On Customer Service & Reference Interviews

When I went through my library & information science graduate program, I took the required reference classes and I learned the basics of how to conduct a reference interview. The idea behind a reference interview is pretty simple:

People don’t always know how to ask for what they really need.

We all frequently struggle to voice our needs properly—we say things badly, misunderstand ourselves, head down misleading paths, etc. Also, library patrons often aren’t aware of all the options and resources that are available to meet their needs—but they usually think they know what the best option is, and so come in asking for something specific without realizing that there may be much better resources for them.

When it comes to digital library services, the issue tends to be that patrons don’t understand how these systems work, aren’t fully aware of what they can and can’t do, so when a service doesn’t behave the way they expect it to, they assume that it’s broken.

As librarians, it’s our job to connect our patrons to the best resources to answer their needs. The purpose of the reference interview is to make sure we know what their need really is, so we can find the best resources for them, or teach them how to get the most out of the services we provide.

Before I enrolled in grad school, I had worked in customer service for a few different nonprofits. What struck me when I first learned about the reference interview was how well it describes most of the customer service interactions I’d had in my previous jobs.

Customer service professionals face the same issues: People frequently don’t know how to ask for what they need, don’t accurately understand the nature of the problem they experience, or ask for things that aren’t the best options available to them.

In addition to reference services, libraries provide general customer service just like any other service organization. The principles behind the reference interview are equally applicable to our customer service interactions.

To wit: If a patron contacts us with a problem, complaint, or question, it’s our job to make certain we understand what their need really is before we determine the proper course of action to address their problem, complaint, or question.

I experienced a perfect example of this recently:

My library unveiled a completely redesigned and updated website at the end of September. It’s significantly different from our old site. I got a call from a patron who complained that they couldn’t find anything on the site anymore since we changed it.

I asked them specifically what they were looking for. I figured I could either walk them through the new access path, help them get used to the structure of the new site, and/or it would reveal a problem or choke point that we weren’t aware of.

The patron responded that they couldn’t find a hold that was supposed to be on their account.

First point: Patron accounts are accessed through our online public access catalog, which is separate from the library’s website. I know most patrons don’t recognize a difference—90% of all online interactions are through the catalog, so the catalog functionally is the library site for most people. But I do know that they’re different, and this told me that the issue wasn’t with the new site.

However, it didn’t bring me any closer to understanding the problem. We didn’t change the catalog when we changed the library website—the catalog looks different because we reskinned it to aesthetically match the new site, but it’s the same catalog it was prior to the new website launch, and it still functions exactly the same way it has for the past few years. Finding a hold record should be the same process.

I asked the patron for more details, to walk me through the steps that got them to their point of confusion. They said they had received a notification email telling them that one of their holds was available, but this hold wasn’t showing up on their account when they logged in.

I confirmed that they were logged into the correct account and that they had navigated to the correct place. They had, but the hold wasn’t showing up.

I asked them to pull up the email they received and confirm the sender—there are multiple public library systems in the Kansas City metro area and many people have cards with more than one. I wondered if perhaps their hold was with a different library.

As they were bringing up their email, they casually mentioned (no big deal, just filling the silence) that they don’t check their email very often and the notification was over a week old by the time they noticed it.


Second point: My library only holds items for seven days. If a patron doesn’t retrieve their hold within seven days of it becoming available to them, they lose it. We give it to the next person in the hold queue or put it back into circulation.

It had been more than seven days by the time the patron noticed the email, so they had already lost the hold by the time they logged into their account to look for it. That’s why it wasn’t showing up.

So this wasn’t a problem with the new library website, the online catalog was functioning as it should, and the patron did know how to find what they were looking for.

The problem was that this patron was getting email notifications even though they rarely check their email. The problem was that they didn’t know that we only hold items for seven days (despite the fact that the notification email explicitly states this and we offer all this information on our website). What they needed was for a librarian to change the contact preferences on their account so they could get their notifications via phone instead.

The reference interview isn’t just something that reference staff conduct to help patrons locate resources in the collection—it’s the foundation of good customer service, too.

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