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It's Not About the Byte: Creating a Human Help Desk, Part 1

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (25-Sep-2006)

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The words "help desk" can conjure up very different emotions depending on whom you ask. On one side, it can be viewed as some kind of terrestrial savior, seemingly able to solve complex technical problems with little more than a jar of algae and some bamboo shoots. On the flip side, it can be that final straw that eventually leads to a fist going through a wall or a piece of computer equipment going airborne.

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 BurnsesSaturday 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."

And there lies the crux of the problem. Although most HDAs have a solid foundation of technical skill and a formal background in technology, there are some HDAs who find interpersonal abilities an auxiliary (and in some cases, unnecessary) skill rather than a complementary skill to technical problem resolution.

It can be difficult for some people to change their habitual nature—especially if they're unwilling to do so. These people just aren't cut out to work in a front line service department. Earl points out, "Some techies just can't be bothered [with interpersonal skills], and prefer to stay in their comfort zone of technology. They should not be in a support role. Research is fine, but in a support role they tend to minimize or reject the importance of interpersonal skills and trivialize the hapless end user."

On the other hand, she adds,"Some very successful tech support people are inherently people people, and have stretched their comfort zone to learn technology. These are often the best HDAs, beloved by users, and conscientious to the very end in search of the best solution for the user."


Who's Responsibility Is It?

Companies need to measure the success of a help desk not only by the number of successfully completed service calls, but also by the level of user satisfaction. But who's responsible for ensuring this satisfaction? Is it an HDA's personal responsibility—as part of his or her job in a front line service department—to ensure their service meets both technical and interpersonal needs, or is it the help desk manager's responsibility to find candidates who already posses these interpersonal skills? The answer is both, but the right people must be put in the right positions.

"In my experience," says Earl, "most help desk managers are promoted because of their technical brilliance, not necessarily their people or organizational skills. Technical skills are easier to measure and to a technical person often seem like the only relevant criteria. Sometimes tech managers can be blind to the existence of interpersonal skills, the importance of these skills, or trivialize their impact because they, too, lack interpersonal skills."

This presents a problem: If managers lack interpersonal skills themselves, how are they to recognize these qualities in others during the recruiting and hiring process? Earl explains, "they scan resumes for the requisite technical knowledge, but fail to assess the candidate's communication or interpersonal skills, or whether or not the job is a good fit for that candidate."

Help desk mangers who do possess interpersonal skills, or at the very least recognize the importance of these qualities, will be in a far better position to build a help desk staff.

Besides technical proficiency and the ability to solve problems in a timely manner, a well-rounded help desk agent must possess the following crucial "soft-skills:"


Qualities of a Good Help Desk Agent
Quality Description
Emotional intelligence Wikipedia defines EI as "an ability, capacity, or skill to perceive, assess, and manage the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups." Earl stresses, "If [HDAs] don't have the ability to manage their own thoughts and actions, they'll stress out on the job, and not respond well to end users."
Communication HDAs must be able to express themselves clearly and concisely-especially when giving out lengthy troubleshooting instructions. But communication requires more than just speaking; it requires an HDA to listen to their users when they're explaining their problems and concerns.
Empathy User empathy is one of the fundamental qualities of an emotionally intelligent HDA. "If [HDAs] can recognize the user's frustration and respond with empathy," says Earl, "the conversation will be more productive and the customer will feel more satisfied with the interaction." A lack of empathy, however, can have a snowball effect. "If the HDA cannot empathize with users," Earl adds, "he or she is more likely to come across as overbearing and superior. This annoys the user and creates a more lengthy conversation, as a frustrated user can become less cooperative."
Patience HDAs need to have patience when dealing with users-especially non-technical users who may not always understand complex explanations or instructions during the first go-around. "The job can be tedious," explains Earl, "but also frustrating with users asking the same question over and over, or non-technical users requiring a lengthy, water downed explanation."
Flexibility HDA can't choose who they support; they must be able to provide assistance to all users regardless of their technical know-how—and they must be able to adjust the manner in which they provide this support to accommodate the user's experience (i.e., don't talk to an administrative assistant the same way you would an engineer).

Help is a Two-way Street

It always amazes me how so much can be said between an HDA and a user during a support situation, with neither actually being involved in any meaningful dialog. This is because each person is speaking to rather than speaking with the other.

Both parties have a responsibility in this interaction: The user must be able to adequately describe the problem they're having, and HDAs must be able to process this information and find a suitable solution.

Although it's unfair to place undue responsibility or blame on any one party when there's a failure in this interaction, there's one very important point HDAs need to bear in mind: When users call the help desk, they're often in an elevated state of stress.

The onus is on the help desk agent, as the service provider, to take control of the situation. They're the one's in the controlled environment and state. It's they're job to manage and solve user problems. A caller in distress, however, is most certainly not in a controlled environment or state; and it's not part of their job to have a system crash destroy a week's worth of work (rude and abusive callers are a different matter, and will be covered in Part 2). HDAs need to empathize with the user's situation, and not make the matter worse by adding to the user's stress and frustration.


To Be Continued...

In all my dealings with HDAs, those who left the biggest impression on me were not the ones with the most technical know-how, but the ones who possessed a natural ability to empathize and relate with users in a human way. These soft-skills are a lot harder to come by than technical hard-skills.

On many occasions, my calls to a help desk felt more like lectures than discussions. The HDAs didn't know of my IT background but felt it necessary to pepper the conversation with IT related acronyms and techno-jargon. I understood their explanations because I'm in IT as well and have a high degree of technical proficiency. And as a naturally patient and mellow person, I was, to an extent, even able to tolerate the cold and unfeeling HDAs. Although the majority of my problems were solved by the HDAs, at the end of the service calls, I wasn't entirely sure whether I had been speaking with an actual HDA or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This lack of basic humanness and interpersonal skill, however, will be disconcerting and frustrating to those who are less technically inclined. Those HDAs who truly believe that "I'm not paid to be nice, I'm paid to solve problems" should realize that users are calling for help, not attitude.

In Part 2, I'll be covering the interaction between HDAs and users, providing handy tips for HDAs, and dealing with rude and abusive users.


Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.