Channel-Surfing to Success: Want to send them away happy? Take a few tips from the business world

Librarians—quick to innovate, quick to communicate, quick to adapt—are champions of arranging, evaluating, and navigating information. Yet it’s still a challenge to bridge the gap between what users want (or think they want) and what we have to offer. When it comes to libraries, what is the value of providing information services?

Amy Mikel

At the University of Washington’s Information School, students in Joe Janes’s “Principles of Information Services” class were asked this question—and not rhetorically but in a “no, ­really, what is it?” way. As LIS students tasked with shaping the future of our profession, we’d better have the answer—or at least an inclination to find it. So we headed out to explore some actual information service transactions. What we learned illuminated several core values of information service and taught us what librarians must remember in order to stay in the game.

When it comes to information services, we’re battling the assumption that the library is an antiquated option. With every print reference book weeded from a collection, libraries are coming out with new informational programming and unveiling collaborative work spaces; experimenting with para­professionals on the front lines; and entering into active relationships with patrons who are looking to create, not just consume, ­information.

In our efforts to expand, crowdsource, broadcast, and bring reference to the masses, we shouldn’t overlook those patrons who will come to us—physically or virtually—with a need for individualized or specialized attention. No matter what’s in store for reference, one-on-one interaction is still one of the most valuable information services libraries provide…and one that offers a chance to turn library users into lifelong ­customers.

Monica Caraway

Putting your experience to work

Think back to a recent customer service experience. Was it good or bad? How would you have offered a better interaction? Out in the field, we had the opportunity to find out, when we posed as users and tested the outcomes of different types of information services. Upon reflection, we realized that these experiences illuminated the core of positive information seeking exchanges: the value isn’t in the answer; it’s in the effort.

“Effort” isn’t a quantifiable thing, though. It’s not the number of sources provided or the number of minutes clocked on each question. It’s the willingness to comprehend users’ queries, understand what they need, and point them in the right direction. Effort illustrates the importance of an alert, responsive, and concerned information service provider who takes responsibility for a positive customer experience.

A 2002 study by Matt Saxton and John Richardson found that library users are more satisfied with librarians who follow the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) division guidelines, which include “inviting queries, expressing interest, listening critically, and verifying user satisfaction.” Readers’ advisory guru Nancy Pearl emphasizes that this type of service isn’t about suggesting the perfect book; it’s about whether readers feel that you listen to what they are saying. Outside of the library, medical information service providers such as Heather Holmes, a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, know the impact of tailored, point-of-care reference service.

This is precisely why the importance of the reference interview is emphasized to aspiring librarians early in professional training programs. Librarians understand that when questions go beyond ready-reference (and even when they don’t), having that dialog, learning about your user, and tailoring your approach to customers’ unique needs is what we provide that search engines don’t.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. Information service professionals know that good customer service means getting to the information need that’s at the heart of a question, but how can we help users before they even pose the question? The value of information service lies not simply in assisting seekers once they approach us but proactively helping them to navigate information in a way that gets them to understand their own needs, know what resources are available, and articulate and explain what they are looking for. This group of abilities is, of course, referred to as information literacy.

Says Andrew Dillon, dean of the University of Texas at Austin iSchool, “In this realm, what people say they like is not always what works best for them, and what people tell you they need at one point almost certainly shifts once you begin to deliver it. It is this dynamic interplay of need and solution in the evolution of new technologies that places academic libraries in such an ambiguous state.”

Navigating a specialized information space, such as an academic library, involves understanding not only how to find relevant, quality resources but also knowing that the resources exist in the first place. In our field observations, we noted the value of learning about an information source as prerequisite to knowing where to go for help. For example, in Monica’s discussion about reference services with the head of the engineering library at a large research university, the librarian expressed frustration at not being able to serve as many patrons as he would like, since often those who could truly use reference services didn’t know that they could ask for help.

According to the same librarian, professors who mandate a library introduction tour realize that students who have been formally introduced to library sources consistently deliver much higher quality work. He also noted that students who get an overview of the specialized resources available to them (database access, specialized monographs, serials) are much more likely to come back later to ask for help, because they remember hearing about those resources…even if they can’t remember the name of a specific item or how to find it. It’s at that point that the reference librarian is able to step in and ­really answer some questions.

By searching for more of these “teachable moments,” we offer users the chance to help themselves as well as the chance to let us help them. But how can we increase the number of teachable moments we have with patrons and keep them coming back? (In a bit of irony, one of the authors of this article, Amy, never received any library orientation as an LIS student.)

The cross-channel user experience

“No matter how many departments your organization has, to your customers, it’s all the same business,” says Nick Finck, a user experience (UX) professional who has worked in the web industry for more than a decade. “The satisfaction of your customers…depends in no small part on your ability to create a cohesive and consistently high-quality cross-channel experience.” “Cross-Channel User Experience”? This has been a catchphrase in the business world for years. It’s less familiar to those of us in libraries—but it’s something we need to ­investigate.

In the commercial world, companies that deliver a seamless, consistent experience across multiple channels have the advantage. Applied to libraries, the cross-­channel experience happens when information providers offer a variety of options, or multiple channels, to get patrons the help they need.

The building blocks for this strategy have a foundation both in customer service (really listening to users’ needs, tailoring your approach to their purposes) and information literacy (the ability to navigate, and be receptive to, information flowing from different channels). Once a patron has formulated a question, once an information need is identified and clarified, our task is to explore all resources that might have the answer. It’s important to remember that when a patron comes to us with a question, we are not limited to the resources available through the library. Ultimately, our goal is to provide a satisfying experience, and this may mean stepping out of our usual range to find answers. In short, one value of an information service is the ability to recommend another information service that might do a ­better job.

Take Amy’s recent experience with an “Ask a Librarian” chat service: she asked a question about a local art exhibit. Never mind that the librarian never bothered to reiterate what he thought Amy’s question was (and, as a result, wasted time hunting down the wrong information); why did he not ultimately recommend that Amy simply call the museum’s information desk and get an answer directly from the source? Or (ALERT! —good customer experience suggestion) offer to call the museum himself? Didn’t he think of referring her to the museum? Did he assume that a virtual-chat-service patron wouldn’t be receptive to a phone conversation?

How new technologies drive patron behaviors is, in part, what LJ is exploring in its Patron Profiles series of publications. Patron Profiles reveals that the average patron isn’t chained to one format or another and that digital users, especially, haven’t completely rejected more traditional ways of using the library. Information service providers, therefore, shouldn’t assume that a given channel won’t be well received. As Tyler Tate writes in his blog, UX Matters, “Seamless, cross-channel experiences are the way of the future, as technology fades into the background and the personal, physical, and social context determine the methods we use to interact with information.”

Librarians must embrace the cross-channel experience when providing information service and work with users to find the most useful channel for their purposes. Most important, we must remember that the answer doesn’t always need to be provided by the library and that as long as we frame the referral as a value-added customer service we haven’t failed our users by directing them somewhere else.

Amy Mikel ( and Monica Caraway ( are recent MLIS graduates of the University of Washington Information School. Mikel is an outreach intern at the Queens Library’s Job Information Center, NY, and Caraway is a corporate document analyst at BlackRock.