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Month: September 2013

Beyond the Reboot #2: Communicate Clearly

You can have all the technical expertise and customer service experience in the world, but if you can’t communicate clearly it won’t do any good. There are many barriers to clear communication with your customer.

Jargon is the biggest barrier to clear communications. Jargon is a set of terms particular to an industry. Computers have their own dictionary of terms which is enough to throw even the most seasoned computer user into despair.

On top of this, the customer service industry has acronyms like SLAs and FCR. These stand for Service Level Agreement and First Call Resolution. Even with the words spelled out, it’s still unclear to many people what these are. The SLA is the agreement on how fast technicians have to respond to the various levels of trouble tickets. The more critical the issue, the faster the response.

First Call Resolution simply means an issue that was resolved on the first call. This often applies to a help desk where the first person a customer speaks to solves their issue. Terms like this needlessly confuse customers and make them feel even more confused and frustrated.

When speaking to a customer don’t use jargon. Speak in plain terms anyone can understand. It can help to pretend you’re talking to a parent or friend in your life who is clueless about computers. Speak to your customers in the same way, with a friendly understanding and caring attitude.

Just as jargon is too specific, being too vague is also a barrier to clear communication. Recently, a customer was working with a network team member to move a database to another server. It was a web-based application and after the move was complete, nothing showed up for the customer. She contacted the network technician stating what she was seeing. His response was, “What system are you using?”

My customer came to me for help because she didn’t understand the question. This could mean any number of things. What browser are you using? Are you on a Mac or a PC? What is the URL you’re looking at? We had to email the technician back and ask what exactly he was requesting which added time and frustration to resolving the issue. Be precise when communicating with customers.

It’s very easy to assume everyone understands what you mean. It’s easy to overlook something trivial like saying “system” when you know what system you’re talking about. Try to be precise as possible especially when communicating. Otherwise you’ll find yourself going back and forth with a customer to clarify and not make progress resolving the problem.

There can be an actual spoken language barrier. I support customers whose native language is not English. I work with customers who speak Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and French. While they may be able to speak English and hold a conversation, when it comes to certain terms they may not know the words to communicate the issue they’re having. Many of my customers consider my ability to speak “computer” a second language. Imagine how hard it must be to know the terminology in their native tongue and in English.

It takes some guesswork and some demonstration to get a clear picture of the problem. All the more reason when you’re communicating with your customer to use simple words if needed and find a common ground on which to communicate. If your customer can’t understand you and you can’t understand your customer. You’re not going to get anywhere.

Always be clear and direct with your customers. The more time you spend clarifying, the less time you can spend solving problems.

Beyond the Reboot #1: Fix the Right Problem

The problem that gets reported is not always the real problem.
This can be due to a lack of technical knowledge by the customer. It could also be caused by similar symptoms from very different causes. Listening closely to your customer.

Recently, I had two good examples of things not always being what they seem. The first saved me from having to reinstall the Microsoft Office suite which can be very time-consuming. The second was very unclear but frantic.

First, I received a support call stating Microsoft Word was crashing and it needed to be repaired. Upon arriving at the customer’s desk, I saw the customer working on a document in Word so I knew this was not necessarily the problem.

I asked her to show me what was happening. And she did. When she opened a file from her desktop, Word froze and had to be force quit. I tried with another file on her desktop and it opened successfully. I tried three more files. They all opened.

In the span of a minute I’ve gone from Word being corrupted to a file being corrupted. A much easier fix. I was able to open the file in Wordpad and copy the data out of it then create my customer a new Word file which she was able to open. She was eternally grateful and I was happy I didn’t have to reinstall Microsoft Office.

The second support call today came in as “My Computer Is Locked !!!!”. That was the entire text of the ticket and it was categorized under VPN Assistance.

So I went to go see the customer and when I arrived I was greeted by a PointSec lockout screen. PointSec is a type of encryption used to encrypt the entire hard drive of the computer. It will trigger a lockout and ask for a special username and password if the customer’s credentials for Windows are entered incorrectly too many times.

I entered the administrative credentials for the program to bypass the lockout. Instead of a VPN issue, I have an encryption lockout. I went from a very difficult VPN issue with many possible points of failure, to a much easier issue that resulted from too many incorrect login attempts.

The problem reported can be very different from the real problem the customer is experiencing. It pays to listen to your customer and have them show you the problem. Many times a customer does not understand what is going on and draws their own conclusions. There is nothing wrong with this, because not everyone is a computer expert.

When it happens, know to look deeper and ask the rights questions or have the customer show you what is happening. That will tell you more than anything the customer could describe over the phone or in an email.

Not everyone has the benefit of being able to stand at the desk of the person experiencing trouble. If you have to work remotely, use the tools you have. Walk the customer through what they’re trying to do and ask them to tell you exactly what they’re doing and what is happening.

