Each month, we ask our HDI Thought Leaders and Featured Contributors a question about the IT industry. We then share their thoughts. Here is this month’s question:
What soft skills are indispensable for a successful career in IT service and support, and how can one get better at those skills?
Supervisor - Help Desk, Mayo Clinic
“Soft skills” can be defined as: personal qualities that enable you to communicate well with other people—basically, “people skills”—and there are so many. From my perspective, we use soft skills as tools to help provide the best customer experience possible. The fact that we are 100% phone support makes soft skills key to our mission. To me, communication is the foundation—which, again, encompasses various soft skills:
We should not listen to just hear what is being said. Rather, we should listen to understand what is being said. Equally important, we need to ask follow-up questions to gain more information or to clarify what is being conveyed.
By drawing from our own experiences, we can better connect with the customer to what is being said. This can help in sensing such things as feeling, meaning, or urgency, so we can act or respond appropriately.
By gauging what a person’s knowledge level may be, we can formulate our responses in a way that others can understand and not make the customer feel confused, incompetent, or a burden. This also instills confidence in our team that we can explain things in ways that the customer can understand.
Critical Thinking/Decision Making
Using the above soft skills also will help evaluate the situation and determine the best decision for the issue at hand. Often, we also need to consider various policies and procedures and know where those boundaries are. Other times, it is choosing between doing what is right and doing the right thing.
Mastering soft skills can be tricky. Sure, there are endless resources where one can learn about soft skills, but I believe that being able to successfully utilize soft skills requires real-life awareness and observation of when/how these soft skills are being used and the practice of using them ourselves. The adage of, “Do unto others…”, is something that I keep in mind. So, how can one get better at soft skills? Learn what soft skills are and practice, practice, practice. Practice on every call you take, but, more importantly, practice with every interaction you have with people.
CEO and Principal Advisor, Clifton Butterfield, LLC
Among all the soft skills (and I wish we had a better term for them), I would emphasize three:
- Empathy – the ability to understand the urgency and/or frustration a customer or user feels when something has gone wrong or they need an answer. While feeling empathy is a characteristic, it is also a skill that can be developed over time.
- Listening – the skill of being able to hear what is not said as well as what is said is very important in a support role. This skill is often called active listening because it’s not just being quiet while the other person speaks; it’s thinking and understanding what is being communicated.
- Patience – tech support people want to solve the problem and often jump right to offering a solution before truly comprehending the problem. Seeking to understand before seeking to solve is one kind of patience. Another kind is being able to remain calm while someone is, shall we say, strongly expressing their unhappiness.
It should be apparent that these three are closely related to each other. In service and support, we tend to hire people who have natural characteristics that include these abilities, but they can also be developed, encouraged, and improved over time. Role playing and coaching are excellent ways to encourage and improve these skills.
Principal, DG Associates
Soft skills include our emotional intelligence, our relationship skills, and our interpersonal skills. Using soft skills maximizes the impact of the leader’s hard skills. In today’s environment, they are considered more important and influential than our technical and work skills, as they define how we process events and information and how we relate with and react to others. In developing and using soft skills, you are not only enhancing your skill set, but you are investing in your growth.
A few of the soft skills I recommend you initially focus on are:
Leadership encounters many different types of people, so it’s critical that you can communicate at all levels. Focus on your written, verbal, and non-verbal communication.
Become an active listener. You must learn to facilitate an open exchange. To accomplish this, be sensitive to body language which includes facial expressions, breathing patterns, and tones in one’s voice, and understand the emotional makeup of the situation and what has led up to this conversation. Acknowledge that you are listening and the other person has been heard by looking for feedback. Being an active listener means you are involved and deeply focused on the other person's point of view rather than being distracted by what you are thinking or wish to say.
Lead with enthusiasm. Look to cultivate a positive attitude in yourself, as well as in your teams. Work on building trust and respect between yourself and your teams. When this all comes together you will have an exciting cultural shift that results in high morale, excitement, and engaged teams.
This is our ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Empathy is not sympathy, nor is it feeling sorry for others. Instead, it is understanding what others are feeling or thinking. It’s important to remember you’re experiencing how they feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in them. This will allow you to relate to others, understand how and why they do what they do, and how better to lead them. Empathy represents the interpersonal side of your emotional intelligence.
As a leader, you create the environment and provide your organization with the quality of experience they will have. So, lead by what you do, not by what you say. Soft skills will enable you to contribute to the happiness and well-being of your organization. You will be providing your teams with what they need to succeed.
Senior Service Management Analyst, BC Ferries
Technology is certainly advancing in leaps and bounds and looks to continually embed itself in pretty much every aspect of our lives as we progress into the future. This is the perfect opportunity to give the humanistic component the stage it deserves.
Soft skills are the backbone staples if you want your organization to thrive. Providing and empowering your employees with the tools to become great communicators, display and hold personal and professional values and ethics, adapt in the constant cycle of change, hold effective relationships, and become great leaders is going to make your business successful on all fronts.
IT Service and Support has traditionally been an area where hard skills have been a must-have, because it’s been very reactionary. Yes, customers want to have great service and speedy support, but they also want a certain relationship with your organization. They want to know that you care and that you have employees who will make every effort to help with what you need. Give employees who are not on the front line opportunities to learn, cross-train, and be open to questions and ideas on how to create an even better customer experience. Secondment opportunities are a great way to expose your employees to problem-solving and teamwork, display flexibility, and increase their confidence.
Just like any skill, it needs practice. Honing in on what soft skills each of your valuable employees would like to work on and making it their goal to make those improvements will eventually become second nature and will build self-confidence. They are then ready to move onto their next goal.