Want Good IT Customer Service? Visit Your Library

In many organizations, IT gets a bad rap mostly due to a perception of poor customer service. Clients feel poorly treated and share this with colleagues whenever they get the chance. IT’s reputation suffers — as does your own as CIO — and everyone’s unhappy.

Upon studying this further, I believe it’s primarily a communications-related problem that has two dimensions:

  1. Communication with clients and other stakeholders during the problem-resolution process is lacking.

  2. IT professionals often use “geek-speak,” which few souls outside of IT understand.

Naturally, this frustrates everyone and makes non-IT folks feel inferior.

I believe IT professionals truly want to help others. However, we tend to focus on the technology, not the client. We believe our job is to fix problems, and we expend considerable time and effort doing so. Unfortunately, IT professionals often spend little time communicating with clients (and sometimes even with their CIO) during a problem resolution process. As a result, your clients incorrectly assume that nothing is being done and they become frustrated. Once they start complaining to peers, the organization’s perception of IT takes a hit.

In addition, workers have become accustomed to using and managing their own consumer-grade computing devices at home, and often fail to understand that the solutions used in business settings are typically more complex and sophisticated than their personal devices. This ease-of-use perception can make workers skeptical about the amount of effort required by you to support their business technologies, adding a feeling of defensiveness that can carry on into future help requests.

As CIO and former Library Director at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, I propose that a great customer service model may actually be found in libraries. IT departments and libraries are similar in that they are both service organizations, which also, simultaneously, manage large collections of things: hardware and software, or books and databases, respectively. Librarians have had a couple of hundred years to build their reputations for being service-oriented, while the field of information technology is still only a few decades old.

Let’s consider the librarians’ approach. Reference librarians focus their work around the library’s users, rather than around the information materials they provide. Instead of solving the information questions of users, librarians try to teach patrons how to do their own research and assist them in using library technology. A key component in this work is communication, both face-to-face and through the marketing of library services.

A primary skill of librarians is being able to conduct the “reference interview.” This is how the librarian endeavors to find out the patron’s real question or information need. Before any answers are provided, a reference interview helps librarians set the groundwork for communicating with users. Throughout the reference transaction the librarian checks in with the user and, when the information need is satisfied, the librarian will typically ask if there is anything else that he or she can do for the user. The user will leave the library with his or her problem solved and, as well, with the idea that he or she can always return to that librarian for assistance in the future.

While the majority of problems brought to IT are addressed to the satisfaction of their clients, there are some common scenarios that stand in the way of a successful outcome. For example, it sometimes happens that IT clients think they know what the problem is, and IT acts immediately on that assumption. Often times, the problem is misdiagnosed and requires more time for resolution. Alternatively, IT technicians may disregard the client’s assessment of the problem, leaving him or her out of the resolution process and feeling foolish. In some of these cases, though, the client may actually be correct in their assessment of the problem.

Unlike librarians, IT workers are more likely to be communicating via phone, email or texting, and won’t have as much time or opportunity to communicate with each individual face-to-face. However, it’s still possible during the initial engagement for IT professionals to conduct their own version of the librarian’s "reference interview."

During this "technology interview," the client should have the opportunity to explain his/her understanding of the problem, and to receive acknowledgement–though not necessarily agreement. Although the client may be desperate to get his or her computer fixed, the “technology interview” will be time well spent: it will serve to speed problem resolution and help to build a constructive relationship between user and IT.

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