Nobody asked me, but …

There is a well-known regular column that uses the tagline above for its title in a professional monthly. It is intended to allow the rank and file to add fresh perspective on daily operations. Those familiar will know of what I refer to, but for those who do not, the idea is to allow an honest and open opinion. What is expressed here is an opinion from my perspective and is intended as advice for others who seek to succeed in Client Support, or know how to achieve better outcomes from their support organisation.

Support is often considered expenditure when compared with obvious revenue-generating Sales, core-product building end of Engineering and Development, or business-branding and lead-generation of marketing. In my humble opinion, that is an understatement of the role that support plays in developing a customer into a client. Support is not an expenditure that “you have to provide” but rather a key differentiator that you “cannot afford to be without.”

There are key things that will provide clients with a satisfying experience, and some operational missteps that should be avoided at all costs. I want to focus here on my thoughts for the keys for Client Support success. My hope in writing this is that many organisations and support personnel will benefit from my perspective and experiences, all of which are by nature subjective, but have stood the test of time. Support is not my first career in life, but in this role, there are many insights and lessons I have learned that hopefully will assist others in achieving success.

The first point here is the simplest to accept, yet all too often is under-delivered: treat the client as you would want to be treated. If all anyone takes away from this post is that statement, it will be enough for me. Those of us in Support should fully understand and implement that practice as routine in order to succeed. Clients are people and as such, they want to work with other people, not automatons.

Secondly, the company we keep matters in order to be effective. If you are to be effective, you need to belief in what you are doing, where you are working, and the products and people you are supporting. If those things are lacking, then it will be self-evident, if not to you, then certainly to the customers that never fully transition to being clients. There is a difference between a customer and a client. A customer buys, but never fully engages with the company or product. A client not only buys, they engage with the product, solution and ideas in a manner to challenge the status quo and drive the product in directions unforeseen by the original developers. They also want to build relationships with vendors that engage them as human beings. If the company takes the right approach, they build and support that type of support organization that will treat C-SAT (Client Satisfaction) as a driver for building those relationships.

If you believe in what you are doing and that you are in the right place doing your job, then your clients will know that you intend to make a difference for them. It does not mean that you are going to resolve everything yourself, but rather that you are doing your best work to assist them. People can tell when they are served well as easily as when they are served poorly. That makes support the differentiator in driving them to the next level of engagement. If that is in place, you can disrupt the market and truly succeed.

Empathy is another required skill when providing support. If you lack empathy, or if you think that your client (soon to be a customer only) “is not as smart as me” – then you are in the wrong role and will provide poor service. It shows and clients know that they have reached a road-block to progress. Remember that an angry person has a problem; it is not your job to take on that anger. It is your job to relax, gather the facts and then work on a resolution plan cooperatively with your client. Empathy is a key driver in gathering control and taking ownership to address an issue. If you cannot express that you understand the issue and want to resolve the issue, you will not earn the trust of your clients. You will then have failed, and that will impact the bottom line.

Empathy cannot be faked in my opinion. It is either genuine or non-existent as people are capable of determining when someone is insincere. Even if you are a technical genius, a lack of empathy is not acceptable in a client-facing role. It turns potential clients off in ways that are not immediately measured, but will have an effect over the long haul. If you do not possess empathy, you will have a tough career in any Client Support role, though you might be pigeon-holed effectively as a person who can “do things” – you just will never have a career so much as a job. There is a difference between a job and a career, and the key there is satisfaction in that role.

My third key for success was taught to me by a friend of my father’s addressed me with a very simple-sounding question in my early 20’s that seemed pretty clear cut at the time. The question was this:

“Talk, what is your best asset?”

At the time, I thought it was intellect and the capacity to adapt and learn. His answer was more enlightened and human; it came as a surprise to me at the time:

“The answer lies on either side of your head.”

“Wait, what?” was about all I could say at the time. It did not fit with my pre-conceived ideas of what mattered in life, largely because at that age, good grades and the ability to do well in school were how we were measured. He did explain how our ears are the best collectors of information made, provided that we actually use them. The lesson of listening is one that people often forget. As human beings, we will be presented with these lessons repeatedly (thanks to Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott for the rules – they do matter) until we learn them, then they will be repeated again even after we learned them.

