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Remembering "the Human Element"

When providing training for IT support positions, so many specific technical tasks, procedures, and concepts are required that often the most important aspect of what we do gets overlooked: supporting the users. While resolving issues in a timely manner is important, what would be most important in most situations would be the intangible skills of evoking empathy, providing emotional support, and active listening. These types of skills are often described as "customer service," but I believe it goes beyond the mantra of keeping the customer happy. When the supported user is experiencing emotional distress because of a technical issue, we must respond effectively to not only resolve the issue, but support the user.  What we are talking about, when done effectively, really requires going beyond our roles as they are often presented as impersonal troubleshooters focused precisely on resolving particular issues in a narrow point of support. What we must to do is dig deep to support that person as a person, much like we would for one of our friends or, perhaps more accurately, a therapist would support a client.

A common joke in IT is that our positions are a little bit technical and mostly counseling, but it's really pretty almost true. Of course, most of us are not licensed to provide clinical counseling and our role in matters where such assistance would be required would be to, at most, refer to the experts. However, the general perception of customer service, people who provide assistance in a prompt and friendly yet impersonal manner is not a very apt description for IT support, at least not for all situations. Sure, a lot of IT support is pretty impersonal. We're often not even directly interacting with the users other than through an email, voicemail, or support ticket. However, I think any of us who have been doing IT support for a while have received one of those calls from users in a state of panic because of a technical problem that is derailing a meticulously planned out and busy schedule of important events. An unfortunate reality of the IT world is that some of these people's misfortunes often become anecdotes that describe "difficult users" or "tough calls," but I think that is absolutely the wrong attitude. If anyone walks away from a situation blaming the user for unleashing stress resulting from the technical problem onto the support attendant, I think they're missing the point and failing to empathize with the user, see that user as a person, and walk in that person's shoes. That doesn't mean we should be passive and accept whatever is being directed at us, but we should go above and beyond to empathize with the user and respond to the cause for concern.

When I receive a call from someone screaming at me, I always try my best never to escalate the situation, raise my voice, put the user on hold, or respond with frustration.  Instead, I always attempt to see that user's state of panic and stress as a cry for help.  What I see as required in this situation involves going beyond recognizing the user is stressed and thus circumventing normal support channels to expedite support and resolve the issue. Providing quick support can only do so much when the user has already reached a point of frustration and concern where the emotional impact of the situation may still linger after the situation has long been resolved. In this sense, we must be informal counselors in the sense that we must truly empathize with the user and provide support as needed. Our empathy must go beyond the false sense of "I know exactly how you feel" that we are often taught in call center environments. If we want to not only fix the problem, but fix the user, we have to let them know we care, person to person, and we're here now to help in any way we can.

Going above and beyond in these instances may involve spending a little extra time with the user, talking a little bit slower, providing assurances that everything is going to be fine, and providing our best intentions and wishes for that person. Above all, it involves a lot of listening - not just letting a person a talk, but really listening and using active listening acknowledgements to let that person know we are listening. Finally, it involves validation of the issue, the importance of the resolution, and the user as a person. What I see when a user is expressing stress and anxiety to us as support professional is a person crying out for validation and maybe needs the non-physical equivalent of a hug to keep going about the day. We can provide that kind of assistance if we really imagine ourselves as the user, listen to what is being said about the series of events involving the incident in question, and recognize how we might respond especially if we are also including what they might not be telling us about their personal lives, commutes, or lives that may also be contributing to stress levels. If we recognize that every user is a person with lives filled with stressors, just like any of us are, then we can start to see that the stress being directed toward us is never about us, but it's our job to help that person.

None of this, of course, is really in the job description of IT support (unless it's a really thorough job description), but it's an integral part of what we do. It's not enough to know how to resolve every technical issue if we do it all without acknowledging or validating the users. In fact, I would even go as far as to say as these kinds of interpersonal skills are more important than technical skills. Effective IT enterprise management of technology requires a system of people focused on different aspects of support. Many of those people are behind the scenes, but the ones on the front line, who directly interact with users, should be most concerned with the users and addressing emotional needs as required. The technical issues can be resolved through our existing management tools and procedures, but, above all else, the users must always come first. Ultimately, they are the reason we are here, but they are also people just like us. Sometimes, all it takes for people's day to improve is that we see each user as a person and are here to help. When that process works effectively, everyone benefits.