Embarking on a discussion of attitude might seem a thankless task, but not if we remember that the key to helping people comes down to respect for others. This respect goes both ways and can be instilled in those around you, provided you continually focus on honing your interpersonal skills. While many books and articles have been written on the subject, in my view, customer service can be broken down into seven key abilities we can all work on developing: active listening, patience, succinct communication, empathy, consistency, adaptability, and tolerance—better known as a thick skin. None of these skills are easy to do well. We all strive to master them, but each trait requires discipline and practice to develop, even if we feel we already excel in a few of these areas. When these key skills are exhibited, they enable us to show respect for each person served. So what exactly does each quality entail?
Active listening—seems simple enough. People call, tell us their troubles, we fix the issue. If only it were that easy. Sometimes as we listen to someone describing a technical issue, we begin to realize that the description might not accurately detail what is wrong. People confuse technical terms referring to Ethernet ports as USB ports, projector problems as interactive white board issues, etc. By listening carefully to what your caller is saying, you can best follow up with questions to clarify the issue. Do not be too quick to assume you know what the problem is based on initial information. Do not interrupt—consider what is said and make sure you know what the user is actually asking or describing. Remember, addressing the wrong issue wastes time and causes frustration on both sides. A frantic caller will also calm down faster when he or she knows you are listening.
Patience may be a virtue, but it certainly is not always easy to maintain. Sometimes we wish our end users were as patient as we strive to be! Nevertheless, we all must admit that there is nothing more frustrating than when things do not work the way we think they should. People are upset with the situation, not with you personally—even though it seems that way. The fact that a calm and friendly voice has answered the call for help should start things moving in the right direction. It may take a moment for the caller to calm down or get to the point. Give it time. Take a deep breath if needed, but keep your cool. This, too, shall pass.
Empathy places us in the caller’s shoes. How did you feel the last time you started to work on a project only to find that something was not functioning right? Remember your own exasperation trying to resolve a problem and let that guide you in dealing with the irritated caller on the line. The teacher you are talking to likely has a large class of students staring at him or her while the conversation with you progresses. A technology glitch was not part of the lesson plan. You must appreciate the added stress an audience places on the situation. Sure, the caller should have known how to fix the simple issue, but, in that moment of panic in the middle of class, it did not come to mind. We deal with these issues every day, but we cannot expect everyone to know or remember what to do in the heat of the moment.
Succinct communication involves being not only clear in your explanations but brief and to the point as well. From experience, users do not read and follow directions that are long and wordy! The same goes for listening—people hear the first part of what you say, then start to tune out. The need for instant gratification and instant results renders many people very impatient. We know that troubleshooting can take time, but that is not what your users want to hear. Keep your directions short and specific. If you create tip sheets, the same need for concision applies. It breaks my English major heart, but in the world of tech support and tech writing, sentence structure should be the least of your concerns.
Consistency in both policies and procedures helps both you and your users. Not to be confused with rigidity, consistency means you have clear policies concerning use of technology and user responsibilities; a system for new technology requests, training, and feedback; and a plan of action for reporting, addressing, and tracking problems. All users should read and sign an Acceptable Use Policy, which outlines the expectations of behavior and activities while online and when using institutional technology. In addition, directions for contacting the department should be clearly outlined somewhere—hopefully on your website. Within the department, procedures should also be in place regarding how things are done, what is permitted, who is responsible for what, and how issues should be escalated. Finally, just as certain behaviors are expected of users, the professional expectations of staff should also be clearly outlined.
Adaptability may seem an odd quality to promote considering I just extolled the virtues of consistency! Keep in mind that adapting does not mean throwing out the rules or accepted procedures, but rather modifying or adjusting things when faced with new situations or conditions. Adaptability encompasses not only recognizing that current procedures might not quite fit a particular circumstance and a modification is in order, but also realizing when changes are not warranted. This involves critical thinking and clear assessment of the situation at hand, as well as ramifications for future events. Adaptability helps when you are faced with the unusual request or the unexpected situation.
Tolerance, fortitude, thick-skin—however you wish to state it, customer service jobs require the ability to overlook some unfair personal criticism and abuse from less than diplomatic individuals. Thankfully, bad behavior is far from the norm, but it can and does occur. There is no excuse for rude and unkind words and actions; nevertheless, they come with the territory and most people, after the fact, are appalled by and apologetic for how they behaved. In the heat of the moment, the best thing is to keep your cool, remain calm, offer the assistance you would in the pleasantest of circumstances, and allow the other person to calm down.
Focusing on and consciously developing the seven skills above will reap many rewards. As a service provider, you will be better able to help the varied clients you encounter each day by focusing more on the issue at hand rather than on individual behaviors. Remaining professional and respectful toward one and all begets respect and consideration in return. Working a technology help desk can be very stressful, but you do have some control and it lies within you to exercise.
In the next segment, I will explore how basic customer service practices help improve efficiency, service, and morale. As always, your comments and questions are most welcome.
Susan Hoffman came to the Elizabethtown Area School District Technology Department via a circuitous route. With degrees in English, a BA from St. Joseph’s University and an MA from Villanova, Susan started her work life as a college English instructor. From there she moved to the Penn State University Libraries as Circulation Supervisor at Pattee Library on the University Park Campus. While with the libraries, she wrote instruction manuals for the then in house circulation system developed by library programmers, as well as gave workshops for library faculty and staff in the use of DOS and Microsoft Office applications. Susan joined the Elizabethtown Area School District in 2000 as a classroom reading and math assistant. In 2012, she left the classroom and brought her understanding of the end-user’s perspective to her new role manning the Technology Help Desk and Technology Emergency Line for the district.
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