What my father’s friend taught me was simple: “Listen and learn.”

As Support, we often fall victim to the “rush to correct” when there is a larger issue at hand. Many times this is driven by the need for metrics versus the need for real results. If we truly listen to the client, we can often discern or derive a deeper pain point in an issue that requires resolution. That is a key difference between “correcting an issue” and “resolving a problem.”

We must also not allow ourselves to be driven by results alone. If a problem takes a bit longer to resolve, this should not be a problem; it should be a success story in the making. If we communicate correctly, timely and with clarity, the client should be growing along with us in the resolution and understanding of same. My style of working is to take the time to listen and to take ownership of an issue when I work it. That does not mean that I am any measure of perfection (more on that soon here); that simply means that my communications need to be clear, specific and explain the issue as best I can, setting expectations and goals, deriving a plan to resolve and getting the client on board with the plan. That does not equate with the metrics-driven idea of “you must work X number of tickets in Y number of hours or minutes” as that is a recipe that does not focus on human results.

To be clear, this does not mean that we are to be lazy and work less, but rather that we need to take ownership of the issues we are working on, resolve to get the job done and communicate the plans to the best of our ability to do so. Will we be able to resolve every issue? No. How we handle ourselves and the way in which we address the problem will make a difference though. No one person can resolve every issue, it takes teamwork to resolve issues, but if we never truly take ownership and invest of ourselves, clients will perceive that subtle difference. People are far more perceptive than many in my experience seem to understand and grasp. In my experience, as we grow within our careers, motives and motivation become clearer and my Kindle ™ has more mystery than conversation can conceal.

The next item want to bring to light is one that many refuse to admit. My take is that if we do not admit this, then we will fail due to some false sense of pride that produces no good outcome. We do not know everything, and even if we are the sharpest or smartest person in the room, we will be wrong, make mistakes and errors without any question. I admit this to myself on a daily basis. This will happen because we are all fallible and there are no exceptions. That is a fact, and if someone ever tells you that mistakes cannot be made, then either they have not experienced life, or they are truly insecure in their own skin. We cannot help them (people only do what they are willing to do after all), but we can help ourselves and realise that mistakes will happen. How we learn from that is important.

If you repeat the same mistake five times in a row without ever learning anything, that is an issue that needs to be addressed. If you own and acknowledge a mistake, then there needs to be an understanding of what went wrong and how better to address the issue in the future. If the company you keep is in the smarter category, then they will understand this fact and do what is necessary to learn and adapt. That may mean a post-mortem, not to lay blame, but to gather the facts and plan on how better to address the issue in future. When people lay blame, it is to distract from a lack of security in their own opinion. We all learn that lesson, but we either adapt to the knowledge or refuse to own it. Yes, I have made mistakes and yes, I want to learn from them when they occur. They will occur, but when we become self-aware of them, it is up to us to address them as best we can. No excuses, but rather admission and ownership, try to learn and adapt. Life and people are imperfection writ large, and I have never met anyone who has never made a mistake.

Another item we need to know is how to play to our strengths and how to best utilise our talents to maximise the value we provide. It is tempting to be the best at something in life, and although specialists are in-demand, the need for well-rounded generalists is underrated in my opinion. If we have team members that are the best at resolving issue X and there are team members that excel at issue Y, then we should use those talents to develop a deeper knowledge of the key issues at hand. If you were to ask me to correct an issue with your rocket motor for instance, I might not be the person that knows the fluid-dynamics of the hydrogen fuel injector and how that might affect rotational torque during a boost phase, but I might be able to work with that person to resolve the issue that is presented. If, on the other hand, I was the fuel injector expert, then it behooves me to share that knowledge with the rest of the team in ways that can present value to all. They will not be fuel injector experts, but they might become more effective in their own operational roles.

In my experience, the best teams work together and share knowledge. They derive value from providing an open working environment where all can contribute and learn. If that is not describing your workplace, then there are two options that are available to everyone. The easy way to address the issue is to find a new workplace. The road less traveled is to address the issue by trying to find a way to deliver more value to your clients and your team. Play to your strengths, do what you can, when you can and where you can.

