Lessons from the Service Desk

Communicate Clearly

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

This article is from my ‘Lessons from the Service Desk’ series, where I discuss the principles of soft-skills in a service desk environment. Check out the whole series by clicking here.

In my previous article, I discussed the importance of taking a positive, problem solving attitude toward service desk work, but it goes without saying that strong communication skills are crucial to the success of any business operation, and especially so of a service desk. Agents with good communication skills tend to not only better understand clients, but most importantly, make them feel understood, which lends itself to shorter calls and better levels of customer satisfaction.

Strong communication was especially important in the service desk of my past organisation (a hospitality point-of-sale company). The majority of our clients had no technical experience outside basic computer use, and could face a whole manner of issues. From simple cable misplacement to anything as complex as software bugs, or even undesired behaviour resulting from misuse of the software by their own employees – these problems could have significant impact on their business and it was imperative we responded efficiently and clearly, and with empathy.

The subject of communication is obviously quite broad but I relate it to a service desk through two principles: communicating clearly (being understood) and communicating effectively (achieving a desirable outcome through communication). Both are important and there is some overlap between the two, meaning improvement in one will tend to improve the other. In this article, I will discuss how to guide your agents to communicate as clearly as possible, through a few key guidelines.

Clear Communication in the Service Desk

When you think of a primarily phone-based help desk, it’s easy to assume that the need for clear communication is inherently understood, especially if they’ve been operating reasonably well for some time already. And, for most organisations (including my previous), it is. That being said, it’s important to have an idea of how your agents are communicating with your clients – you might find, as we did, that your staff may be generally doing well but have adopted poor practise in some areas, which may benefit from coaching or correction.

The goal of clear communication is to be understood, so before I get too specific I’d like to highlight that proper English spelling, grammar and pronunciation will be a great asset in both written and verbal communication. Where possible, I am a big fan of software like HemmingwayApp and Grammarly (not sponsored) to improve your quality of writing.

Sentence composition

On the subject of spelling and grammar, sentence composition, or the way a subject or query is worded can make all the difference in how clearly your clients understand you. I find it best to explain with an example:

In my last organisation we used remote control tools such as TeamViewer or ScreenConnect when troubleshooting client problems over the phone. At some point, some of our agents fell into the habit of asking our clients “Do you see me on the screen?” when connecting to their devices.
They would ask this if the client had multiple devices, to verify they were connected to the device affected with whatever issue they were discussing. In most cases, the client would see the TeamViewer pop-in or see the mouse moving around and would catch on and confirm. However, when clients couldn’t see this, or if they didn’t make that connection right away, they would be confused and asked for clarification. Sometimes, our agents would simply repeat the sentence.

Communication is inherently contextual, and “can you see me on the screen” works well enough in certain contexts but not at all in others. However, by choosing your words a bit more carefully we can communicate clearly independently of context. For example,
“Can you see me on the screen” becomes
“I’m connecting to/remotely controlling your device. Can you see my name in the corner of the screen?/Can you see me moving the mouse around?”
What matters here isn’t necessarily the descriptiveness or verbosity, but rather that we are telling the client what we are doing, what they should expect and how they should respond (by letting us know if they do see us, or to ask us to move the mouse again, and so on). By composing our sentence to be much more meaningful, we have done a great deal more to be understood and therefore, enabled clearer communication.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Relate to the customer

Your communication must be meaningful to the customer. It’s one thing to have well presented, accurate and informative information, but if the customer just understands half of it, it’s only that half which is of value. I’m sure we have all had experiences where an expert in a field or niche has tried to explain something to us, but has left us with more questions than answers (mechanics and lawyers come to mind for me personally). In some cases, agents who are very technically skilled can sometimes be a bit overbearing with technicalities (I know I was when I started), but the good news is that awareness goes a great deal toward correction.

A very simple, but effective place to start is to stop using jargon or any technical language the client is not familiar with. Given that this language is useful only to people in your field of expertise, it will only convolute your conversation if your counterpart does not understand it, and all correspondence should assume this is the case until shown otherwise.
This is not to say we should omit this information, but rather, we should explain it in terms relevant to the customer. An example from my past organisation:

Point of Sale docket printers have a ‘self test’ feature useful for diagnostics: hold down a button while turning the printer back on, and it will spew out a great long print containing information about how it’s configured. When clients call with a printer issue, having them produce the self-test printout is often one of the first troubleshooting steps. However, some of our junior front-liners began simply asking for the information they were after outright. They’d guide the client to getting the print out, and then would simply ask them to read out the “IP address” or “baud rate”.
It’s important to know that these self-test prints are quite long, with a lot of information. Simply asking for the information makes an assumption that the customer knows what a baud rate or IP address looks like, and if they didn’t they were often confused about what to look for.

A better way to ask for this information is with a statement like “Toward the top of the print, you should see a line that says ‘IP address’ followed by a series of numbers. Can you read that to me please?”. We are now explicitly explaining what we are looking for, what to expect and roughly where to find it. With a few more words, we convey much more meaning to the customer, keep the call flowing and avoid any frustrating moments.

However, there will be times where technical language is unavoidable – the mechanic will ultimately have to tell you what is wrong with your car and what’s involved to fix it, for example. This is fine, provided that we first take a moment to make this information relevant to the customer by explaining it to them.

As an example from my old organisation, an EFTPOS integration is a process which allows a merchant pin-pad to communicate with your POS (point of sale) software. So if the bill comes to a total of $20, the integration allows the POS software to send the total to the bank, who then sends it to your pin-pad (after verifying its authenticity). Without an integration, staff will have to enter the bill total manually, which often leads to user error.
In the point of sale world, ‘integration’ is an important and common bit of jargon. Explaining the basics of how it works in a way the customer understands will bring them on-board with the troubleshooting process – for example, as I mentioned above, the the integration requires the bank to verify the transaction. If there is a problem here, we may need to ask the customer to contact their bank for further assistance. Explaining how it works to the customer will enable them to better explain themselves when talking to the bank’s support team.
Explaining integrations clearly will also help customers understand how they can set up their point of sale to integrate with other services, such as accounting software, table reservation services and more. In this sense, it also has an additional sales benefit, as your customer may be interested in other integration services your company offers.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

In Summary

Service desk work is inherently technical, but with conscious, clear communication, we can be understood by our layman counterparts. Special attention should be directed to:

  • Proper English spelling, grammar and pronunciation
  • Sentence composition – how we say or phrase things to the customer
  • How relevant our information is to the customer – avoid technical language such as jargon until it’s been explained to them

Thank you for reading! Check out the rest of my series on soft skills in the help desk here. Stay tuned for my next article on Effective Communication, on how to get to our desired outcome through our correspondence with our clients.