As I’ve stated before, I worked a job as a Technical Product Support Specialist for a major library books and services company. It was a job that I had been promoted to out of the depths of hell that is cataloging librarianship. I felt like one of those little green aliens from Toy Story, finally chosen by the all and powerful “Claw.” In fact, the transition was so beautiful going from a cataloging librarian down in the warehouse to Customer Care up in the office, that I feared of one day being cast down from heaven back to that dust ridden hellhole to suffer a life of eternal damnation.
During my time as a Technical Product Support Specialist, I developed quite the impressive set of skills to utilize in the workplace. In fact, I recently updated my resume and was impressed at how professional and talented I looked on paper. I’d hire me. Fuck, I’d hire the shit out of me. Among the skills I finely polished are Microsoft Office Suite, GoToMeeting, troubleshooting, and website administration just to name a few. I even learned some SQL, although I am to SQL what Dean Koontz is to literature (I’m OK, but nothing great). However, out of all the skills I picked up, the three most important are: verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and active listening, which can be summarized under the umbrella of Effective Communication.
Verbal communication may be a bit of a strange skill to say I developed, after all, the majority of college life is spent talking with people. This is a skill that you can pick up literally anywhere. Well, almost anywhere.
I was a bit out of my element when I took the promotion at work. In the warehouse, it was discouraged to talk to anybody, even if what I was speaking of subjects directly related to work and how to do my job effectively. They were very keen on controlling the information that was being said in the warehouse. People would get written up for talking all the time and in worst case scenarios, terminated. Up in Customer Care, however, talking was all part of the job. Not only did I have to talk to our customers, but I was encouraged to engage with my fellow co-workers. What I found out was what you didn’t use, you eventually lost. It was, in all honesty, strange to talk to people at work after two years of sitting at a desk with my eyes glued to a computer screen all day with only the loud humming of the conveyor belt to keep me company (we weren’t even allowed to listen to music).
Talking on the phone, a task that I had used to be very comfortable with at my previous jobs, was something I had to re-learn. I had to remind myself to smile when talking with customers on the phone. It didn’t take long for me to come out of my shell and I eventually found that inner customer service employee I had left behind years ago.
An often overlooked form of communication is nonverbal. Believe it or not, a huge chunk of how we communicate has nothing to do with the words we speak. According to a 1967 study by UCLA professors Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, 93% of what we say is nonverbal. We’ve literally said things to people whom we weren’t even aware we were speaking to.
When most people think of nonverbal communication, they think of body language. Body language is the term used to describe anything that is visual about how we communicate. This can be maintaining good eye contact, posture, and hand gestures.
Body language actually only makes up 55% of that 93%. So what about the remaining 38%? That would belong to vocal communication. I know what you’re thinking, vocal communication is the same as verbal. It’s actually considered nonverbal and it’s incredibly important when it comes to speaking with customers on the phone.
Vocal cues would be the pitch or tone of your voice. When somebody says to you, “Thank you so much for your unsolicited advice” at the gym after giving them some pointers on how to lift properly, you can tell if they’re being sincere or not by the tone of their voice. Good sarcasm directly contradicts what is being said and that is of course accomplished by nonverbal vocal communication. Over the years’ I learned how to smile with my voice to really lay on that charming customer service voice that keeps them coming back for more.
Talking to people is one thing, but being able to comprehend what they are talking about is another task all together. What I discovered is that people have different words for all different kinds of stuff out there. There are some pretty basic universal terms, but for the most part, different words have different meanings to other people. A classic example is the difference between Soda and Pop. Two words that mean the exact same thing, but are used in different areas of the world. This is where active listening comes in.
There are three forms of listening: hearing, passive, and active. Hearing is when you are pretty much zoned out and aren’t comprehending anything that is being said. Men tend to be very good at this when their wives are speaking to them. Passive listening is slightly better than hearing. The listener may be listening to what’s being said, but isn’t engaging in conversation.
Active listening is considered to be the best form of listening and is what we should all strive for. A good active listener will engage with the person that is talking by repeating what was just said to ensure that they understand correctly. An active listener will employ probing questions to get to the bottom of what is going on. So when a person says, “my clicker is broken” an active listener will say, “do you mean your mouse?” When the response is, “No, I don’t have any mice,” they’ll respond with, “that oval shaped object with the two buttons separated by a rubbery spinny thing, is that what you mean by clicker?” only to find out that the person they’re talking to is 97 years old and is upset that the batteries in the remote to his old CRT television is broken.
How is this important in Technical Support? It’s a fundamentally essential skill that any Technical Support Specialist must know. I cannot stress that enough. It’s one of those situations that’s difficult to teach. Hands-on experience is the most efficient way to learn this skill. The combination of being able to talk pleasantly with customers and understand what they mean when “their internet is not working” is a fundamental part of the troubleshooting process.
Effective communication, in my humble opinion, is one of the most important skills to learn. I found myself blessed to have been gripped by the “Claw” out of the depths of hell and selected for the promotion so that I could build these skills. If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is to be passionate about opportunity and you will build skills that you never thought twice about.