Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ask a Librarian...and beyond

[Yes, I know. I haven't posted anything here since December 17th. As Phyllis Diller used to say, joking about her supposedly unshapely body, "There's lots of reasons, but no excuse."]

Ask a Librarian: live chat referenceOne of the reasons is that I and my Remote Services colleagues have been busy with a major reorganization and expansion of our 21-branch library system's participation in Florida's Ask a Librarian (AaL) live chat reference service.

[You can learn more about AaL here.]

SilosUntil recently, many of us in librarianship have tended to think of customer service in silos. You know how it goes. These customers are Circ, these are Ref, these, Gov Docs. These are walk-ins, these are phone or email or chat. These are Main Library's, these are Branch X's.

We've tended to think of our staff in the same way. Even when the Main Library's geneology staff work the telephone Call Center, or when someone at Branch X works chat, we tend to think of them as people from those specific units, temporarily filling in on another department's tasks somewhere else.

However, in May of 2008, I attended the 8th Annual Conference of the Association of Government Contact Center Employees (AGCCE) here in Jacksonville.

There I discovered a whole profession of people who provide remote public information services. More importantly, I was introduced to the paradigm shift of organizing such services around customers, instead of around modes of communication.

Remote customers are not actually divided by where they are or how or when they get in touch with you. Nor are staff—at least, not when they have access to phone and email and chat and instant messaging and social software of all other sorts....

In remote information-sharing, perhaps the only division of practical significance is between real-time (phone, chat, IM) and asynchronous interaction (email, blogs). Even there, the body of information, the cohort of information professionals and the population of customers remain the same.

I learned at AGCCE that the real challenge is to devise seamless ways of letting the same staff get the same information to the same customer, regardless of the mode of communication. It's a matter of redesigning the integration of staffing, information access and technology.

Until recently, the Jacksonville Public Library (JPL) remote services model was the conventional one.

Staff from Main reference rotated handling email questions, other Main staff rotated covering hours in the Call Center, and staff from Main and a handful of branches made up the chat team, coordinated by me and my colleague Christa.

Individual chat team agents were responsible for specific hours on a biweekly schedule, and they had to find their own substitutes from the team.

However, inspired partly by my report from AGCCE, JPL's regional supervisors have decided to shift to a new model, one with several goals:

  • for all branches and public service departments to share ownership of remote services, rather than seeing it as an extension of Main Reference;

  • for each branch and department to develop its own team of chat agents who can cover for each other;

  • for branches and departments, rather than individual agents, to be accountable for regular chat hours each week (and for providing or finding substitutes when needed);

  • for expansion of the chat team to allow continued expansion of the number of days and hours when JPL can deliver Local Desk chat reference, rather than Collaborative Desk.

    [Local connects Ask a Librarian customers who log in through the JPL website with JPL agents. Collaborative connects customers with whichever Florida chat agents happen to be logged in at the moment.]
This last goal is significant as part of the paradigm shift I described above.

Once local customers are able to have real-time exchanges with local JPL staff, the boundaries between Circ and Ref and other public service points, and those between Main and the branches, effectively disappear.

Customers can use telephone or chat (with email follow-up, if needed) to get any sort of remote services, without needing to know which location or person to contact.

Staff can use any remotely assessible resource in the JPL system (plus anything online) to provide their customers with quick, locally relevant service.

Just one example:

Recently I was doing chat reference with a customer who needed in-depth statistical information about a federal government activity.

[ALARM BELLS: Government info is not my strong suit.]

I remembered that our system has a Government Documents department. I phoned that manager, learned from her which website the customer would need, typed the link into the chat...and sighed with relief.

The customer was happy, I was happy, the Gov Docs manager was happy...and it didn't matter at all where each of us was physically located.

There's much more potential in this rethinking of remote services, about which I will write in later posts.

For now, I just want to celebrate that my library system is moving ahead.

And that even "old dogs" like me can learn new and arcane technological tricks.



Addendum, 2/12/09: Since February 20th is Ask a Librarian Day in Florida, we decided at work that I should promote the service internally to all of our staff. Today I published this post on the JPL STAFF news blog.


Chris said...

This is a good opening salvo and a great opportunity to look at another way to break down those silos. We reorganizing using a Unified Services approach in Charlotte. Your post is food for thought about "Ask a Librarian" services being offered by staff across a system rather than only dedicated staff. We already have staff around the system serving customers as part of our wider consortium participation. Why not use the same approach for serving our local customers? Thanks!

Mike said...

Thanks, Chris.

I can envision having all Jacksonville Public Libary reference staff--or, for that matter, all staff--trained to use the Ask a Librarian chat software (which, by the way, is InstantService).

In the least, I want to expand our Local Desk hours, hours when a JPL customer would connect directly with a JPL staff person, not someone from the larger Florida network.

We could easily do that with enough trained chat agents logged in "in background"--meaning that they were running IS on their personal workstations and "available" only to Local customers.

Orange County Library System is already doing this with their centralized phone/email/chat department, Quest Line.

At Gulf Coast Community College, all the staff use Local Desk to communicate with each other, with customers, making referrals, answering questions, etc.

Something to be ambitious about!

Thanks again,