I admit it. I hate the term “soft skills” and want everyone to stop using it. Right now. It’s vague, it’s dismissive, and it pits “soft” skills against “hard” ones when we know support professionals need both kinds of skills to do their increasingly complicated jobs well. Will you humor a lifelong writing teacher and let me make my case? If we can stop referring to writing skills with the empty word “soft,” we can recognize how important they are to providing great support.
Why We Should Permanently Replace the Term
The term “soft skills” is too vague to be any use in screening prospective employees or coaching the ones who are already working in technical support. To prove my point, here are the results of my simple Google search on the skills referred to as soft:
|Dealing with difficult situations
||Mentoring and coaching
|Handling office politics
|Influence and persuasion
From patience to persuasiveness to public speaking?! When a term can be used to mean everything, it ends up meaning nothing.
A Skill Isn’t “Soft” If You Use It All the Time
Calling something soft makes it sound small, but the role writing skills play in the operation of today’s support organization isn’t small at all. In fact, HDI’s 2018 Practices & Salary Report: Ticket Management & Metrics confirms writing is essential. Just take a look at this chart showing the channels customers use to contact support.
Many of the channels on this list are written channels: chat, email, fax, social media, text, and web/online form. If a technical support agent doesn’t have excellent writing skills firmly in place, they won’t be able to cope with this range of support channels, and their manager won’t be able to freely move analysts around when the number of contacts in a channel spikes. Clearly, HDI’s research shows that the era of being much better at tech than at writing is over.
What Should We Call These Skills If We’re Not Going to Call Them “Soft?”
I propose that we take this too-big bucket o’ skills and create smaller buckets. So, instead of referring to them all as soft skills, we’d have communications skills, leadership skills, collaboration skills, etc. I’m glad to place writing skills in the communication skills bucket, right where it belongs.
Writing Is a “Hard” Skill All Technical Support Professionals Need
If you can’t communicate in writing, you can’t provide support. Today, if you want to be competent at your technical support job, being able to write clearly is as important as being able to troubleshoot problems with O365, enterprise class printers, mobile devices, LAN, WAN, and virtual desktops.
If you can’t communicate in writing, you can’t provide support.
Sure, there are some writing skills technical support pros don’t really need. They don’t need to be able to knock out an attention-getting press release, and they rarely have to write email marketing campaigns or appeals for donations. But other writing skills live at the very core of technical support.
Here are the three writing skills I believe support pros must have:
- Explain how to complete a task or procedure
- Write at a technical level the customer can understand
- Use a positive, personal tone that shows empathy
Explain how to complete a task or procedure. In support, we spend most of our time helping people understand how to do things, so explaining how to complete a task is an essential writing skill. A support analyst who has this writing skill knows that easy-to-read instructions begin each step in the process with a verb. Version B is much easier to read than Version A, correct? If the writer of Version B is on your team, they’ll be writing clearer email replies, easier-to-follow chats, and better knowledgebase content. These clear instructions prevent repeat contacts.
Write at a technical level the customer can understand. Increasingly, we’re providing written support in synchronous messaging channels, like text and chat, that give us the opportunity to suss out how much technical knowledge the customer we’re serving has. Being able to adjust our writing on the fly—so sophisticated and naïve customers alike can understand us—is an essential, and prized, writing skill.
In this chat with customer Nicole, support analyst Robert shows he lacks this writing skill. Though the customer gives several clues that she doesn’t understand the advice he’s giving, Robert just keep going. His lack of writing skill means this chat will not be the last time Nicole contacts On The Books software for help. And she won’t be very happy when she has to chat in the second time.
On The Books v6.1software—Chat transcript
Nicole W.: I just updated On The Books v6.1 and now I can't use it. I have Mac OSX 10.7.5 and I don't want to update that. But On The Books v6.1 is telling me I need OSX 10.8. How do I revert to an older version of On The Books?
Robert R.: To address this issue, you will need to do the following:
Robert R.: You will need to uninstall On The Books v6.1 (go to the Apps folder and move On The Books v6.1 to the trash) then you will need to go to Finder and click on the Go Menu (on the Menu bar) and then click on the Go To Folder button, in there type: ~/Library/Application Support/OnTheBooks/ and hit Go. In the folder that pops up you should see a On The Books v6.1 folder.
Nicole W.: Um OK. I should see a folder in the other folder?
Robert R.: Delete the On The Books v6.1 folder.
Nicole W.: OK. I will do that later.
Robert R.: Do you know what version of On The Books you had previously? (Was it On The Books v5.1 for Mac version 1 or On The Books v5.1 for Mac version 2)?
Nicole W.: I will try to do these steps after we complete the chat. Is there anything else I need to do?
Nicole W. I am not sure which version I had. I probably installed it in March 2017.
Robert R.: Were you able to record Video with it?
Nicole W.: Not sure. I don’t think so but I never tried to do that.
Use a positive, personal tone that shows empathy. Support pros with this writing skill understand that it’s worth their effort to use words to demonstrate they care. They convey a positive, personal tone with phrases like these:
- Sure, I’d be glad to help…
- Let me check into that for you. Can you wait just a moment while I review your account setup?
- Please let us know right away if you run into this problem again, so we can continue troubleshooting for you…
These support writers are also skilled at using words to show empathy. They avoid using a tone that blames the customer or hides behind policy or other restrictions. Instead, they demonstrate they understand the customer’s perspective with phrases like these:
- I realize it can be complicated to…
- I can imagine how frustrating that would be.
- I want to understand what happened as much as you do.
So, Have I Made My Case?
Have I convinced you that we should abandon the term “soft skills?” In the past, when we elevated “hard” technical skills over “soft” communication skills, we perpetuated the corny “IT guy” (or gal) stereotypes, which portrayed those who work in support as socially awkward, difficult to understand, and more at home with computers than people. Thankfully, those days are over. When we stop calling communication skills “soft,” we raise them up and make it clear that our support team members must have these skills.
Leslie delivered a session on writing as a hard skill at HDI 2019, now SupportWorld Live!
Leslie O'Flahavan has delivered writing courses for support center staff, customer service agents, and social media managers, helping thousands of professionals hone their customer-focused writing skills. She helps support organizations train agents to write well in all service channels, measure the quality of their writing, and revise and maintain their entire library of canned answers. Leslie is the instructor of three writing courses for Lynda.com (LinkedIn Learning) and coauthor of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents. Visit her E-WRITE website, follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.