Making Eye Contact Makes a Difference

What’s the first thing you do when making a personal connection with a community member? If it’s not eye contact then you need to rethink your steps of service. Librarians should not underestimate the importance that good eye contact plays in getting a service transaction off to the right start at every personal touch point in the library.

It’s the start of the customer journey for the community member who needs to find their way into your collection and the expert guidance you bring to it. Think about what’s when community members approach you in need of assistance. Are your eyes fixed to a computer screen when someone approaches? Do you only slowly shift your gaze away from the text or images on the screen to that person waiting for your help? If that’s the first step in the journey then it could be getting service delivery off to a bad start.

According to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University found the if eyes were placed on consumer products (e.g., the the Trix Rabbit on the cereal box), and manipulated so that the gaze connected with human eyes perusing the shelves it could lead to that product being selected over competitors. Researcher Brian Wansink said that “Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspired powerful feelings of connection”. If a cartoon character on a cereal box, using no more than a gaze, can connect and ignite a potential relationship, you certainly can.

Need further proof? Just go back to the Great Retail Shopping Experience in North America Study, research into what makes the best possible user experience. In interviews with hundreds of consumers, the Study found that five key components combine to add up to great user experiences. One of those five was engagement. Making immediate eye contact is a simple yet powerful way to show you are ready and willing to get engaged in a service transaction.

Kate Murphy, writing about the study for the New York Times, in “Psst. Look Over Here”, says to think of eye contact as a “cognitive jump-start” that occurs when you lock eyes with another person. In addition, eye contact may help you to personally contribute to the improvement of the library experience. Eye contact is proven to make us more socially aware and empathetic, keys to building relationships. When we look away at our e-mail or get too focused on the screen, it can degrade the connection. So if a service transaction requires you to do some computer work, be sure to look back to the community member every few moments to give some reassuring eye contact. Murphy reports that research as far back as the 1980s indicates that people who make eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Add it all up and everything points to the importance of making eye contact as one of your first steps in connecting with community members, whether it’s in the primary service zone, your office, the stacks or even random encounters in the community. It’s a simple thing every library worker can do to make the library experience that much better.

One other piece of advice. Try not to let your eye contact turn into a stare. That could be just a little bit creepy.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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