By Carla Firey
Most IT support professionals know that the development of technical skills is fundamental to their careers. But learning about the subject matter is only one of the necessary talents every IT pro should cultivate. The human component to support techs’ duties requires good communication and relationship skills, otherwise known as soft skills.
We interviewed several career experts and techs in the trenches to identify five ways that IT pros can improve their communication skills and their ability to relate to others while on the job. Use this advice to further develop your professional skills and advance your career.
Why you need soft skills
The shifting economy and ever-evolving industry have expanded job roles, making it essential for the IT pro to wear many different hats. Aside from simply providing technical assistance, support pros may find themselves taking on the job of salesperson, manager, or public speaker.
“Most have been trained first and foremost to make sure that their ‘fact ducks’ are all in a row,” said Peggy Klaus, a Fortune 500 communications coach and author of BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It.
In other words, their entire training may have been spent on technical development, and other elements of professional development may have been neglected, according to Rick Freedman, principal consultant with Consulting Strategies, Inc. For example, there may be situations in which you are the only person in the company with whom the customer makes contact, and it’s vital to the business that this interaction be a positive experience, he said. Further, you may be required to provide support to coworkers.
Clear communication with nontechnical people can help facilitate working relationships and close the gap between dissimilar departments within the business, Freedman said. Developing your soft skills will help you bypass the jargon and increase your productivity.
Tips to improve your soft skills
Our experts suggested the following tips to help IT pros develop the soft skills necessary to advance their careers:
- Actively listen
- Communicate with illustrations
- Take the lead
- Nurture your inner writer
- Step out of the box, physically and mentally
Tip 1: Actively listen
Most IT pros tend to be analytical by nature, so when a customer or coworker approaches with a problem, you’re likely to hear only the literal statements. “Active listening involves focusing on the moment, participating in the conversation, waiting your turn to speak, and asking for clarification when necessary,” said Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.
It’s easy to treat a frustrated customer like a technical issue, but empathizing with the person with the problem can help build a stronger relationship with your client. Try paraphrasing the other person’s words and repeating them back to ensure you understood their concerns. They’ll feel as if you’re truly listening to their problems, and you’ll find out whether you’ve received all the facts. If you have a few hours in the evening, consider enrolling in an active listening course, many of which are offered by community or technical colleges.
Tip 2: Communicate with illustrations
Most customers will become confused—or worse yet, defensive—the moment you start talking acronyms like DHCP, SQL, DNS, or OBDC. A nontechnical person’s eyes may glaze over after just 10 seconds of jargon, and it’s a guaranteed method of alienating your client. Choosing common terms or illustrations to demonstrate your point will help facilitate communication.
Dan Welty, who provides IT support to small and midsize businesses, recently had a customer with disabled DNS settings. When the client asked about the acronym, Welty used a simple analogy to explain. He compared an IP address to a phone number and explained that the DNS “looks up the phone number” for Web sites.
“The client loved this explanation, and it only took a few minutes,” Welty said. “Search your mind for analogies that can be used to explain technical issues in everyday terms.”
Tip 3: Take the lead
More IT pros are taking on the role of leader, particularly in smaller departments. “The ability to lead others, even if only on small initiatives, is a key strength,” Spencer Lee said. “Chances are you’ll be guiding others—whether newcomers within the department or junior members of your team—at some point in your career.”
Take the time to observe some of the successful leaders within your company and note their actions and management style. If possible, choose diverse assignments or enroll in teambuilding classes to increase your knowledge about employee motivation.
“Take on leadership roles within your department to continually increase your responsibility,” Spencer Lee said. She noted that the more you immerse yourself in the role of leader, the quicker you’ll develop the necessary interpersonal skills.
Tip 4: Nurture your inner writer
Many IT pros need to write and respond to RFQs and create system documentation, but their only exposure to drafting text was writing a high school term paper. The secret is to write the technical material in nontechnical terms. You may also need to rely on visuals, charts, and diagrams to illustrate important points.
The best way to develop this skill is simple: practice. Each day, choose a problem you’ve encountered and write the solution with a nontechnical person as your audience. Give it to a friend or family member to review.
“You may also want to consider taking a business writing course or visiting a local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication,” said Joshua Feinberg, cofounder of ComputerConsulting101.com.
Tip 5: Step out of the box, physically and mentally
It’s easy to spend an entire day in your cubicle or office, but it’s not the best career move.
“Knowing what your employer does and how your efforts translate to the company’s overall goals is key to an IT professional’s success,” Spencer Lee said.
Sign up for some office committees or meet colleagues for lunch to expand your working relationships and understanding of the company’s mission. To help cultivate relationships with clients, stay up to date on world business news.
“Subscribe to at least one general business magazine like Business Week or Fortune,” advises Freedman. You’ll be prepared to speak with any client about current trends and industries.
The true test
Our experts agreed that communication is the most important nontechnical skill for IT pros to master. Whether it’s speaking with a customer, interacting with coworkers, or drawing a diagram, you must use clear, understandable language. Perhaps the best advice they provided was to try explaining your work to a nontechnical friend from outside the workplace. If you can get them to understand without either of you becoming frustrated, you’re on the right track. If not, they’ll be able to tell you if it’s time to drop the jargon and adopt real-life terms without reservation.