Nag, Nag, Nag
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Nightmares of a threatening future loom over all our heads. Reductions in staff and funding affect extant operations, making it necessary to do more just to do less. Long-standing institutions, which have always seemed eternal and now seem needed more than ever, stagger under threats to their very survival. Heck, the U.S. Postal Service has gone to Congress for aid. It’s cutting delivery service from 6 to 5 days and wrestling with issues of health insurance coverage for its retired employees, while at the same time offering early retirement to 150,000 workers. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” may stand chiseled in stone at the New York City post office on 8th Avenue, but a lousy economy may sure slow those couriers down as more than nighttime spreads the gloom.
And yet, in the midst of all this turmoil, I have the unholy gall to start nitpicking, to nag my beleaguered readers over teensy mistakes, minor inconveniences, minuscule errata. How callous! How inconsiderate! How holier-than-thou! You’re so right! I hang my head in shame. And then I lift it again and start nagging.
Whether my beloved readers work in traditional libraries, as independent researchers, or as information industry vendor employees, we are all information professionals and represent our profession. Our work can affect the reputation of our profession to the world. Trite but true, right? We all want to avoid any of those minor mistakes that garner certain unhappy responses from patrons/clients/customers or whatever other title we may give the users of our services. The responses to which I refer would include — “Sheesh!!” “Oh, brother!” “Where the @#$@$#@ did this @#$@# nitwit put…?!” etc. And then there’s the inarticulate but clearly understandable groan of disgust.
What kind of nits have I picked out for this discussion? Actually, ones I’ve experienced myself in the course of working websites for my journalistic and editorial endeavors. As you may recall, I write NewsBreaks — a couple dozen each year, usually — for the ITI website [www.infotoday.com]. When a news assignment arrives on my desk, my first step is to gather all the information I can find from websites. My second step is to set up interviews with interested parties and external experts. The process can be quite educational, but sometimes it involves learning the hard way.
First and foremost, maintain the completeness and visibility of your Contact Us section, and, by the way, that is exactly what it should be called. Let’s not get cute here. A link to the Contact Us page should appear at the top or the bottom of every page on a company website. You can also add it to any generic section providing information on your organization, but it should always be just one click away. And contact information should always be complete. I don’t know how many times I’ve been stuck with a contact presentation that only activated an email message form. People need to know where you are, full snail mail address, multiple addresses for multiple operations. They also need to know your phone numbers — main numbers (including area code, please), fax numbers, extensions, or direct dial numbers. Don’t forget to make those direct dial numbers complete. Users don’t want to have to decipher how your extensions morph into direct numbers. Email addresses should be equally available. The only communication avenue that still deserves some privacy protection and, when given, deserves gratitude from prospective users — at least in this usually greedy journalist’s opinion — is the cell phone. On the other hand, if the info pro lives a very mobile life, letting users reach his or her mobile seems only prudent. Before you complete the Contact Us page, you’d better double-check it. The other day I was trying to reach a media relations person at a major multinational only to get a whistle in my ear. Her number was posted, but it was one digit off and only reached a fax machine.
One final point in this area: Don’t forget the traditional. Sometime when you have a few empty moments — pause for bitter laughter — let me suggest a little exercise. Call 411 and ask for your institution’s phone number. You might get a nasty surprise. Many, many times — particularly in the course of completing the information in the Contacts section for each issue of Searcher — I end up with city and/or state, but no phone number. I call the information operator, who doesn’t know either. And this occurs not just with net newbies operating out of their refurbished garages or outfits that have just rolled into town. Even companies with a fair number of employees and 5 or more years in a location — heck, on some occasions, even universities and government agencies — apparently haven’t checked to see if their phone numbers are reachable through 411. Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Let it shine!
From phone numbers, let’s segue smoothly into voicemail. Please! Please! Have an override to reach a real operator during business hours. And let the override be hitting the zero. Look at your phone. If it’s like mine, the letters “Oper” are right on the zero key. (If not, they should be!) Also, if you offer an option for callers to reach staff directly by entering the three- or four- digit extension with or without some signal to your system, how about telling us that at the beginning of the recording instead of the end? This is particularly important when your idea of a proper recording involves introducing us to your entire org chart or describing in detail how our own initiative and stick-to-itiveness could eliminate the need to bother your customer support people. If you offer a directory service for staff extensions, try to find some other way besides tapping out every letter of both the last and first names. What if I don’t know someone’s full first name? Or what if I’m not sure if the first name is right? Is that Bill or William, Jack for Jackson or Jack for John? And as for spelling of last names — Sneider, Snyder, or even Schneider? Hey! Where’s that operator override when you need it?!
Alright, alright! Enough nits for today. Just remember that tough times can make any obstacles to reaching you dangerous. When people reach out to you and your institution, that means they think they need you or, at least, might need you. You want to keep them thinking along those lines. You don’t want them tripping over some obvious omissions in contact information or — heaven forfend! — finding the task of contacting you a failed search experience. You don’t even want them thinking of it as a “search experience” or “task” at all. You want it effortless and obvious — the friendly info pro waiting with arms open and smiles all round. Have a cookie, customer? Cupcake, client? Pretzel, patron?