Key Soft Skills for Support Professionals

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Soft skills have become a hot new buzz word in the world of information technology professionals. What exactly is a soft skill, though? Simply put, it’s a quality — usually of an interpersonal nature — that is somewhat elusive, meaning it’s difficult if not impossible to formally assess. (This is one of the reasons that soft skills components have not typically been included in IT certification programs, although this is starting to change.)

It’s kind of amusing that people treat the notion that communication, managerial and other kinds of skills that fall into the soft category can benefit IT pros’ careers as if it were some kind of great revelation that’s only recently been discovered. Of course soft skills can help techies advance up the ranks of the corporate ladder — that’s always been true, and it always will be. However, what’s truly distinct about soft skills these days is that they’re becoming increasingly necessary for all kinds of IT pros, not just those on the fast track to a leadership role.

For help-desk and support professionals, though, it’s always been thus. All in all, this is the most consistently customer-facing occupation within the technical realm, and perhaps even within the corporate world with the exception of sales. Thus, soft skills are inherently crucial in success on the job. Interestingly, the soft skills of help-desk pros have stemmed the tide of offshore outsourcing in this field. Complaints from customers about communication breakdowns between them and support representatives based on the other side of the world have led companies to reevaluate this approach and, in some cases, even bring their call-center operations back onshore.

Regardless of where they work, it’s obvious that help-desk and support professionals need to have robust soft skills to deal with all kinds of clients in all kinds of situations. Here are some of the key areas they should work on to ensure success in their field:

Although many calls from end users will be simple enough to deal with, with their problems resolved within the first couple of suggestions you offer them, you’ll occasionally run across a seemingly intractable issue that just won’t budge no matter what you throw at them. But don’t give up. Exhaust all possible options with the client. If you can’t come up with a satisfactory solution, apologize, then refer them to someone who you believe might be able to help. If you don’t have anyone in mind, take down their contact info, consult with an expert on the product outside of the support staff and then get back to them. But don’t ever leave their problem unsolved.

The twin brother of persistence, patience gives you the emotional fortitude to stick to any and all problems. It also enables you to put up with end users of every stripe: obnoxious, ignorant, overbearing, foaming-at-the-mouth furious and so forth. As U.S. President John Quincy Adams once said, “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

Or, more specifically, active listening. This means giving your full focus to the person you’re listening to, and clearing your mind of other distractions. Active listening requires saying what you’ve heard back to the speaker, but since time is a factor, just quickly repeat it to yourself in your mind. Of course, if the customer is not clearly expressing their problem, you can repeat it back to them — nicely — and ask them to clarify what they meant. By doing this, you’ll better avoid potential misunderstandings in your discussions with end users, and demonstrate a certain reassuring empathy to the issue they’re dealing with.

This actually refers to a couple of different soft skills. The first meaning of discretion involves using good judgment to avoid offending the person with whom you’re speaking, no matter what their problems are. If you’re assisting them, don’t make light of the fact that they don’t know where or what the disc drive is or need help troubleshooting their Web browser to get on Simply give them straightforward suggestions as politely as possible. Remember, you’re getting paid to help them, not belittle them.

The other part of discretion is good decision-making. As a help-desk pro, you probably won’t have anyone giving you cues on what to say, so you’ll be on your own in most of these support situations. Make sure you have the intelligence to manage the technical side of each request, as well as the wisdom to handle each unique individual and circumstance in the right way.

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