into any of these libraries and asked the same question in person:
- Would I have to wait 48-72 hours for a response? No.
- Could I ask the same question on a weekend? Most likely, assuming the library was open.
- Would they limit my questions to THREE A WEEK??? I sure hope not!
- Would I be limited to asking ONLY questions “that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources” as KCPL mentions? No.
Is this REALLY how you want to treat your customers? Especially that growing group of customers who are already using your digital branch and are taking advantage of your digital services? Please don’t tell me that you can somehow only serve those customers who actually walk into the library and up to your physical reference desk, but can’t get to the customers who call or email or IM or txt you in a timely fashion. I’m not buying that.
The problem isn’t the volume or the format of the question, but the way your reference services are arranged. Rearrange it. Now. Please.
In essence, you ARE discriminating. Discriminating against a growing, younger, web-savvy customer base. Customers who *almost* have all the tools in place to simply ignore you and your grad-degreed, professional information-retrieval services. Especially if they are treated like second class customers when they ask a question using their preferred, and handy, means of communication.
Does this make sense? Do you really want to be “that guy?” I think not. The libraries I mention above all want to do a great job, I’m sure, as do you. So let’s work on improving our online services … like now already!
To be fair, I checked out my library’s ask page too (and crossed my fingers, and said a little prayer before I clicked :-). We did great! Here’s what we do:
- We mention how good we are (“provide quick, accurate answers”)
- We mention that the phone is the fastest way to get a response, rather than forcing customers to visit in-person (“If you want to talk with someone immediately about a question you can call us…”)
- Instead of giving some outlandish timeframe for a response (i.e., 24-48-72 hours), we say “We will help you as quickly as we can.”
And my personal favorite – for more complex questions, we direct customers … not to the physical desk, but to email! We don’t even mention the desk or having to visit the library in person on our Ask Us page.
Why? Because those customers are already in the library, using our Digital Branch. They need to get the same treatment as any other customer with any other question.
photo by Neubie