Helpdesk personnel need to be well-trained on the software they’re supporting. But software isn’t the only area they need to have expertise with. They should also be well-versed in what the industry currently refers to as soft skills, which include proficiency in such things as being able to listen carefully, being able to communicate with clarity and succinctness, and expressing a general air of empathy when you’re dealing with people who have problems you’re supposed to help them solve.
While some people just seem to have been born with personality attributes that enable them to interact in a harmonious and effective manner with others, many of us have a hard time dealing with others when the problem they’re experiencing is causing them frustration and pain. Let’s face it, no one ever calls or messages a vendor’s support line unless the product they purchased from that vendor appears to be broken or is failing them in some major way. A recent example in the realm of Microsoft software is the fiasco involving users of Windows 10 who discovered that their personal files stored in their Documents and Photos folders had been deleted from their computers after the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809) had been automatically downloaded and installed on their machines. Microsoft immediately pulled the 1809 update several days after it had been released, saying that “We have paused the rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809) for all users as we investigate isolated reports of users missing some files after updating” and referring to the blog of John Cable, the director of program management at Microsoft for Windows Servicing and Delivery, for users who wanted to find out more about the current status of this issue. But even several weeks after it was being pulled, v.1809 remained in limbo as it was being “tested” by participants of the Windows Insider program that I’ve talked about previously here at TechGenix. (Version 1809 was fixed and finally rolled out to all users five weeks after it was pulled.)
And while Microsoft indicated that they view any reports of data loss after an update as “serious” and that they pulled 1809 as a “precaution” the only real evidence of soft skills in Microsoft’s announcement is their penultimate sentence where they say, “We apologize for any impact these issues may have had on any of our customers.” And even that word “apologize” and the sentence “We are committed to learning from this experience and improving our processes and notification systems to help ensure our customers have a positive experience with our update process” that followed read like wording that had been vetted and approved by their legal department. In my own opinion and personal experience, a much more empathetic way of expressing this is by saying “We’re very sorry! We’ll do everything we can to help you fix this!” Because if you really want to dial down a situation where the heat is rapidly rising, soft-spoken words like this are generally most effective.
Practical tips for helpdesk personnel
It’s important for organizations to train their IT support staff in areas of soft skills. That’s because the helpdesk is usually the face of IT that users see when they wrestle with problems on their computers and smartphones as they access corporate networking resources and cloud services to get their jobs done. Mike Hanseman knows a lot about this sort of thing. He is a manager of information services (MIS) for Frost Mortgage Banking Group based in Albuquerque, N.M., and he is also Chief Geek at SuperGeeks, LLC. Mike offered me some helpful tips on how to ensure your helpdesk personnel are well-versed in the skills needed to deal with difficult situations in an effective manner. “Soft skills can be hard,” Mike said. “Soft skills and social interactions are more complex than any hardware, software or system we touch. Having good soft skills makes our job easier.” And certainly making our job easier should be a primary goal for any of us who manage IT for companies!
When I asked Mike how support staff can better express empathy when communicating with users he replied: “Reading people is an important part of being empathetic. We use it every day with our kids, domestic partners, friends, and family. The two most toxic words we can think or say are ‘hate’ and ‘stupid.’ These words should be removed from our mindset and vocabulary as they change our demeanor, something users will pick up on. If you can, watch your peers interact with users, was it smooth or were there some wrinkles. If there was a disconnect, where did it happen and why?”
Watching for when a disconnect may have occurred when you’re communicating with a disgruntled user involves honing your listening skills carefully. “When you are talking to a user, listen not just to the words being used but how they are being spoken, the inflection, pitch, and tempo,” Mike says. “If you are deskside, observe facial and body cues. Listen to your words, how would they make you feel if they were coming from somebody else? Slow down, be a good listener, ask good questions. Let them vent if they need to. Take ownership of the issue. Respect their personal space, instead of reaching over and grabbing the mouse kneel or squat next to them.”
What about a situation where the user is demanding an immediate resolution to their problem? “If a user is hovering and demanding results, it’s probably because you haven’t managed their expectations appropriately. It only takes a minute to take control of the engagement by addressing the most common questions proactively. Once the user has explained the issue and they are no longer needed we might tell them something like, ‘Give me 20 minutes to sort out the issue. I will let you know as soon as I have more information. Would you prefer a text, email or phone call?’ Now that you have told them they have 20 minutes to kill they will happily wander off to do other things, like chat up one of their buddies, run an errand, or grab a coffee. If you are able to fix it in 15 minutes, you will be the hero.” I asked Mike if he had a story he could share to illustrate this and he replied, “Comcast is doing the same thing now. The past couple of times I have called for my residential service, the AI knew who I was, saw there was a system outage, told me the issue was being worked on and gave me an ETA for repair. They gave me everything I needed to be able to plan accordingly.”
And finally, what if your helpdesk personnel are dealing with a user whose problem is technically beyond the understanding and experience of most ordinary users? “We work with complex technology so communicate in terms they can understand, use analogies if needed. Effectively manage your users’ expectations. Give yourself some wiggle room, never make commitments you can’t keep. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Above all be humble, you may be the rock star of IT but you are only one piece of a complex machine.”
Of course, it’s hard to be humble when you know you’re a rock star!
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