In my article Support! Support! My Kingdom for Support! I discussed the technology and processes behind running a technical support help desk. But there's one common component that's often overlooked and lacking in many help desk agents (HDAs): the basic social and interpersonal skills required to interact with users in a meaningful and productive way.
This shortcoming lies in the fact that too many HDAs concentrate solely on the technical problem and ignore the person who has the problem. This is akin to a physician treating an illness with little regard to the patient suffering from the affliction. Perhaps if Hippocrates had written an oath to be observed by technical support personnel, we wouldn't have to put up with the Nick Burnses -- Saturday Night Live's caricature of the typically obnoxious and condescending tech support agents -- of the world.
A truly productive help desk focuses on guiding a user through a problem in a human fashion, not acting as a vending machine dishing out tech support procedures. To do this we must understand not only the users and their problems, but also our own responses and reactions to them.
Focusing on a Human Help Desk
I've dealt with many HDAs over the years -- both internal and external. As an IT veteran, I've been at both the giving and receiving ends of technical support, and have witnessed varying degrees of social and interpersonal competence. Some are so helpful and friendly that you want to buy them a pint at the end of the day; others are so rude and cold that they would test the patience of a Zen Buddhist monk.
A help desk must involve more than technical problem resolution. Although that's the end result, the means by which it's achieved by HDAs can sometimes leave something to be desired. Support isn't only about technology. The "I'm not paid to be nice, I'm paid to solve problems" mentality just doesn't fly. I've worked with some HDAs who have a library of technical knowledge stored in their head, but possess the people skills and disposition of a feral howler monkey.
What's going on? Were some HDAs not hugged enough as children?
During the writing of this article, I had the pleasure of discussing this subject with Donna Earl, an internationally recognized speaker, business educator, consultant, and author specializing in help desk training, customer service, management effectiveness, and emotional intelligence.
"I believe some people inherently have better communication and people skills," says Earl. "Others have learned from their environment, whether at home or a previous job, or from other people. I believe most people can learn these skills, but I also know people's willingness to learn interpersonal skills varies."