“Make the customer self-sufficient? Are you crazy? I’ll be out of a job!”

This reaction often follows a suggestion about making customers more self-sufficient and hence, less dependent on an IT department. Yes, if customers can do more by themselves, maybe they will need you less. On the other hand, if, as a result of increased knowledge, your customer calls you less often for the “trivial” questions, you have more time for your other tasks. You can could devote this additional time to providing higher-value services to that customer. Most important, that customer (and your boss) might recognize the added value you provide, and that recognition could be good for your career.

Here are 10 ways in which you can help customers achieve more self-sufficiency.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Give principle along with answer

After graduating from college, I took a job with IBM in California, a decision that involved a move from New York. In making decisions about renting an apartment, I became concerned about having to spend money for a refrigerator, and I asked my father for advice. Rather than simply tell me that I didn’t need to worry about it, my father said the following:

Calvin, by law, generally a landlord HAS to supply a refrigerator to a tenant.

By answering this way, my father did more than just give me an answer. He gave a principle and a reason for the answer, and doing so made the answer more meaningful.

In dealing with clients, try to do the same thing. Instead of simply answering “Yes” or “No,” consider giving an underlying principle if you can. For example, instead of answering “No” to “Will someone have to install Vista on my new computer?” you could answer instead, “Actually, Vista comes pre-installed on most new computers, so we don’t have to install it ourselves.” If a customer forgets his cell phone number, you could do more than just read it to him from your caller ID screen. For example, if he’s using T-Mobile, you might say, “If you ‘send’ the sequence #686#, it will tell you your phone number.”

#2: Let the customer “drive”

I see and I forget. I hear and I remember. I do and I know.

— Ancient proverb

If you’re sitting next to a customer and showing him how to work with an application, let him do the field entries and mouse actions. You already know how to do them, and the customer gains nothing from watching you do it. It doesn’t matter how many times the customer watches you, chances are he will be lost once he is on his own. His chances of retaining the knowledge increase markedly if he has to perform the actions himself.

#3: Ask questions rather than give answers

With regard to a technical issue, asking questions will force the customer to think about larger implications. A customer who arrives at an answer by thinking about it generally will retain that knowledge more than a customer who is simply told the answer.

So if a customer asks why it’s good to keep at least two backup copies, you could just tell them the answer. However, it’s more effective (assuming you have time) to ask a question, such as “When we back up to a DVD, that DVD is usually inside the computer, right?” Then, when the customer says “Yes,” continue with, “What happens to both computer and DVD if the computer blows up while it’s doing the backup, and that DVD is your only backup?”

#4: Allow customers to come up with their own answers

By asking questions rather than giving answers, you increase the chances that the customer comes up with the answer you want. This method is more effective in communications and for learning. However, it also can be safer politically, particularly if the person you’re working with is your boss, your boss’s boss, or someone higher up.

In the classic Rogers and Hammerstein movie The King and I, Anna doesn’t tell the king to dress his women in European clothes and hold a dinner. She says instead that she thought he was going to dress his women in European clothes and hold a dinner. At that point, the king said Anna was correct, then chastised her for not having the idea herself.

#5: Encourage customers to teach their co-workers

I’ve found, through experience, that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Doing so forces you to examine your own understanding and to correct it if necessary. When you encourage your customers to teach their co-workers about an application or system, you relieve yourself of an extra duty and save time, but most important, you force your customers to become more knowledgeable.

#6: Debrief customers after a problem is resolved

After you resolve a problem, get with the customer to explain what happened. If the customer caused the problem, point out that fact, but be sensitive how you say so. Unless you’re careful, you could inadvertently cause the customer to feel defensive, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the communication. Focus on the issue and the problem, not on the person. Instead of saying, “This is what you did wrong,” consider saying, “This is what happened, and why.” When talking about future preventive measures, consider a phrase such as “The best approach is to do x” or “The best approach is to avoid doing y,” instead of “The best approach is for you not to do y.”

#7: Use positive rather than negative language

When we say things in a positive way, we have a greater chance of being understood correctly. It also sounds better to the person we’re speaking to. So instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have done x,” consider saying (in combination with the previous point), “x was the wrong action” or “Doing x was inadvisable.”

#8: Let customers know about their correct actions

Building and keeping rapport with customers is important. One of the best ways to do so is to tell them when they’ve done something right. It’s a way of counterbalancing all those times you’ve told them (even diplomatically) that they did something wrong. Telling a customer about correct actions need not be a complicated exercise. Once, while at a university help desk, I heard the following effective exchange:

Help desk: “So, Professor Jones, as I understand it, you copied the file instead of moving it?”

Professor Jones: “That’s right.”

Help desk: “Good. That was the right thing to do.”

#9: Give customers the benefit of the doubt when answering questions

When customers ask questions, it can show their interest in learning more. The more they learn, the more self-sufficient they can become. Therefore, be careful about reacting negatively to what you might think is a dumb question. Give the customer the benefit of the doubt. Almost certainly, that person has less technical knowledge than you do. However, even if questioners have good technical skills, they might have a valid reason for asking an apparently stupid question. Their question could involve a different release of the application or a misunderstanding of the correct hardware environment. Take the time to answer questions as patiently as you can, and your customers will have a desire to learn more.

#10: Script other calls the customer may have to make

Your customer may need to talk to other resources besides you. If you can make that job easier for them, they will appreciate it. At one of my clients, the central IT help desk was separate from the help desk for the application Banner. One day, the main help desk received a call that should have been made to the Banner desk. The analyst explicit scripted, for the customer, that next call the customer needed to make. He said to the customer, “Now when you call the Banner help desk, don’t say anything except about Banner. If you mention Windows, for example, they will switch you back to me, and neither of us wants that.”

By scripting the call, the IT help desk analyst made the caller’s job easier and reduced the chances he would receive similar calls from that same caller. In other words, everybody won.

Following these tips can build customer self-sufficiency, thus benefiting both the customer and you.