In simplest terms, a barrier is generally anything that prevents us from getting from one point to another. In the context of a help desk, however, a barrier can also be defined as a preconceived notion or opinion that colors our judgment about a specific problem or caller. Such barriers can significantly reduce a help desk’s efficiency and effectiveness. Here are some ways that your IT support organization can recognize and break down these barriers before they adversely affect your quality of service.

Recognize that barriers exist
Barriers often go unnoticed, but they can be easily recognized when you take time to look for them. Think about the last support call where you said, “Oh (insert favorite expletive here), here we go again!” Maybe you didn’t like a product, the combination of products, or the person who was calling. In this instance, your immediate dislike of the situation is a barrier, and this barrier can cause you to lose focus on the problem and concentrate more on ending the call. Some techs will even ask other support personnel to take over such calls. I believe, however, that this practice undermines the primary help desk tenet of owning the problems you’re given in their entirety.

Avoid creating barriers
We have plenty of opportunities to create barriers, and it’s all too easy to get stuck behind them. For example, on our support line, there is one particular combination of notebook PC, software modem, cellular phone, and fax software application that makes us groan. Individually each product works fine, but when brought together in the same environment, they lead to some quite nasty configuration issues. No one likes to takes these calls, and you can see a tech’s attitude plummet when one comes in. However, we must not allow our dislike of a particular problem to create a barrier and influence our treatment of the caller.

Some users also create barriers by their attitude. If someone shouts or is rude as soon as the call starts, you will have great difficulty staying focused on his or her problem. By simply not reacting to the caller’s rudeness, you should be able to bring the call back onto a professional footing. For more information on handling abusive or difficult users, check out “Know how to stop the abuse: Dealing with abusive callers” and “Learn how to handle disgruntled and disruptive users.”

Techs can also create barriers by assuming too much. Don’t hurry the caller by breaking in with an answer they don’t need or want. Take this sample conversation:

Caller: “Hello, I have a model X mobile handset. You know, the one with the infrared modem built in, and I have a laptop running Windows 2000…”

Tech: “Oh I’m sorry, those two won’t work together, the IR stack isn’t compatible.”

Caller: “Oh really? That’s not good news, but what I really wanted to ask is: Does it come in any other colors?”

Tech: “Oh yes, the fascias are completely interchangeable, your local dealer will have hundreds to choose from….”

In this call, I made the assumption that the caller wanted to use the phone with his Windows 2000 laptop, when in fact it was a conversational red herring. I said something negative without even being asked. Had I kept quiet, the caller would have gone away happy with the thought of his multicolored phone, but now his enjoyment of it has been marred by thinking that it is less than perfect.

Breaking down barriers
In its simplest form, a barrier can be overcome by merely recognizing it for what it is. Ask yourself what the actual difficulty is.

  • Is it the caller? If so, use your customer care skills to focus the call and avoid getting involved in an argument. Read my previous article, “Use effective questioning to deal with confused, chatty users,” for more information.
  • Is it your attitude? While you might not like every call you get, all users deserve the same amount of effort and courtesy. Don’t add to the problem; find the solution.
  • Is it the equipment? While some things are out of your direct control, don’t let this stop you from providing good support. If you are unable to resolve the user’s problem, be sure to direct them to the person or department that can.

Remember the golden rule
When in doubt, remember to treat your callers as you would like to be treated, yourself. How would you feel if you went to the bank and the teller had a disgusted look on his face as soon as you walked up to him? As IT support professionals, our goal should not only be to solve the user’s problem but also to provide friendly customer service. While barriers sometimes impede this process, the steps outlined in this article should help you break through them more easily.
What do you think of Jeff’s suggestions on breaking down barriers? Have you experienced these or any other barriers in your organization? If so, how do you handle them? Post a comment or write to Jeff Dray and share your thoughts.