Thursday, September 22, 2011

Handling tech-support calls--a structure combined with common sense

In my customer service classes for I.T. pros, we talk about following a five-step flow for handing user calls.  It works like this:
  1. Greeting:  This is where you answer the phone professionally and succinctly.  A good example might be, "Technical support.  This is Don.  May I help you?"  A couple of bad examples could inlcude something terse, such as "Support." or "Help Desk."  At the opposite end of the spectrum are those obnoxious, scripted greetings like, "Thank you for calling XYZ technical support.  My goal is 100 percent customer satisfaction.  This is Bill, MCTS, CCNA, A+, CSNY, CRIP.  How may I provide you with outstanding service today?"  Oh, please!  Lose the cheesy script and get real!  Be authentic!  Answering the phone like that is disrespectful of your user's time and, frankly, it's disrespectful to yourself to have to wade through such crap.  (If your company forces you to read some ridiculous script like this, make a copy of this blog post and pin it to the bulletin board where management might see it.)
  2. Attentive listening:  More accurately called "empathic listening", this is where you listen carefully to what the user is saying.  Listen as though there will be a quiz at the end of the conversation.  Don't plan your response or solution until the user is finished describing the problem.
  3. Gaining agreement:  In this phase, you repeat back to the user your understanding of the problem so the user can confirm that you understand it correctly.
  4. Apologize, empathize, reassure:  Apologize, if necessary, but don't do this frivolously and don't overdo it.  Be authentic.  If the problem is something caused by you or your department or a system for which you're responsible, an apology is in order.  Otherwise, don't apologize.  It comes off as shallow and insincere.  You can certainly say you're sorry that the problem occured as a sign of empathy and/or sympathy.  That makes sense and, in fact, is a great way of diffusing emotionally-charged situations with an upset user.  You can use phrases such as, "I don't blame you for being upset.  I'm sure I'd feel the same way if I were in your shoes."  Do NOT say you understand how the user feels if you've never been in that situation and can't understand.  (That's like a man telling a pregnant woman he understands how she feels.  He doesn't and it's insulting to her intelligence to say something like that.)  Remember, it's important to be authentic and sincere.  Finally, reassure the user that you're going to take care of them and follow through to completion.  You can say things like, "Based on what you've told me, I know how to take care of that." or "I've seen that problem before and was able to fix it quickly."  I'll never forget a woman named Dixie at Sprint, who said, "Mr. Crawley, I'm gonna fix you up!"
  5. Problem solve:  The final phase of the flow is where you actually fix the user's issue.
It's important to note that phases one through four may go by pretty quickly or they may take some time, depending on the user and the nature of the call.  As always, remember that everyone is unique with unique ways of dealing with the challenges that come up.  Some people just want to get right to the problem, others want to talk for a moment.  The non-technical aspect of our jobs as support providers is to develop a sensitivity to each user's unique set of needs and expectations.

This flow is based on one described in my book, The Compassionate Geek.  I would also consider adding a sixth phase to the flow and that's the confirmation of solution phase.  In this phase, we make certain that we have solved the user's problem by simply asking, "Have I solved your problem?"  This ensures that we really have taken care of the reason for their call and eliminates any chance that we missed something.

An additional consideration is that, although the above flow is certainly valid, it's much too rigid for every case.  That's why it's important to use good judgement in all situations.  For example, the flow makes sense for a support session via telephone, but not for most support sessions via email.  As with all interactions with end-users, remember to listen carefully and treat them with respect and dignity.  When you do that, combined with a sense of empathy and compassion, you'll rarely go wrong.

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