How do you support clients in IT?
On the face of it this might look like a nonsensical question - the traditional basis is that a client rings a helpdesk and logs a call - which is handled to a support operative who then either resolves the call - or escalates it up to someone higher and so on. This is the traditional 'level' based support system - IE level 1, 2, 3 etc.
This system can work very effectively if you support a large environment and have the resource but in my mind it is inherently flawed - the system takes no notice of the most important thing - the client. It's focused on managing the internal resources of the department and drawing out statistics not on ensuring that at all levels the user is the priority.
Lets look at that - IT environments in corporate's follow some simple factors and can be divided up easily into simple categories or support streams.
- Desktop - normally a Standard Environment (SOE) which is common across the systems or group
- Login / File Print - User file storage and system access, their printers
- Applications - delivery of network applications (i.e. Citrix Metaframe)
- Database - Includes ERP like SAP etc
- Network and Web - Mail, Internet, network
This is a somewhat simplified list and it's important to note that this is what the client would see as it support, servers aren't something the client thinks about.
Notice that word client?
All too often in it support the attitude to users is negative, they forget passwords, lock accounts, lose files, install stuff they shouldn't etc. But the fact is that users are the reason we have a job in IT, without them there is nothing to support.
Let's look at that again.
The user is the reason YOU have a job!
Without users there is no system and no paycheck - we need them. Yet how many people in IT understand a user's perspective? How they think about things?
what their impression of IT is? The fact is not many of you and it drops as you go up the 'levels' (server guys for example dislike talking to users and avoid it where possible and management actively build walls to ensure a mere user cannot reach them (apparently they tarnish or something).
There are a few givens we can assume about users in and environment.
- Users have limited technical knowledge
- Users are not interested in computers - they are a tool for their job
- Their jobs don't revolve around computers like yours
- Any loss of time due to an issue impacts their job
- They assume that you in IT support earn more than they do
- They feel stupid for ringing IT as it means they admit they don't know what they are doing
There are many more but these are what I think are the most relevant points to understanding how to support people. The money issue is a major one in my opinion - for years the media has beaten up the wages and stock options and other benefits of IT support to the point where people assume we are all highly paid; this isn't true but it's an assumption they make and it does color their reaction.
The key to supporting users is empathy and understanding. You put yourself in their role - They might be a secretary with 20 things on the roll, they have letters to type, reports, meetings to book and a hundred other things, they may have 20 years in the office and have moved from typewriters to word processors to XT's with Word Perfect and now they have word 2000. Every one of them works differently. Every one has a million features they don't know. If this person is getting onto middle age (say 50+) they may have issues with technology eroding their job roles etc and as most people in IT support are under 30 they see you as a kid.
The key to effective support is understanding this and working with them. The biggest mistake you can make is assume they are dumb! Trust me 99% of secretaries you will meet are not dumb - its typical IT arrogance (we ALL have it guys) to assume anyone who doesn't know all about computers to be a lesser beast - it's the best way to get someone angry. Supporting this person is the same as supporting anyone else. Follow some simple steps and it becomes easy.
- Listen - what's the problem the users is calling about
- Think - what's the real problem? Often there is an underlying problem you have to identify
- Understand - This is a major problem for the user - it might be minor for you but it's not for them
- Be Friendly - The worst thing in the world is being short or rude to a user - It Does Not matter how busy you are - this is the problem in front of you it has your full attention
- Explain the problem - Do it nicely and suggest how it may be avoided - Don't lecture
- Thank the user for calling - it's a little thing but it leaves them feeling important.
That's it - simple and easy and it leaves them feeling like you care about their problems (you don't need to care you just need the user to feel that you understood and cared enough to help them and that they are not stupid for calling).
A suggestion as well is that if the person had a particularly serious problem or was very upset ring them later to make sure all is OK - its a simple touch and it goes a long way - they will tell everyone around them how nice and helpful you are and this is a good thing for client satisfaction ratings and user goodwill - you want them to like you remember.
