IM, Email, and “Who am I talkin’ to?”

The ‘brary Web Diva wants to know “should staff who share a “departmental” IM screen name identify themselves when responding to an IM?” Stop by her blog and leave a comment. It’s an interesting question, and her post prompted me to think about the issue a little more.

We’ve been using Trillian with our IM reference service and we all share a departmental screen name. While we don’t have a policy of saying “Hello this is (state your name) on IM, I am sure many of my colleagues are doing this. Many of my colleagues also have their pictures posted in their Trillian profiles, so patrons who IM them are going to see a picture of who they are “talking” to. Thus far this has worked pretty well, although I have noticed that occasionally the picture sticks. In other words, when I take over the service from a colleague, sometimes our departmental IM account will continue to have the previous person’s picture.

I started my career in the retail world, and I was always taught (and I always taught my employees) to answer the phone with, “Hello, this is (state your real name), how may I help you?” This has carried over into my library career, and I answer the Reference Desk phone the same way. Whenever I call a retail establishment (or another library department), I want to know who I’m talking to. If the person does not tell me their name, then I ask who I’m talking to. I suppose this desire to know who I’m talking to comes from my experience in the retail world. As a manager, I fielded a number of customer complaints over the phone. Nine times out of ten the customer would say, “Well they told me this product would do this” of “They told me my refrigerator would be here at 12.” And of course, nine times out of ten when I asked, “Who is they”, or who did the customer talk to, none of them knew who ‘they’ was. Lesson learned: Whenever you are doing any business over the phone — ordering from a catalog, getting an insurance quote, or simply asking for information — always get the name of the person you are talking to. That way, if there are problems down the road, you have a name to reference when you call again to fix the problem.

Technology has changed the way we contact people, and in some ways has made it more difficult to figure out who you’re talking to. If you buy a product and you need help, you generally don’t send an email or an IM directly to the developer or salesperson. Usually it goes to customerservice, support, sales, or In my experience, it’s so infrequent that a person with a name responds, that when they do I am shocked. I often feel that since there is no name tied to the email or IM address, I hesitate to even send an email. Will they write back? If so, what kind of answer will I get? Will it be a scripted message from a template, or will the person actually take the time to type out an original answer?

We’re a little bit guilty of doing this in the library world. For example, our reference email goes to LibraryReference, and I imagine that many libraries are doing the same. With our service, the person monitoring the reference email account either answers the email (with his real name) or forwards it to another librarian who will answer with his real name and copy the LibraryReference account with the reply. In this way, if the patron has a follow-up question, he or she can reply back to a real person. Also, if the patron supplied their own name, rather than just the email account, we are able to make the email a little more personable. For example, in stead of just replying with an answer, you can include the patron’s name in the answer with Dear (enter name here).

With our web-based chat, we have been in the habit of responding to every patron with an auto message. As soon as we pick a patron up, we respond with “Hello, this is (name), how may I help you?” This makes sense, as each one of our reference librarians has their own chat accounts, and the patron sees the name of the librarian in the chat box. Also, we generally see the patron’s real name as well on our side of the transaction. While theoretically a patron could make up any name that they wanted, we usually see the real names. Perhaps this is because it takes a little bit of effort to come up with a clever chat handle. It could also be the result of the fact that patrons are required to authenticate with the service, and the chat software collects information about them.

Okay, so back to the original question that started this whole discussion? Should we identify ourselves to our IM patrons with our real names? Actually, despite my gripes about phone and email names, I am inclined to say that this is not necessary. My reasons are as follows:

  1. Our screen name is for general reference, and I believe most of our patrons know this. It says on our IM page that they will talk to a librarian, but it does not necessarily say which one. If a librarian wanted to identify themselves by name, that is fine, but I don’t think it should be required. By learning the name of the librarian, the patron might want to contact that same person again. This is wonderful and encouraged, but it should be clear that the patron is not guaranteed to talk to the same librarian the next time she IM’s a librarian via the departmental account. If during the transaction the librarian sees that the patron will have follow-up help, the librarian could give the patron her own IM screen name to remedy this problem.
  2. Patrons generally don’t give their real name when talking to a departmental account.
    I know this may sound silly, but if you are talking to wildman2587 and he(or she) does not give a real name, are you obligated to do so? It’s my best guess that patrons don’t really expect you to give a real name. They just want you to give a real answer. In contrast, when patrons (usually business students) contact me via my personal IM account, they almost always identify themselves with, “Hi Chad, this is (name ) from the sophomore cluster group.” I believe this is because they understand that I will have no idea who wildman2587 is unless they tell me. I also think that they believe they will get a better answer (or more personable help) if I know who I’m talking to. I suppose they understand that since they know who they’re talking to, it’s only fair that I know who is on the other end of the transaction. This same identifying behavior also occurs in most of the reference emails that I directly receive. In my experience, this behavior goes out the window with a departmental account, since the patron has no idea who LibraryReference is, he is not obligated to give his real name.
  3. Is knowing the name important enough for the type of questions you receive?
    With the type of questions that we get via IM or chat, wrong information (which of course, we rarely give šŸ˜‰ ) is not likely to upset someone very much. Most of our questions are instructional in nature, i.e., I need articles or books on _____ topic. I suppose if you were providing medical or legal information, the patron might be more inclined to know who they were talking to.

At the reference desk, we help a number of patrons with a variety of questions. During these face-to-face transactions, we never ask their names, and they very rarely ask for ours. However, odds are they will be able to know your face the next time you are around to help. Whether you give them a good answer or a bad one, if you were delightful or grumpy, they will remember that you were the one that helped them. I suppose this is one of the reasons I favor putting a real picture in the Trillian profile for each librarian. While the librarian may not necessarily identify herself by name when answering an IM reference question, a patron can trace the answer (and the positive experience) to a face. When the IM patron returns with another IM question, or if she seeks help at the reference desk, she might be able to recognize the person who (hopefully) helped her so much the last time. And, like the retail world, that’s what keeps libraries going —happy, repeat customers.

One thought on “IM, Email, and “Who am I talkin’ to?”

  1. Thanks for this post. It sums up quite a bit of what I plan to discuss with my colleages as we plan for an IM service. I agree with you about personalising the service. I think it’s even more important to establish real rapport with library customers, esp. in such times where we need their personal support even more.

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