Developing Relationships with our Customers - setting the stage

To build a good rapport with your customer, start with a welcoming atmosphere!

In fiction writing there is a method for character development that helps the writer gain familiarity with the unfolding novel's antagonists and protagonists.  The writer can then describe the scenes, events and conversations through the characters seamlessly since every aspect of their lives is known. 

The trick is to know about 400 traits about each main character, such as their birthdays, where they grew up, who lived next door, each character's parents, their third grade teachers, how they walk, favorite food, etc.  Little traits such as tucking hair behind one's ear when speaking to older people, having hands that always smell of lemons, hating ironed jeans, and always lifting feet when driving over railroad tracks come out through the telling of the story and round out the humanness of the person who is leading us through the adventure.  The reader then begins to truly understand as this person, who is on the other side of the printed page, moves from a two-dimensional world into the lush complexities of life where experiences are shared and fully received.

The environment of our chat sessions is similar to the printed word (no audio/visual components with microphones and web cams).  It relies heavily on how well we can communicate with our customers to understand what they are asking for.  The person on the other end of the chat has opened the channel of communication with us online; how well we connect through relationship building is a big factor in the success of our ability to satisfy their information needs. How do we effectively develop relationships with our customers without knowing hundreds of such details?

First off is the setting:  Creating a welcoming atmosphere.  Our approach to the customer is equally vital; by having a genuine interest in the customer's question and quest, and being a 'people person' we provide fertile ground for the relationship to take root. The main ingredients to relationship building?  Open-ended questions and listening (in chat, this relates to waiting for the customer's response and carefully reading it over).

You may recall that Drs. Marie Radford and Lynn S. Connaway of Rutgers offered results from a multi-year study centered on virtual reference use, and conclude that the "R" in VR should be thought of as "Relationships".  "Today's students, scholars and citizens are not just looking to libraries for answers to specific questions—they want partners and guides in a life long information-seeking journey."

Not every chatting customer will happily extend their hand or time this way.  Chat, IMing, and texting commonly call for a quick fact, or a customer may ask a question and disappear (expecting the librarian to pick up the ball and provide the answer they need), but these can just as quickly turn into opportunities for us to go further down the path to find the information that is really needed.  And in this way the customer and the librarian have taken their first step into a lasting, trusting relationship.

What other things do you do to create customer relationships (however fleeting)?