Sometimes we go on a bit too much about soft skills, to the point where people’s eyes glaze over and they start to find great interest in their fingernails. Where user support is concerned a great deal of what you do is look after the people, with minimal technical knowledge and maximum hand-holding.
So what do we mean by soft skills? I see them defined as the skills you use to calm people down, to get them to explain what the problem is, and to give answers in a tone that matches the user’s needs. The term "soft skills" can sound a little wishy-washy, a bit patronizing even, but good use of them will help more than any number of technical certifications when you are trying to get to the bottom of a user’s problem.
Being a good listener is the key to the whole business. I have lost count of the number of times where the user, having been given the opportunity to put his or her issues into words, has answered their own question. Being a sounding board is one help desk skill that is fairly easy to master and pays dividends. The trick is to make empathetic noises but mainly to keep quiet and listen, dropping in an occasional relevant question to keep the conversation going.
Very often the user has a need to vent anger. This can be harder to keep in track, and I will definitely never put up with any verbal attack. If a call turns offensive or abusive, I end it. If, however, I can see that the user is annoyed and there is a reason for that annoyance, I will do all I can to make sure that the situation is put right. This methodology has stood me in good stead for many years. As soon as the customer or user realizes that I am sincerely trying to help them, the whole situation turns around, and they come on my side and do everything they can to make sure that I can get the information I need to deal with the situation. You have to make them believe that you are working toward the same goal as they are.
This Christmas I went to see a customer I had been avoiding for a while. They had some serious issues with the company I work for over some billing matters. I had tried to get answers, but I felt that we had parted in bad humor. I dropped by as a courtesy to see how things were and was very surprised when I was greeted as a friend, was given refreshments, and left with a Christmas gift of a bottle of good French wine. They are still at odds with the company over the billing, but they are now at least talking to me and we have a dialogue that wasn’t there a year ago. We have some way to go before they are happy, but they aren’t the lost cause I believed them to be. I am planning a few bits of pro bono work for them soon to restore their faith and maybe get a more fruitful business relationship going.