Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chat Reference

Spending several hours online in chat mode last night made me think of Chat Reference services and how they are and are not an effective way to communicate. I hear many times librarians say in frustration why don't they just call us! We're open! Talk to me! As it turns out, I think that Chat can actually be a more effective tool than speaking directly or on the phone at times.

1. Chat Reference/Assistance forces both parties to keep the conversation focused.

You are asking and answering only the essential questions and providing the essential information. In person and on the phone you or the customer may easily veer off topic completely. While this is a very warm, human social aspect of talking with people, as staffing levels drop and demands on staff at any given time climb, often you need to offer the assistance and move on to help the next person.

2. Chat Reference erases physical and spoken barriers to communication.

I noticed this when talking to Norton. Communication was fine until one point where it was necessary to speak by phone. The consultant's accent, and I'm sure my accent for him, suddenly made communication more difficult.

Our library serves folks from many countries, and with many new English speakers this can be a challenge simply because of accent in many cases. If you are simply reading text that is erased and you are able to speak and respond much more easily.

Having been an Outreach Librarian long ago to a very active Deaf Community, I am always aware that communication for those folk is so much simpler with the ability to type questions and answers.

3. As I'm sure we all appreciate going into this uncertain new year, voice chat is also very economical. You could not speak to someone far away without high cost if it were not for these voice chat abilities.

4. It is easy to provide web site links quickly for your customer to direct them to additional help. This can be very useful especially when assisting poor typists or new computer users.

5. There is a record of the conversation log so that it is easy to see what work has already been done on a question, what referrals were made, etc. so that further work can be done by the original librarian or another person taking over the question.

On the Downside:

1. Poor typists may have trouble expressing themselves.

2. It is difficult to have the give and take often necessary in a reference interview.

3. Both parties might get frustrated if they are not able to express themselves clearly and quickly.

4. The Human element of hearing someone's voice and reassuring tone is gone. Also, you are not able to hear soon enough perhaps when the customer is getting frustrated with the conversation.

5. If the person answering voice chat is on a reference desk, they are fielding questions in person, on the phone and also by the voice chat. There is an immediacy to using the voice chat that makes the customer expect they are the only person being assisted or in line for assistance that can lead to frustration on all sides.

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