Who do you help first?

refdeskI presented this scenario to groups of librarians all over Minnesota in April

You’re sitting at the reference desk and as someone approaches the desk the phone begins to ring and an instant messaging window pops open, who do you help first?

I heard a lot of answers 

  • it depends on how the person in front of you looks
  • answer the phone ask them to hold, type how can I help you in IM and ask the person standing in front of you how you can help them
  • it depends on which you noticed first
  • the person in front of you, they took the time and effort to come in

It was that last response I was trying to get them to rethink, sometimes I would point it out and sometimes someone else from the audience would – each of those people took the time and effort to contact you, not just the person standing in front of you.  

Each of them did it in away you told them was acceptable when you provided the contact information.

I worked retail for years and this was a standard interview question – there is a person in front of you and the phone is ringing who do you help first?  Everyone knows the answer is the person in front of you.  Libraries seem to have adopted this attitude.  Here is the problem with that – it makes sense for retail, the person in front of you is more likely to buy something.  But libraries aren’t in the business of selling things, we’re in the business of providing information or service and each of those people has an equal need.  

We don’t answer questions in a different order based on the types of questions asked, helping the Danielle Steel reader after the one looking for Shakespeare.  So why are we answering them in a different order based on the form of communication used?

Who would you help first?

5 thoughts on “Who do you help first?

  1. It really isn’t a sales issue.

    1. The person in front of you makes more of an effort to come in than over the phone, or on the computer.

    2. The person you are not helping in front of you can show their anger far more readily and can make a far bigger scene regarding your lack of attention. (A person can also say, I was put on hold forever, or you don’t answer your IM, but it’s more stressful to deal with an irate customer face to face.)

    3. Have you gone to a service desk and have them sit on the phone for 10 minutes? It’s really annoying. “Hey I’m standing right here and you’re ignoring me.”

    No matter how you argue it, the person in front of you FEELS that they have put in the most effort and feel that they should get your attention.

    You have to understand who you are asking. If you are the digital branch manager, you will say IM first, if you are working circulation, you would say in-person first.


  2. I agree that each of those people has an equal need. If I have taken the time to go to the library, it is because I have such time. I IM the library when I am short on time or cannot leave work to get my answer in person.


  3. Jeff – I’m not saying to give digital customers preference over others. I hope I’m not being dismissed based on the position I hold. I didn’t say to help the IM person first. I am saying we have told our patrons that all of these methods are acceptable to contact us. We have no idea what the situation of the person on the phone or IM is. I don’t think that there is a *right* answer to the question. I do think we need to rethink our knee jerk reaction. Anything we’re doing because that’s how we’ve always done it should be looked at on occasion.

    I find it no less annoying to stand there while someone is helping the person physically in front of me that I do if they are helping a person on the phone. What does make a different is how it’s handled; a smile and I’ll be right with you always helps. Communication is now more important that ever.


  4. This is an excellent question. My reponse is that, whenever possible, IM or chat reference service should not be staffed at the reference desk in the first place. IM or chat reference should be done away from the desk – at a separate staffing area or at librarians’ desks. If this is not possible, perhaps a triage approach would help (as it has helped us with our walk-in and telephone patrons). That is, support staff takes the incoming IM or chat reference question and answers it if s/he can, or transfers/refers it to a librarian as necessary. Of course this could be trickier for IM than for web-based chat, but it’s manageable. Better than expecting librarians to answer IM/telephone/in-person questions all at once, at Internet speed!

    rcn, reference librarian
    san francisco bay area


  5. I think we forget that while we are talking to the person in front of us, the phone is ringing and ringing. I cannot concentrate while that sound is going off. I cannot hear well, it is distracting to the person in front of me as well. I ask the person in front of me if I can take the call to put them on hold, explaining that i want to better help them without the noise. I put caller on hold respectfully, and get back to person in front. I’ve never had anyone object or seem put off. I had them however, grateful that I stopped the noise.


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