Soft Skills to Excel as an IT Help Desk Technician

Master Technician, Darril Gibson, breaks down the essential soft skills for peak performance and upward mobility in IT help desk job roles.

Top Soft Skills for IT Careers

Help desk technicians (and all IT professionals) need a full range of hard and soft skills to excel in their career. Hard skills are specific, measurable abilities, such as configuring Windows or troubleshooting a Cisco network, while soft skills refer to a person’s capacity to effectively interact with others. As demand for IT talent continues to rise and the workforce becomes more competitive, those who compliment their knowledge and training with superior soft skills will be in the best position for long-term success.

Here are five of the most advantageous soft skills for IT help desk technicians:

  • Critical Thinking

    Oftentimes, help desk technicians have flow charts or predefined procedures they can follow to resolve known problems. However, it’s impossible to create documentation for every possible situation. Successful technicians employ critical thinking skills to evaluate the current issue and compare it to past problems they've seen. They can then draw on this experience to troubleshoot and resolve unique and more complex problems.

    Critical thinking typically includes the following activities:
    • Actively thinking: Technicians use their intelligence, experience, knowledge, and creativity to explore a problem and identify a solution.
    • Questioning: Critical thinkers often ask themselves questions about a problem or issue, and then seek out the answer. When troubleshooting, technicians identify a theory of a probable cause and then attempt to validate the theory.
    • Changing perspectives: Solutions are often more obvious when a technician looks at a problem from a different perspective, such as that of a user.
    • Evaluating evidence: The critical thinker is able to use reason to evaluate existing facts and arrive at a substantiated conclusion.
  • Written Communication

    Effective written communication is vital in help desk and technical support job roles, especially in organizations that use a knowledge-base or CRM (customer relationship management) system. Technicians use these systems to look up common problems and solutions. In order for these databases to be useful, technicians must succinctly document their actions after they resolve a problem. Managers and supervisors also use these systems to review and evaluate your work for promotions.

    Consider these two entries written by different technicians:
    • "System broke… fixed it."
    • "System was manually configured with incorrect IP address. Reconfigured to use DHCP. Verified problem was resolved."
    The first entry is cute; it might even earn some chuckles from fellow technicians. However, the second entry provides valuable information for a knowledge-base, which can be easily indexed and searched by keyword.
  • Active Listening

    Active listening is among the most valuable interpersonal communication skills. Think about a time when you were talking to a friend and it was apparent he or she wasn't paying attention. How did that make you feel? Ignored? Angry? Resentful? Users know when you aren't listening to them and have the same feelings.

    Active listeners pay attention to what someone is saying; they make eye contact, nod and occasionally voice their understanding. When they don’t understand something, they ask questions to get clarification (sans interrupting). Small nuances like this in the way you interact with people, when taken over a period of time, go a long way in building a positive relationship with users, coworkers and management.
  • Verbal Communication

    Verbal communication skills are critical to your success as a help desk technician. For example, a user might complain of something vague like “The server is down” or “The Internet is down.” A technician might know an organization has more than one server and it’s unlikely the Internet is down, so he needs to gather more information to diagnose the problem.

    Consider these two questions used by technicians to get more information:
    • "Why do you think the Internet is down?"
    • "What symptoms are you seeing?"
    Both questions are open-ended, which is useful when you’re probing for information from a user. However, the first question starts with “why,” which takes on a tone of interrogation. As a rule, it’s best to avoid starting any question with “why.” It puts people on the defensive and can easily create an adversarial relationship. Alternatively, the second question begins to foster a collaborative relationship with the user and indicates the technician is there to help.
  • Conflict Resolution

    While it’s best to use language that avoids conflicts, there are times when a customer will become angry during a trouble call. Successful help desk technicians must know how to handle these difficult situations.

    One of the primary elements of conflict resolution during a technical support call is recognizing that the user or customer is rarely angry with the technician - at least they don’t start out that way. Instead, the customer is typically frustrated with the situation and wants the problem resolved.

    If a help desk technician uses a phrase like “why are you so angry,” it is sure to escalate the problem. However, if the technician stays focused on the problem and expresses some empathy, the customer is much more likely to calm down. It’s as simple as sounding sensitive to the user’s frustrations, and then guiding the conversation to the problem. A technician who’s skilled in conflict resolution may say something like “I’m sorry you’ve experienced this issue, but I want to help you.” Empathy goes a long way in diffusing difficult situations.

Hard skills can get you the job, but soft skills will help you take it to the next level. Help desk technicians (and all career-minded professionals, IT or otherwise) who are serious about performing to their peak capacity, should demonstrate a mastery of critical thinking, verbal and written communication, active listening and conflict resolution skills.

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