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Don Crawley teaches customer service principles at Automation Nation

At Automation Nation 2015, Don Crawley, the author of the 'The Compassionate Geek,' gave attendees tips for delivering positive customer service experiences.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This year, LabTech Software's Automation Nation conference was as much about people skills as it was about its remote monitoring and management software and technical skills.

During the conference's opening keynote address, LabTech CEO Matthew Nachtrab spoke at length about the importance of people skills to improve collaboration within technical teams. The final keynote given by Don Crawley, the author of the how-to guide The Compassionate Geek, talked about customer service principles and the people skills that technicians need to work on.

"I've always been a geek," Crawley told Automation Nation attendees. "The technical skills always came easily to me, but the people skills were a challenge.

"Our challenge in information systems technology is all about the people that we work with, [our] brothers and sisters of the human race," he said.

He presented five customer service principles for "generating good feelings" in customers, borrowing age-old ideas about compassion and empathy and applying them to customer service situations that technicians typically encounter. Every customer-facing technician needs to learn and work on improving the following skills every day, he said.

Deep technical skills: The first principle was that every technician needs an understanding of the technology he or she is working with, Crawley said. The technician's understanding should be deep enough that it would allow for quick and permanent problem-solving and the ability to design flawless systems. "Deep technical skills mean that you're constantly working on improving your technical skills to be the very best in the world at what you do." He added that all the people skills don't matter if you don't have technical competence.

Our jobs are about helping our end users work more productively, efficiently and creatively, sometimes in spite of our best efforts to do so.
Don Crawleypublic speaker and author of 'The Compassionate Geek'

Technicians can gain deep technical skills by obtaining certifications (but not through "boot camp" style courses), going to workshops and seminars, and through practice. "Do something every day to improve your technical skills, to gain that deep technical understanding," he said.

Compassion: In customer service, compassion means noticing when end users are frustrated and having a desire to help them, Crawley said. "Compassion is having profound awareness of another's suffering combined with a desire to alleviate [that suffering]. … Compassion is a huge part of what we do," he said.

Crawley suggested technicians reflect on their own customer service experiences where they received exceptional assistance to identify ways they can improve. He also suggested focusing on "the similarities between ourselves and our brothers and sisters [of the human race]," to find volunteer opportunities for giving back to the community, and to "slow down," because when people rush, they tend to be more self-absorbed and less willing to help others.

Empathy: Crawley pointed to the principle of putting yourself in another person's shoes and seeing the world through another person's eyes as an important skill for technicians to strive for.

He recommended using "empathetic words and phrases," such as, "I'm really sorry that happened to you," or, "I know what you're feeling," but cautioned Automation Nation attendees from saying these things without meaning them.

Listening: "One of the greatest gifts that we can give our brothers and sisters of the human race is to listen, to truly listen for the meaning of what you're saying," Crawley said.

He presented a variety of ideas to help technicians become better listeners, including abstaining from distractions, such as checking email and Facebook, while speaking to customers; paraphrasing what customers say back to them to make sure the customer's problem has been correctly understood; and allowing for natural pauses in the conversation. The No. 1 way to listen better is to stop talking, he said.

Respect: Finally, Crawley advocated that technicians treat people with respect. Even if the technician doesn't truly respect a customer, it's important to treat them so, he said. He showed a still from the movie The Green Mile of Tom Hanks' character, a death-row prison guard, and explained that in the fictional film, Hanks' character treats each of the death-row prisoners with respect and, as a result, most of the prisoners give Hanks' character dignity and respect back to him.

"When we treat everyone and everything around us with dignity and respect, people will treat us with respect in return," he said.

To become better at treating people with respect, he advised attendees to speak well of the their colleagues and team, maintain a positive attitude, and to always be on time, as punctuality is a way of showing people that you respect them.

Roadblocks to developing customer service skills

Every customer-facing technician can work to develop the five key skills that Crawley outlined during the Automation Nation keynote, but he pointed to three attitudes that will hold them back.

