Sunday, 2 February 2014

Online chat in Libraries - the Practicalities

In the last post I wrote I'd got up to the point where we'd purchased our chosen chat service and had the web development team scratching their heads over how best to get it into the CMS. 

My role at this point was to work out how we going to get from a working system to a fully functioning service. The problems I had to solve can be summed up fairly succinctly by the 5 W's 
  • Why we were introducing the service?
  • What would be it's purpose?
  • Where would the service be provided?
  • When would we would provide the service?
  • Who would staff the service?
I should add that for the sake of simplicity I'm going to talk about this process in a linear, singular manner. The reality was actually that this process started months ago, back when we were talking to other services about chat. It has been the subject of much discussion, project reports and team work between myself, the E-Resources Librarian, and the wider Librarian team.  We knew from the beginning that the chat service needed to be owned by the service, rather than individuals and as such decisions were discussed at Librarian Forums with ultimate decisions being made by LMT. The wider teams were kept informed and involved through the trails and other communication throughout. 

The why and what had been answered months previously. We were introducing chat to improve customer services, it's purpose was to provide an additional communication channel through which our users could contact us. This was vital for me. We weren't replacing anything with chat, not would we ever force anyone to communicate with us in this way. Chat was simply going to be another option, a way for students to contact us at time and place of need.

Where we were providing the service was really done to the web team. We knew where we wanted it - we'd been told to make it as high profile as possible. However  the logistics of embedding the chat widget into the University CMS without it standing out like a sore thumb was tricky. In the end we launched with chat visible on the side bar of our Discovery service and on our 'Contact Us' page. We've had to wait for the customised web button for the library home page but that is in the pipeline.  

By far the most difficult decision was deciding who would staff the service. Talking to other services had shown that staffing levels varied with some using front library assistants, others only using librarians and several variations including mixed staffing levels depending on level and interest from staff. 
Based on our current enquiry handling we made the decision to start the service staffed only by our librarian team. The knowledge (although not the skills) to troubleshoot problems with our eresources just didn't exist consistently across the Library Assistant team. Training and development was needed to address this, not just for chat but as a service development need. However with the launch of chat already delayed once and our second deadline approaching, the time to put this in place just wasn't available. Nor did we have time to create the knowledge base and example answers that would ensure consistency across the service, regardless of who was staffing it. So we opened our chat staffed only by our qualified team, understanding that this needed to be reviewed. 

The when, or the opening hours was the next big decision and was largely influenced by resourcing. We had already decided that we didn't want to go down the route of consortium cover, such as is available through QuestionPoint.  We would staff the service ourselves. However as a relatively small service (actually, for a university, a very small service) staffing was a key concern. In fact it hadn't gone unnoticed by myself that the additional workload seemed to be a primary concern. We needed to find a balance between sufficient chat hours to create impact and not over reaching the Librarian team. Through examining our busy periods and looking at what others provided we decided on  core hours of 10am - 2pm and a further evening service between 5pm-7pm when a librarian was available. It was agreed that whenever possible we would log into chat outside these hours and that, most importantly, chat would be treated like any other opening times in that it must be available as advertised. 

So we launched, back at the beginning of January. Since then we have been working out the Hs that normally accompanies the 5 W's. This was h
ow we would monitor the service and ensure quality and consistency? And how we would use this information to take the service forward and ensure that it is both used and sustainable. That will be my last post on the the chat service, but one that will have to wait a month or two when we are in a better to make decisions.

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