My good friend, Mike, owns a BMW R80/7 motorcycle and recently needed some repairs. “Last time I took it to ‘XYZ Cycle Service’, but I just can’t get myself to go back there,” he groaned. “They’re supposedly the best in town, but they were downright rude. They said they were ‘extremely busy’ and to just leave it—they would get to it when they could. On top of that, they acted as if even the simplest question was a huge imposition.”
That’s a prime example of the gap that can exist between hard and soft skills. Many a professional—from your dentist to car mechanic to the tech support agent on the phone—may be highly skilled. But that’s only one side of the coin. Given a choice, most of us would rather take our business to someone who is a treats us as human beings and values our business.
So, why do some technically trained professionals—particularly those with IT and computer skills—seem to have difficulty when it comes to managing the soft skills consumers have come to expect? Part of it could be that technical professions often demand binary thinking and attract people who are good at that. Computation is expressed in ones or zeros; black or white; right or wrong. It doesn’t mean that a technically savvy individual can’t be a good listener, empathetic, and a skilled communicator. It just means they will benefit greatly by training that teaches those skills and how to use them on the job.
Being a Support Professional
While the job title may be technical support, help desk or IT, the real job is helping people. In fact, in a support position, one’s technical knowledge becomes far less important than the ability to diagnose a problem and communicate a solution.
Ahhh, communication! There’s that troublesome word, again. As anyone in a relationship knows, words are only words. And, yes, we are in a relationship with our customers. If the listener doesn’t understand the explanation because of technical jargon, there’s been no communication. If the customer is so frustrated that he or she can’t “hear” what you’re saying, there’s been no communication. That’s because HOW we say it (and listen to the responses) is just as important as WHAT we say.
Many companies invest large amounts of money bolstering the technical skills of their employees, and very little providing them the soft skills they need to interact successfully with customers. However, even the most skilled technicians become far more valuable when they can bring a positive attitude, empathize with the customer’s frustrations, diagnose core issues with well constructed questioning, and convey a solution that is understandable and manageable for the customer.
Closing the Soft Skills Gap
A sound knowledge of soft skills helps a technical expert look at the world through the eyes of the customer. For example:
1. Be patient with the person who has little or no understanding of the subject matter or its terminology.
2. Break a complex problem or solution into small, manageable pieces.
3. Show respect and empathy toward the customer, even if the support technician wouldn’t experience the same problems in that situation.
4. Assess the customer’s level of understanding and experience in order to communicate clearly, using language that is neither confusing nor patronizing.
5. Ask the right questions (both open and closed) to gain a thorough understanding of the issue.
6. Apply active listening techniques to uncover all concerns, and refrain from jumping to an assumed conclusion.
7. Use positive language that focuses on the solution rather than the problem.
8. Avoid comments that scare the customer (“Hopefully you haven’t lost all your data”) or make them feel ignorant/embarrassed (“You mean you disengaged the safety switch before you turned it on?”).
The benefits of soft skills training for technical staff goes beyond the obvious. Clearly you want your staff to successfully support customers—satisfied customers become loyal customers, and loyal customers are the most valuable asset a business can have. But a team that is fluent in “soft skills” will also develop better interpersonal skills, which can boost workplace morale as well as interpersonal relationships. It can improve workers’ adaptability and flexibility and reduce turnover. As a result, training in soft skills becomes a value-add at many levels.
Posted on May 26, 2015
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