I have moved a time zone away from the rest of my office and that has forced me to think about the effect distance has on customer service. Is proximity the difference between being a colleague and a being a commodity?


I have always thought that what most set me apart from other IT support pros was my aptitude for customer service. Certainly, I work hard to make sure that my technical knowledge remains up to snuff, but my philosophy has always been that clients are won and kept with the soft skills. That belief has served me well up to this point, but now I have placed myself outside the range of my usual methodology. My fiancée and I have undertaken a move to the East Coast of the United States, far from our Midwestern roots. Now I am faced with supporting my Chicago clients from several states away. I am finding the transition difficult, because I have come to realize that my customer service style is rooted in the desk-side visit; I am a face-to-face tech.

I am grateful the technology exists to facilitate remote support and troubleshooting. With solutions in place like VNC, Remote Desktop, and VPN access, it is trivial to log in to any machine on the network that needs troubleshooting or service. The difficulty for me right now does not stem from any limitations of the remote access tools that I have to use. The challenge I am facing is that I have to rebuild my service style from the ground up. How do I stay personally connected to my clients from 700 miles away?

When I was in the same office as my users, desk-side visits were my bread and butter, even when the issue might have been solved an alternate way. That was the key to my customer-service methodology: accessibility. By putting myself in situations where I was interacting with my clients on a face-to-face basis, we were able to build a strong relationship. The fact that I knew the organization’s staff and their work so well allowed me to move from a help desk position into an IT management role.

Since I can’t hang out in the coffee room anymore, I am trying to think of new ways to personalize my service. I think it’s going to be necessary, because my clients and I are already beginning to drift apart. It isn’t that I’m no longer getting called on to provide help; I am. I’m just being called for run-of-the-mill support issues. There’s a spark that’s missing. I haven’t been contacted with a pie-in-the-sky hypothetical question that might lead to an interesting IT project. There’s a subjective barrier to communication that’s keeping my users from approaching me as a member of their community. It is as if the distinctions between my services and those of a faceless call center agent are in danger of disappearing.

I am trying to adapt my soft skills to this situation. I have been using follow-up e-mails and video chat to supplement desktop sharing sessions, in order to provide a more personal touch. Fundamentally, though, there’s no way for me to continue to do my job exactly the same way. We’ll see how my support style evolves.