Often times this will result in the customer realizing they’ve skipped a step or clicked something they didn’t mean to. If there is an error, this will tell you exactly where in the process the customer is encountering trouble and you can troubleshoot from there. I’ve had a customer read their entire screen to me as we go through each step of an installation and advise them on each click.

Listen to what your customer is really asking and you will be able to offer the best possible support no matter the situation.

Beyond the Reboot: Being a Better Tech

Having worked in IT Support for nearly a decade professionally, I’ve given a lot of thought to what it takes to be a great technician. I don’t mean to tell you what software you need and what tools you should use. There are plenty of tools out there and they are as varied as the technicians who use them.

What I mean to bring to the table is my experience in the field and the easily overlooked skills. Did you know it helps to have some basic acting skills to be a great technician? How about understanding a bit of psychology?

How about empathy? Did you ever think that you could be seeing someone on the worst day of their life? Or their best? Working in IT Support is not all about fixing computers.

Working in IT Support is Customer Service. First and foremost, I am here to serve my customer and fix their problems. But I am not only a fixer of computers and translator of technological terms. I am an ally in their battle against computers, smartphones and technology.

I am their Sherpa guide through a strange new digital world. It is my job to make them feel not only comfortable, but excited about their tools. It is my job to be their friend, their ally, and sometimes their whipping boy.

I’ve come up with ten skills that lead to being a better tech. These are skills I’ve adopted that make me a better technician and able to provide excellent customer service.

I don’t just want a satisfied customer, I want to delight my customer. And I want to help you do the same.

What does it take to work in IT?

How did I get here?

I did not train to work in IT. I didn’t take a series of courses in computer science or even technology. I was a Creative Advertising student who holds a B.S. in Communications. I never planned to work in IT. I was going to be a designer. I worked for the college newspaper creating the print layouts and managing the website.

Then I graduated and realized I did not want to work in Advertising. I didn’t want to try to coerce people into buying things they really did not need. I wanted to help people. I have always been curious about technology and using it to make our lives better. So I fell into tech support directly out of school.

Into the trenches

I worked for a year on a PC roll-out contract with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. I spent six months working in Richmond swapping hundreds of PCs out in the headquarters and regional office. Then for the next six months I went on the road. I was at a different office each week around the state swapping PCs and troubleshooting problems that arose on the way.

From there I worked briefly for a print shop running high end printers and copies and managing the output of the shop. Then I went back to tech support working for Honeywell, General Electric, City of Richmond government. And very briefly for Wachovia Securities help desk.

When I moved out of Richmond I worked for the Atlantic Media Company, the parent company of The Atlantic Magazine as well as other publications. Now I work as a federal government contractor for the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

I’ve worked at city, state and federal levels of government. I’ve worked on help desks fielding hundreds of calls a per day and as a desktop support technician with over 100 buildings to support as a single technician. I’ve been part of a large team and the lone wolf.

Essential Skills

I got into this with no formal training and have since taught myself what I needed to know. What I’ve learned over the years is that every job is exactly the same, in that they’re all very different.

Each organization I’ve worked has its own set of rules and policies. Each industry had its own set of jargon, software, technology and systems. And as a support tech it is my job to learn them well enough to be able to explain and make them work for others.

I often have customers ask what I studied in school to do the job. They’re often surprised when I tell them I’ve never formally studied computers, technology or anything related to my current field.

The interesting commonality I’ve noticed is many of my co-workers all majored in all things non-technical. Sure, there are are couple of Computer Science or Information Systems majors. But there are just as many Mass Communications, Psychology and Criminal Justice majors. Somehow we all found our way to IT work. Whether it was where the job were or the better money or we just found we like the work more than what we studied to be. We found our calling in the IT support world. Formal training has much less to do with success in IT support than experience and soft skills.

Technical Skills

Being “good with computers” is a good start. But so is being able to search for answers effectively. You don’t need amazing technical knowledge to get a job. You don’t need to know computers inside and out. You don’t need to be an expert in anything. Knowing what to look for and how to look for it is just as important as knowing the answer.

People Skills

IT Support is customer service. Help Desk and Desktop Support roles appear to be nothing more than fixing computers. That is only half of the job. The other half is far more important. When I arrive at a customer’s desk, it is my job to take control and put them at ease. I am here to understand and solve their problems. I am here to sympathize. I am here to be play the hero and the whipping boy. I take the bad and the good. I am the problem fixer and technology wrangler. But in the process I’m also here to help them.

What else is there?

There’s still plenty to learn on the way to becoming a great technician and problem solver. Listening closely to your customers, communicating clearly (verbally and in writing), empathy, sympathy, acting, time management, and thinking on your feet.

Wow, that sounds like a lot! It looks like a huge, daunting list. But most of these skills work together and many of them are things you’re probably already doing. You just don’t realize it. I sure didn’t until I started focusing on how I interacted with my customers.