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So what do we mean by virtual support? All the examples provided in this session focussed on web chat solutions. The ability for a service user to chat online, by typing in a message box, with a member of staff in immediate, synchronous communication. If the web chat service is fully committed or off-air, then usually messages can be left for later response.
The "Google Generation" will use virtual chat services. It matches preferences for online discussion, and meets needs in being personal and instant. It was noted by several of the speakers that students can be sitting in the library, based near to an open service desk, but they will still use webchat help services rather than visit the helpdesk.
Virtual support also increasingly meets the expectations of users. Large commercial websites may come with webchat or virtual support features and these can often be a very efficient way to resolve problems or to find out more. Far more efficient than using premium rate support phone lines, or email. Examples of mobile phone providers were quoted in this context.
So virtual support, in the examples of this session, is geared towards supporting students: remembering their contexts of being fee payers, probably studying alongside working, often being remote / at distance to the university, and / or part-time. Virtual support is a valued method of reaching out to students, in a way that suits them.
Generally "yes". Many of the case studies were in their early stages and had not been fully or widely promoted, and therefore only had low usage figures. However, users had been overwhelmingly appreciative. Several of the speakers noted the importance of virtual support to provide a route for students to express their difficulties, frustrations and concerns, and to be listened to. The listening aspect here seemed to be as important as the answer! For the RCN virtual support is teamed with a similar organisation from Australia, thereby providing an increasing level of round-the-clock "follow the sun" support.
Staffing - in many instances virtual support is an extra function for library staff to take on board. Issues with training, staff timetabling and potential additional pressures and workloads were noted. In one instance virtual support has been implemented alongside of the closure of traditional reference desk support, although this was the exception. Queue management, query identification amd directing were also significant in enabling virtual support to work effectively and to utilise staff resources to best effect. Some of the most basic issues were in remembering to sign in to the web chat service, and remembering to sign out when not available to answer queries.
Complexity of query - a comprehensive frequently asked questions answer bank is helpful. This can then be used as a basis for responses and can be added to over time. Several speakers noted the desire for staff responding to a query to want to see it through to completion. However the staff member may not always be best placed to do this. Web chat systems that enable referral, and in some instances three-way chats, were essential to deal with such queries. Three-way conversations could then be useful in providing staff training.
Surprisingly, I thought that many of the queries would relate to complex issues in using databases, and would therefore require abilities to screencast or screen share. I also wondered if queries would relate to problems of using different operating systems and IT platforms. However, the majority of queries were at a much lower level of complexity than this (opening hours, how do I renew my books, can I borrow this title, which database should I use for this topic enquiry?)
Promotion - make multiple links to the virtual support service from high usage and high profile areas both within the online environment but also in the physical environment. Use of a consistent button or logo is best, but some platforms may not enable incorporation of anything other than a standard text link. Clear naming and branding of the service are also key. Ensure that staffing support will be adequate, and that the number of service channels will be adequate to meet the need.
Implications for Welsh Government?
Whilst many of our users aren't from the "Google Generation", aren't students, and don't necessarily feel that they have an axe to grind, we have experienced declining use of helpdesk and telephone support services. Currently, email and webforms are the preferred routes to place enquiries with us. I understand that some form of internal web chat / instant messaging will be provided in a forthcoming IT upgrade. We may not be able to use the off-the-shelf webchat solutions used by our CLIC colleagues, and so may well lack the sophistication of queue handling, referral and statistical outputs. However, we must certainly be primed to use instant messaging when this is available to us, and have protocols in place so that we can effectively exploit this development. The potential is significant, but so too is the foundation work. Time to go away and update some of those help guides, to extend the use of FAQs, and to think about incorporating many more audiovisual help clips within our intranet provision!