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Turn IT Pros Into 'Compassionate Geeks'

In the new book, "The Compassionate Geek: Mastering Customer Service for I.T. Professionals," veteran IT trainer Don R. Crawley lifts a veil on a corner of the enterprise that has some of the most dysfunctional interactions between users and IT: the support desk. Along with co-author Paul R. Senness, Crawley wants to help IT departments raise their stature and reputation within the organization by giving techies some basic training in emotional intelligence and listening skills.

The book provides plenty of practical advice on delivering better help-desk service. But the reader will also find guidance on developing interpersonal skills that can help move a technology professional up in the ranks of the company. IDG News Service talked to Crawley about his experience working with IT staff on so-called "soft" skills, and what they should take away from the book.

IDGNS: How did you come to identify customer service as an area where IT people could benefit from development?

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Crawley: We had a client that I'd done some training for in the Cisco space, and they liked the way I'd been training, and they said, we would like you to come and work with our help desk staff on customer service, because we think that you can relate to them better than a regular customer service trainer because you're a geek -- those were their actual words. So I talked to my friend Paul, whom I've known for years, and asked if he would help me write the training. When we got done delivering the training, for the State of Washington, we went ahead and posted it on the website in case anyone else wanted it, and the phone started ringing. We ended up delivering it for the Discover Card, Facebook, State University of New York, LogMeIn. It became very popular. Customers tell me that the reason they call is because we're a technical training firm and we can relate to the IT people.

IDGNS: What typically prompts a company to engage with you for training?

Crawley: I'll give you a story from a client who called recently who's with a university, she's the CIO, and she said she was tired of getting phone calls from her friends and colleagues who talked about her tech support staff as having the technical skills but not having the human relations skills to help the end-user do their work. That's a theme I hear frequently. What I find is, when I go in and start working with the IT staff, that they have the best of intentions and they don't realize that there's a problem. When we start talking -- and these are all very, very bright people, if you're working in IT you're smart -- they don't realize how to finesse a relationship with another person.

IDGNS: How much value do CIOs place on the service component of IT in an era when they are trying to be seen as strategic partners, not utility providers?

Crawley: I think it's very important, because without the customer service aspect and the human relations aspect, it's difficult for technical people to convince non-technical people of best practices. For example, best practices as related to security -- as we've seen with the Sony hack, and the Google hack, and other recent hacks, most of those are the result of social engineering. And with social engineering I place the blame on myself as an IT person for not adequately educating my end users as to best practices for security and secure Internet use.

IDGNS: You take readers through some of the typical characteristics found in different generations in the workplace, and how that might affect interactions with different users. Turning that around, how do those characteristics affect behaviors exhibited by IT support staff of different generations?

Crawley: Gen Xers and Gen Yers are very intuitive with the use of technology, so they really don't give it a whole lot of thought, it's something that they do naturally. They've grown up with computers. One of the challenges is to help them remember, in dealing with veterans and to a lesser extent Baby Boomers, is that you can be very bright and highly competent but not "get" software, not "get" computers. And that's a very difficult thing for some people to grasp.

IDGNS: To which of your ideas do you encounter the most resistance from trainees?

Crawley: One thing is just the idea of accepting full responsibility for ourselves. The reality is that we can't do anything about other people, we can't control other people. We can influence them, but we can't control them. The only people we can control are ourselves. If we're getting push-back from an end user, the first thing we need to do is look in the mirror and say, okay, what can I do differently to affect a different outcome, a more desirable outcome? That's pretty difficult for folks to accept. We're a blaming society; we like to place blame on everybody but ourselves. But the reality is, if we want to affect a positive outcome, then we need to look at how we can do things differently ourselves. ... By managing our own emotions, we can influence the emotions and reactions of other people. ... When we calm ourselves, we can bring others into that calm state.

IDGNS: What do IT people seem to really love about the training?

Crawley: They all seem to really like the emotional intelligence stuff. Interestingly enough, there's some push-back on accepting full responsibility, but there's acceptance on trying to manage your own emotions. The other thing is the stress management, because working in IT alone is a very stressful job, and working on the help desk adds even more stress because you're dealing with stressed-out people.

IDGNS: What can more junior IT people, who are the ones often on the front lines supporting users, take from this book that will help them develop their careers as they move up the ranks and out of support roles into more strategic roles?

Crawley: Probably the most important thing is the idea of respect. In the very first part of the book there are the four foundations of service, and one of the things we talk about there is treating everyone with respect. You don't have to respect someone to treat them respectfully. The act of respecting someone is internal, the act of treating them respectfully is external. ... Once we learn that we can treat everyone with dignity and respect, it reflects very well back on us and helps us grow up within the ranks of an organization. It gets people believing in us as individuals. If you can master the art of treating everyone with respect and dignity; if you can treat them with empathy, put yourself in their shoes; and compassion, to recognize their suffering and have the desire to do something about it; and then to listen, quit talking and listen -- those four qualities can serve you very well in terms of growing in an organization.

The Compassionate Geek: Mastering Customer Service for I.T. Professionals, by Don R. Crawley and Paul R. Senness (164 pages, $20 at amazon.com; www.compassionategeek.com)

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