The first roadblock, he said, is being a "Yeah-But," a person who responds to advice by saying, "Yeah, but that doesn't work for me," or, "Yeah, but I tried that already." He told attendees to get rid of this attitude and to adopt an open mind instead. "Be open to the possibility of revisiting some ideas from the past that might lead you to a new solution or maybe do apply," he said.

The next attitude to avoid is what Crawley called "The Theys," an attitude of blaming customers for their problems. "Truth be told, maybe some of the time or maybe most of the time, it is something that [users] did," but technicians should ask themselves whether the cause of a problem was a design flaw or a user error. Perhaps the real problem is that the system could have been designed better.

"Our jobs in information systems technology … are not about technology. Our jobs are about helping our end users work more productively, efficiently and creatively, sometimes in spite of our best efforts to do so. Our jobs are about creating technical solutions to perplexing human problems in the workplace," he said.

The third attitude is the belief that people skills are innate, Crawley said. People skills "can be learned" because "they're simply beliefs and behaviors," but technicians have to practice these skills to master them, he said.

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How largely do you weigh people skills when hiring technicians?
I think it really depends on the problems the organization is facing. If the problems are well-defined and clear and the work is ticket driven, than a technical person who just wants work slid under the door might be just fine. Likewise, if we have a layer of people-people in between to protect the introvert, that might be okay too.

If on the other hand this is, say, a customer-service role that could impact retention of existing customers, then I might weigh people skills just as heavily as technical skills.

I have a bit of a different perspective from Matt in that the technicians we hire are used internally, say for desktop support. In this case, we always have a focus on good people skills because you never know who that technician will be working with. It could be the president of the company having an issue with this personal printer, or someone in facilities that is having an issue with the ticketing system. In either case, people skills are important to help provide the appropriate level of service.
@Matt Heusser & @mcorum: Thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. Would you say people skills have become more important for technicians to have today than in the past?
For me, it depends on the level of interaction with customers and individuals who need to interact with the technician. IF the work is relatively isolated from interaction with individuals, not so important. If interacting with individuals to be effective is needed, then yes, it matters a lot more.
It's a big part of the hiring criteria. Bad communications skills, internally or externally facing, can make the best technical skills almost useless. It becomes a much bigger deal the broad the responsibility of the job. 
I also believe that a level of writing skills are needed, from a communications standpoint. 
It's vital to get someone with people skills. Communication. Writing. All important, especially in a very small shop where face-to-face interaction is essential. We've found that workers who are unable to express themselves well, are equally bad at interpreting the full scope of the job at hand.
I would weigh people skills pretty heavily. Poor people skills can make the most technically talented person just horrible to work with. It's not worth it. Now, I don't have the best people skills, so I try to be pretty forgiving if someone's not the most personable. However I would definitely look for and try to avoid some traits, like arrogance. 
Spencer hits the key to the entire piece - you need people who actually can communicate and get along with people. Otherwise you have a roadblock in productivity and a barrier to keeping your organization running.
I'm always skeptical of these lists of virtues. Compassion, Empathy, deep tech skills, Listening - who can be opposed to these things? They are truisms. It does sound like Don Crawley had some interesting ideas, I just wish there was video or a text transcript -- I suspect the details have been lost.
@Matt Heusser: I think you’re right. What I found interesting about Crawley's talk is that he applied basic principles like compassion, empathy, and respect to customer service situations and encouraged technicians to develop skills around these principles. Are exceptional human relationship skills something you value in customer service?
For more detail, you might read Crawley's book, "The Compassionate Geek." In it, he provides additional tips and a thorough treatment of the customer service principles outlined here. If you're interested in video, here's a link to Don on YouTube: He also has a podcast on iTunes. I hope this helps.
The video of the Keynote is now online here:
I was a little surprised to hear 'deep technical skills' rated first and foremost here. I must have worked in a very different environment from the speaker, but to me, having the people skills comes first. You can train people to be technical, you can train people in solving common problems, and come out with a very reliable helpful customer service worker. But if you hire a high technical individual into a position where they need to deliver customer service, you have four distinct traits listed here for which you have to transform social behavior in order to reach their maximum potential. That seems much harder to me.