Talking Shop: Improve your communication skills with these techniques

Tips for achieving better communication and career development

Why didn't you get the last promotion or new job for which you applied? It could be that the person who got the job knows more about technology than you do. Or maybe it's because poor communications skills let you down.

To those who couldn't care less about their communication skills, I say "good luck," because you'll get what you deserve in your IT careers. For those of you enlightened enough to realize that your communications skills are just as important as your technical abilities, I'd like to offer a few tips for improving the way you communicate on the phone and in person.

Pet peeves about poor phone etiquette
Whether you work the help desk, the network operations center, or as a developer who rarely interacts with end users, here are three ways you can build a reputation as a good communicator by practicing phone etiquette.
  • Use a warm transfer instead of a cold transfer. If a customer (or fellow employee) reaches you by mistake, don't just say, "You have the wrong number," and hang up as quickly as you can. Don't say, "Just a minute" and transfer the call to someone else without explanation. That's a cold transfer. Take a minute to pull up your company's phone directory and try to figure out whom the person really needs to reach. Then, say, "I'll be happy to transfer your call," and announce the call to the person on the receiving end. That's a warm transfer.
  • Say your name when you answer the phone. Don't be the arrogant jerk who answers a business phone, "Hello." Not every caller is going to be your spouse or a coworker who recognizes your voice. Sometimes it's a person with a problem, and they've been referred to you. If you don't say your name, the poor caller has to say, "Is this so-and-so?"
  • Answer your voice mails in a timely manner. I don't know how many times I've heard end users or customers complain about how so-and-so in information systems is never at his or her desk and never returns his or her calls. You want to establish a reputation as a good communicator, so respond to your voice messages. Don't be the arrogant jerk who assumes that, "If it's important, they'll call back."

Improving your face-to-face communications
You've heard the old saying, "It's not what you know, but who you know," that gets you places in business. Guess what? If you don't practice good face-to-face communications skills, you're not going to get to know very many people.
  • It won't kill you to smile. I know you're busy. I know providing tech support is stressful work. But when you walk into a conference room for a meeting, or when you walk up to an end user's workstation to provide support, for crying out loud, SMILE! Fake it, if you have to, but act like you're glad to be wherever you are. Don't go around with a scowl on your face all the time. If you're that unhappy, get out of IT and go find a job that you love.
  • Look at me when I come to your cube. This is the biggest pet peeve I have about my fellow IT pros. I go to someone's cube to ask a question in person. I knock on the cube wall. I stand and wait, while the uncaring, rude, egotistical snob stares at the screen, not even acknowledging my presence. You know the ones. You clear your throat or say, "Pardon me, please," and the jerks don't even speak. They just nod, still looking at the screen, typing or clicking away. Hear me now and believe me immediately, my cyberfriends: There is nothing so important on your screen that you can't turn and face the person who has come to visit you. If for some unimaginable reason you really can't avert your eyes from the screen, have the courtesy to say, "I'm sorry but I'll be with you in just a minute."
  • Invest in breath mints. My last pet peeve about face-to-face conversations concerns you five-break-a-day smokers and constant coffee drinkers. Buy a tin of Altoids, will you? Or buy a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste just for the office, and use them. You're stinking up the place. (Read "Perfume allergy makes tech support painful" by TechRepublic contributor Becky Roberts for a take on dealing with user-related odor issues.)

You're in control of how you come across
For many of us, the perfect techie world is one in which we'd be hired and promoted on the basis of our technical skills alone. But we live in a world where we're judged by how we communicate with fellow human beings. Don't let sloppy telephone and in-person communication skills prevent you from succeeding in the "bitnit" world.

In a future column, I'll share some tips for improving the way you communicate in written communications. In the meantime, be nice on the phone, and smile once in a while. It'll be good for your career.

Talk to me
Are you a good communicator? To rate your communications skills or to comment those of your peers, post a comment or write to Jeff.


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