Now this applies to all staff in Support - and the thing I have found over the last 6 years is that it's something most good helpdesk people do automatically and it's something most 2nd and 3rd level people never do - they give the impression they resent the call in many cases. How many times have you called a helpdesk or technical support department and been treated like an idiot? How did you feel?
I have a cable internet connection and I have on occasion called the tech support staff ; every time I am treated like a moron by their helpdesk guys who inevitably know less than I do, and when you state the issue they challenge you `how would you know'. Is that the right way to deal with someone on a support level? (if your answer is yes you have a problem).
If you treat a client like an idiot then you are embarking on an adversarial path and that's a lose/lose situation - the client gets angry, you get angry, the client complains and you get slapped and there's NO reason for it. I tell all of my staff (I have 10) that they should always put themselves in the clients shoes and should never get angry with a client - if they find themselves getting angry I always recommend they either a:) Call the client back or b:) Pass the call to someone else. Never stay on the phone angry and if you have just had an abusive call then get up, go for a walk and calm down. (Note: This does not mean you should take mindless abuse from a client, but instead of getting angry be firm and friendly, refuse to play the game and if the client continues to be abusive then pass them to a supervisor or someone else - don't stay on the line and take it and don't rise to their level - you are a professional)
Which comes back to the level system and why I think its flawed - the fact is the majority of customer contact comes at Level 1 and 2 where the Helpdesk and Desktop Support teams are, Level 3 has much less and Level 4 and up hardly ever speak to customers. Thus they remain cut off and this has IMHO the effect of slowing down resolution times on customer issues and prioritization of issues - they don't know the customer and have a vested interest in resolving the issue quickly to their satisfaction but importantly not the client, they don't like explaining their reasons and bury it in jargon.
A note on Jargon and tech-speak - A sure fire way to make a client feel dumb and get the conversation onto a bad path is to use heaps of jargon and technical terms - think about ways to say things in plain English and explain terms; teach the client something instead of burying them. Avoid Jargon at all costs.
BUT - I think it can be fixed
Instead of level support or team designations the support team should be just that - a team. Dividing job titles up into areas like Support Operator, Server Support, Mail Admin is fine but ALL users (Including Management) should do a job where they have first level customer contact on a daily or at least weekly basis. This means helpdesk or desktop support - walking the floor and talking to clients.
Now that all the upper level guys out there are sharpening axes for me let me go further. There is no-none who cannot do it and in fact I recommend swapping roles, sending a server guy off to work with clients for the afternoon and putting a talented desktop guy in his job to learn a bit. Sure they won't learn much but they will see how those people function and that's a good learning curve, the important thing is that all staff deal with users and get to know them.
In the long run that's what I believe is the key to a good IT support infrastructure - understanding and trust - users who know you and trust you will put up with the hard times because they know you are working to fix things - it keeps them off your back and lets you get on with the job and you will find funding easier to get.
I encourage my staff to get out there, they each have designated areas and every morning their first task is to get their coffee and then go for a walk to their designated area and say hello to the people they support, they get to know names and people get to know them and trust them. To me it's a good thing to see staff from outside IT chatting to staff from support about the weekend's football or a movie they saw, it means the techie / user barrier has been broken down. And I swap them every few months so gradually they get to know a lot of people. It builds team morale and makes the support people feel a part of the company, something many companies don't do.
Another thing to do is make use of their intranets and mail systems. We have a corporate internet on a global basis and it hosts a lot of technical documents, and what we have also done is create a folder on the Public Store in Exchange for IT Questions - we get a lot and we answer them as best we can - we even encourage them to post questions about non work related subjects like games etc as it often takes 30 seconds to answer but means a lot to the client. Also you can run training sessions - we do them on net-meeting and voice conference and they are growing in popularity - do subjects like web surfing tips (finding the information you want) or managing email. My staff now regularly give advice on home computer purchases to staff (we have even written an FAQ on what to buy and how to get the best deal) and even home stereos and TV's; the staff respect their knowledge and use it and they feel good about being asked.
There are many other ideas and I invite you to contribute your own so everyone can share them, think about it and you will find ways you can improve your service every day.