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USA Marx Library Training Program for Student Assistants: Working with the Public

Things to Remember:

When working with the public, it is helpful to remember these tips:

  • Offer the opening pleasantries and the person will feel more comfortable talking to you. "Hi, what can I do for you?" "Need some help?" You can set the tone as being informal and conversational and the patron won't feel like they are information beggars.
  • Look intelligent by listening carefully. Listen totally. Listen completely. Don't cut the person off in the middle and assume that you know what they want--even if five people have just asked you the same thing. Listening means you take them seriously.
  • Silence is golden. The student sometimes needs a few seconds to figure out how to phrase her question or may voluntarily fill in with more information, especially if you don't jump in right away.
  • Don't assume that the young woman in front of you is a entering Freshman; she may be a new professor. Don't assume that the 65 year old man approaching the desk knows the difference between the Reference Desk and the Circulation Desk; he could be a new Freshman. Judging people by their age, apparent ethnic origin or sex will lead you into embarrassing situations, as will offering your opinion on issues about which you are not a certified expert.
  • The first question a person asks you is not usually the one they want answered. Try to ask open questions to clarify what the person really needs. An open question is one that doesn't have a single answer. "Do you want a book?" is a closed question. "What kind of materials do you need?" is an open question. "Tell me more about your assignment." "Tell me about your problem." "Give me an example." are all open questions. If you need even more clarification, restate what you have understood them to ask.
  • If possible tell the users what you are doing so they know you understand their question. Just putting them "on hold" is very frustrating. Say this for example: "I'm just checking to see what type of reserve this material is shelved under." "Let me get a call number for that title--I'll just do a title search on the Southcat catalog." "Let me check the catalog and see if it is checked out or if it is shelved in a different location." "Maybe it's on microfilm. Let me check the catalog record."
  • Just explaining what you are doing will help them understand the process and the words to use to think about it.
  • Take them to an item, don't just point and say "over there." Pointing seldom gets them to the right place quickly.
  • Take time to think about the student's need especially if it is complicated. You don't have to jump in with an answer right away.
  • If you don't know an answer, don't pretend you do. You end up feeling really stupid if you are wrong. Find out the answer if you can. Never guess.
  • Refer the question to someone who does know the answer or has the authority to make a decision. Knowing when to refer a question is not only wise, but shows clear concern for the patron's need.
  • If the one who knows is not available, tell the student where or when the answer will be available and how they should proceed to get the information--go to another desk, come in again, call, send a email reference question or another strategy.
  • If you refer them to another person or desk, make sure you call ahead and let them know your student is coming and as much info as you have gleaned from your interview.
  • Remember which handouts and webpages might help and offer them as further aids. The user might want more information than they are willing to ask for right now and will appreciate a guide for future reference.
  • Any records and files which you may view at work are confidential by law and must not be discussed outside of the office. Do not leave patron information on the screen longer than necessary. Do not reveal the identity of one patron to another, even a faculty member. If a person of authority asks for library records, direct them to Library Administration.
  • Do not embarrass a questioner by loudly repeating a question or an answer so it can be heard by others in the area. Doing so will ensure that they will never ask a library staffer a question again. Treat all questions as privately as possible.
  • End the encounter professionally by checking to see if they are satisfied. Remind them they can always come back if they need more help.

Telephone Etiquette

Learn how to use the phone! Make sure you know how to:

  • Put a caller on hold
  • Transfer a call
  • Take a message--complete information needed
  • Pick Pick from another phone
  • Forward the phone when you are gone

Ask your supervisor for the preferred way for you to answer the phone in your department. It should be consistent for everyone in that department, whatever it is.

Be sure that you are calm and attentive when you answer. The caller can usually tell quickly if you are going to be pleasant and helpful or if you are preoccupied and unhappy.

Be accurate and as complete as possible with your answers. If you can't answer a question, find someone who can. If it is someone in the department, put the caller on hold briefly while you explain the situation to that person.

If you transfer the call, always alert the other library staffer at the other end as to why you are making the transfer and what you have learned from the caller so the caller doesn't have to repeat everything yet again.

When someone calls you by mistake, a wrong number, and they don't have the correct number, see if you can help them get the correct number. Look it up in the University Directory or the Mobile telephone book. We are in the business of providing information--we should be able to do it for those who demonstrate an immediate need.

End phone calls just as you do questions in-person. Remind the caller to call back if they need more information. If your supervisor allows, give them your name as a contact.

Potential Difficult Situations

Most difficult situations are caused by people who are frustrated with the system, not with you as an individual. Do not take a user's anger personally. Help them deal with "the system." You are on their side. You want to help them within acceptable limits. Be positive. Don't let your body language be confrontational.

Your best strategy is to be calm, in control and to listen very carefully to what the person says. Assume that they are telling the truth. Let them say everything they need to say without interruption. Focus on them.

Only then ask questions if you need to clarify the issue so you know exactly what the problem is. Don't jump to conclusions. Don't imply that they are wrong, foolish or in some way deluded. Have you ever called a help line and had the "expert" treat you as stupid?

Try to solve the problem. Tell the user what you can do for them. Think of creative solutions. Offer alternatives. Make calls to others who might be able to help. Make a positive effort and the library user will appreciate your work, even if it isn't totally successful.

If the frustration is caused by misinformation from the library, correct the information and apologize. No guilt on either side; just a mistake.

If the frustration is caused by the library's or your department's rules, explain the rule and show them a written policy if you can. Explain the limits of your authority, and if necessary, refer them to someone in a supervisory position. Provide a name and phone number if the supervisor is not immediately available. No guilt here either; you are following the rules.

You are not expected to break any rules in order to placate an angry patron. Nor are you expected to submit to verbal abuse.

If you feel that the situation is dangerous, or feel threatened in any way, leave--get a supervisor or call 511, the emergency number of Campus Police.