4 Ways to win friends and influence customers (outside of IT)

As things progress to the new normal, remote IT support demands will skyrocket. Here’s how to be known as a hero without killing yourself.

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Vasyl Dolmatov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sometimes IT gets a bad rep.

OK, I admit it, the bad rep is just reality. In any given office, I would guess at any given time something like 65% of people are waiting for a password reset, or access to a network drive, a new test server or a project to go live. 

More for CXOs

Go outside your lane to provide support, and you become Rogue IT. Even if it is in your lane, the reward for excellent service is more work. Steven Travaglia has a popular series of books that explores this conflict, you may have heard of it. It is called “B*stard Operator From Hell.” Travaglia’s character, the BOFH, chooses to sabotage customers and confuse management. The stories are hilarious because they are so familiar. Perhaps there is a reason IT has a bad rep.

If you see the problem but want to go a different way, then today’s piece is for you.

Here are four ways to win friends and influence customers without killing yourself.

SEE: Cross-training toolkit (TechRepublic Premium)

1. Solve their problems

The list of tickets above is deceptive. The customers don’t want their password reset; they want to be able to log in. They don’t want a test environment, but instead to get the new code to production. At the very least, they want the new code tested. All the tickets do is remove an obstacle from the path. 

On a bad day, the life of the diligent project manager or subject matter expert is running around removing such objects. After the pandemic, customers will need to add scheduling Zoom meetings, remote work problems, even on-ramping telecommuting employees to the mix.

As an expert in one area of the software, it is tempting to say “not my problem” or, perhaps, help the customer remove one of the 20 obstacles. It costs almost nothing to change the role from ticket-taker to consultant. Just ask what the real problem is. When you’ve reached the limits of your expertise, offer to make the introduction to the next step.

Carl Canales, the owner of A-Tec computer solutions in Allegan, MI, goes further. When he is beyond his expertise (the problem is the internet provider), he gives the contact information to the customer and asks “Do you want to make the call, or should I?”

For decades the goal of some segments of American management has been to make IT stable, predictable, and repeatable. Other words for that include nameless and faceless. Not only does that make one unremarkable at layoff time, it continues to perpetuate the stereotype that IT people tell you to reboot in order to hang up and get you off the phone.

Let’s talk about relationships.

2. Building relationships in IT

It’s easy to talk about building relationships, but challenging to do over video conference. Canales is quick to suggest three simple ways to connect. These could be shared interests (cars, hiking, hunting, sports, yoga, fitness, diet, hobbies) or bonding over children. 

If you want to learn about their children, make it sincere. Learn their names and interests, and ask about them by name. Let the energy of the other person be your guide; someone who recently recent divorced might not want to talk about what his children are up to. Asking a few questions while you wait for the meeting to fill up, and you can find what the other person wants to talk about. Then, later, ask about topics they respond to with enthusiasm.

I’ve often wondered in Michigan why people are so focused on what roads I took to get to a family gathering. By sharing common information, we can actually reset the nervous system. Establish this person is “part of my tribe” and my blood pressure and heart rate will go down. I’ll start thinking with my intellect, instead of my concern for how the other person is going to try to trick me.

Our colleagues in business can be particularly good at this, while we are hyper-focused on Leadership Secrets of Picard or how to use Star Trek for homeschool. On a bad day, these pre-meeting bonding sessions seem “fake.” Yet it was my old boss, Krischa Winright, who first told me that “In 20 years no one will remember if the project was on-time or a week late. What they will remember is how you made them feel.”

Today, Winright is an executive vice president for Blue Cross Blue Shield Emerging Markets.

Canales adds the usual advice to avoid detailed religious or political talk, and adds a new wrinkle—even musical choices can be contentious. Your best bet may be to find a single television series you both watch; that creates a sync opportunity every week.

3. Publish the work in progress

Most of the people I know in IT have a large list of work in progress, or WIP, that everyone is trying to get to the top. A great deal of the things people are waiting on you for are actually dependent on another team and blocked. Jim Benson, the author of “Why Limit WIP: We are Drowing in Work,” suggests publishing the list.

If your team doesn’t have a list, create your own spreadsheet, shared in something like Google Drive or Sharepoint. The simplest list might have tabs for backlog, doing, blocked, and done. Or perhaps color-code green for on-time, yellow for late, red for blocked. Columns would be work item number, title, description, assigned date, started date, finished date.

If there are no security issues you could use a work-tracking tool like Trello or LeanKit, that have a free tier. The point is to let customers see exactly what you are working on and your priorities. If they can’t get the work done, they can go to your boss, or another customer, and horse-trade to get your priority. 

If your team does have such a service, you can publish it. Let the customers understand what you are working on, and suddenly they’ll see it as an engineering problem to solve. “How can we change the system to get my work done?” is very different from “Why is IT taking so long?”

If the things you are working on really do have greater business priority and can impact the bottom line, the customers might be more understanding about their issues. You might even be doing them a favor, as now they can explain to their boss why their not getting things done right now is okay, and even in the best interest of the business.

4. Invest in self-service

One of the newer trends for IT is self-service. Create a password reset website, or make the databases discoverable. When people ask for support, send them to a SharePoint site and have them do it themselves.

That is a lot more like BOFH than customer service.

It doesn’t have to be. Take the extra five minutes to walk them through the password reset, on a shared screen, over Zoom. Then send the customer the how-to as a follow-up email for next time. Canales suggests finding the customer’s comfort level, and pushing them just as far as they want to go. Pushing the customer too far will backfire anyway. 

Certainly encourage the customer to solve their own problems, but do it with a little bit of emotional intelligence. If that isn’t noticed, if that isn’t appreciated, if you’re actually helping people get the job done is not rewarded, well then, the relationships you are building will probably pay off on the next job hunt.

Change the narrative

It was Dale Carnegie, author of “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” who suggested taking a genuine interest in other people. He wrote that in 1937, along with the maxim to not criticize, condemn or complain, and give honest and sincere appreciation.

Find a way to do that while solving the customer’s problem and without adding to your workload, and you might not have a job for life. But you might not need to worry about looking for a job, either. I remember I struggled with one peer and offered to grab coffee and chat. He replied that he was just here to do a job and would rather not.

Don’t be that person.

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