The Softer Side of IT
No matter the industry that you are in, you have clients. Whether you are the IT director for a school system, a lead engineer of a fortune 500 company, or the director of client services, you must interact with internal and external clients. More than likely, some of your interactions have been less than stellar.
While some of those bad interactions may have been technology related, I would venture to say that a goodly portion of them were not. Whether it was a rude client service agent, a vendor that did not communicate shipping information, or a customer having a bad day, our interactions in any industry are not always judged by technical ability. As IT directors, managers, engineers, and technicians, we often overlook some of the soft skills which are critical to internal and external client interactions. This blog post will take a look at a few of them that can make or break your ability to serve your clients. The ones we will look at today are communication, documentation, and managing client behavior.
Communication is the key area when it comes to soft skills. Your ability to communicate and communicate well will determine the success of your service. You may complete one or two transactions with poor communication, but you will not develop the relational skills need for a long term engagement. Let’s face it, we have all been on both sides of poor communication. I could write several articles on this alone, but let’s focus on 2 key areas: timeliness and appropriateness.
Let’s start with timeliness. Nobody wants to reach out for service and then hear crickets for days. We also do not want to start troubleshooting something and then leave the client hanging for days on end. The key to this is to have an Service Level Agreement (SLA ) established for how and when you will communicate and then hold your staff to that. If you say that you will answer a Pri 3 ticket within one business day, then be sure you do that. If you tell a client, “I will get you an update by the end of the day,” then be sure to send an email by the end of the day. These sound simple, but how many times have you been left hanging or how many times have you left someone else hanging. Say what you are going to do and then do it! This also applies with bad news. Don’t delay just because it is bad. It won’t get any better with time!
This brings us to appropriateness. Tone and format are the keys here. It can also vary greatly depending on the communication medium (email, telephone, chat window, etc). I like to use the golden rule when it comes to this aspect of communication. How would I like to be treated? Tone is in the eye or ear of the receiver. You may not think you sound angry, but if the receiver perceives anger then the tone has been established. This can be especially tricky when it comes to writing emails. You may have meant one thing and the reader takes it a totally different way because of perceived tone. Be aware of this. Read your emails multiple times. Have some else read your email and ask what they think. Never, ever, ever, write and send an email while angry!! This also applies to verbal communication. Watch things like tone of voice and nonverbal cues. Format is also important. You want to give enough level of detail to convey understanding without writing a nine page dissertation on the efficacy of using one firewall over another firewall. You also want to avoid short, staccato answers. Give enough detail for understanding without the client having to take the weekend to read your email.
Documentation is another soft skill that is lacking amongst today’s technical staffs. Most engineers and technicians love to go in and design, install, or fix something. Few engineers enjoy the tedious processes of making sure what they have done is appropriately documented. Documentation can be broken down into internal and external (client facing). External documentation should be the easiest. Most organizations have procedures clearly defined on external documentation. Always refer to what has been called out in your contract, work order, etc and follow it. When in doubt, describe what has changed! Internal documentation can be a little trickier and often times overlooked. Sometimes, we are so focused on just getting the thing fixed that we forget to document what was broken or how we fixed it. This information is critical to the learning curve of any organization. If you don’t know what you did, you can’t repeat it. You don’t want to start from square one every time. I recommend you have an equally robust set of procedures for internal documentation. The most important part for both internal and external documentation is to “just do it!”
This brings us to managing client behavior. I know what you are thinking, “Good Luck With That!!” It may sound like the impossible task, but it can be done if you look at things from the client’s point of view. Some of the management goes back to the first part of this blog on communication. Talk to the customer and find out the true need and the situation. Don’t make assumptions! This will only lead to bad things. If there is something you can’t do because of technical ability, timeline, cost, etc then communicate that. Be prepared to tell the customer what you can do. Know and try to understand the pressures that the client is under. Is this a demand coming from above? Is this a nice to have or is their entire network down? Be calming and try to get to the core of the issue. The last thing I will say about this is to under promise and over deliver. We say this all the time, but hardly ever do it. We always feel the pressures of the competitive environment and will promise the moon to win and then deliver a couple of ant hills. Be honest and upfront. Know when you can give an unequivocal yes and know when you can only say yes with some caveats. All of these items will go a long way in managing client behavior.
In wrapping up, I hope I have been able to highlight a few areas where you can quickly improve your client experience by tightening up on some soft skills areas. Keep in mind that anyone can provide service. If you can provide service and make the client feel good about it, then you’ve really done something special.
A proven leader, Jeremy Niedzwiecki has over 20 years in the IT industry. As the Director of Customer Support at ABS, Jeremy works to ensure that the ABS Customer Support team continuously provides the highest levels of support possible ABS clients.