Another trait that leads to success is humility. No matter how smart, talented and wonderful you might think you are, there is always going to be an individual who is smarter, exceeds your talent and is perceived as more wonderful than you. Accept that fact and you will learn to make better relationships in the long run and have an easier time being happy and satisfied in what you do. When you are happy and satisfied (make no mistake, you are the sole arbiter of your happiness), you will experience success, though it may not be the “success” of your dreams. Get used to that fact, it is life, and it is a grand adventure. Being angry, arrogant and unpredictable will not work out well for you. I have experienced many hyper-intelligent persons as colleagues, but the difference that mattered in the long run for success was the ability to be humble in success. No client will want to work with an “attitude”.

Those whose ego is never in-check will find a life of instability because they failed to be human. They often end up trying to find that perfect “there” as their “here” is insufficient to address their ego. They do not take ownership of the fact that treating others poorly is their core issue that requires resolution. To put it simply, when you constantly have to tell everyone else in the room that you are the smartest person in the room, you most likely are not at all that person. That lack of humility is a deficit in social intelligence that basic knowledge fails to overcome.

Finally, success does require competence at some level in order to resolve issues. If you give a Java developer a problem, he will look for a solution in java the same way that a C or Perl or any other developer will look to their core competency first. It is not because they lack the skills to determine where the problem lies, but largely because that is what they know. Support can be very skilled in a core product and do well, but to truly succeed, you need to push your own boundaries and think beyond the limited set of possibilities.

Does that mean that you have to become an expert developer of every product you work on? No, it does not. Yes, we all have to know more than the basics of our job, but if you told me that you knew everything about everything, my first thought would be that you do not even know what you do not know. True, you may be good at ($pickSkillSetHere), but then, why are you in Support? Our role helps enable the client to make the product work. Many times the heart of an issue is only discovered when we dig deep enough to find the issue in heterogeneous networks. That is a far cry from seeing the world through your core competencies alone. The client does not care about your core knowledge as much as they do “Can you help me resolve this problem?”

It is reasonable to think that if you gave a heart surgeon, a lawyer and a priest the same dying man as “an issue to address”, each would come with his own solution. The heart physician might think of a way to keep the man alive a little longer, the lawyer might want to get a will in order and the priest might want to redeem the man’s soul and provide absolution. The same is true for coders who write in many disparate languages, from C, Java, Perl, SQL, etc. Each will tend to focus on their core competency for resolution of an issue. Thinking in code is fine, but first act as a human being. Isolate the issue to the right place and then work to determine if “all things considered” really have been. Do any of the proposed solutions resolve the issue, or do they solely address the issue from a narrow band of perceived need? Success will come when we can look beyond the “single solution” for an issue and can instead step outside of our own comfort zone and open our mind to listening to other ideas.

If this role teaches us anything, it is just how much we do not truly know with clarity and certainty. That does not mean we will not be successful. Support will always have room to improve, because the truth is that products and knowledge evolve over time. No one skill alone is enough to be successful on its own merit. You cannot be “only technical” and succeed in a client engaging role, as that skips the first rule of dealing with other humans: first, be human.

As Client Support professionals, we are in the issue resolution business, but we need to take the time to treat the client as we wish to be treated. To succeed, we must possess empathy for the client, listen and derive problems, and take ownership of the issues, not only the case at hand. In order to be honest with ourselves, we need to admit our failures, own our mistakes and accept that they will occur. When they occur though, we must take the time to learn from them so that they do not recur (though they will at some point – we are human after all). To succeed, we need to play to our strengths and remain humble in our work. We must be competent enough to understand the issues, be we do not need to make the mistake of believing that only our path is the correct path. Keep an open mind, as there is always something to learn from our interactions.

I write this advice as this is the type of advice I would want to have received many years ago in my careers. My learning process came from the need to survive for the most part, as I adapted to change. My final word to all is that being independent in mind and spirit takes significant effort, but it is worth the journey. Success in support requires the ability to think and act independently at times, and to know when to ask for assistance. Even that is a small but important act of independence, as no one tells you when to realise you need help.

I do hope that helps (HTH) and this is solely my opinion and perspective and does not reflect any opinion of anyone else. Have a nice day.