Hire for Empathy, Teach for Tech: Next-Generation Skills for IT Service Desk Professionals

Jarod Greene is the Vice President of Product Marketing for Cherwell Software ,™ a leader in IT service management (ITSM) and business enablement solutions. As a former Gartner® analyst, Jarod spent ten years covering the ITSM industry, with a focus on processes, organizational structure and enabling technologies.


In our current tech landscape of apps, cloud service providers and devices a-plenty, the IT service desk spends less and less time dealing with a standard set of hardware problems on company-issued machines. But it’s still hiring like it does.


Traditionally, the service desk has been staffed by junior-level associates who are highly skilled technicians. The job has been an entry point for working in a broader role in IT, offering a training ground where the business and IT connect, and the pain points are not only seen, but fully experienced. Turnover can be high—the most recent HDI® Support Center and Salary Report shows an 11% staff attrition rate for Level 1 support analysts.


The challenge these days is that new positions at the service desk are generally comprised of entry-level roles with entry-level salaries. Most highly talented, technical people coming out of MIT and Georgia Tech are not willing to work at the service desk—much less stay there long enough to become managers that pursue a conventional path to more highly paid and influential IT roles.


So how do you find the people who have the right blend of skills needed to fill today’s challenging and critical IT service desk role?


In 2015, it’s time to consider throwing out your singular requirement for technical know-how, and focus on finding people who are good with people. The ability to get end users through their struggles with Salesforce on their mobile devices is knowledge that can be taught. But the abilities to understand a broader set of business technology needs, treat people with empathy, communicate in language that can be understood by internal “customers”, and capture interactions and support processes with clarity and precision are skills that are far more difficult to teach.


In order to build a truly successful IT team in today’s complex technology ecosystem, start looking to hire people with the following skills:


1. Ability to troubleshoot multiple cloud-based services, devices and operating systems


When a marketing manager has trouble with the Marketo® marketing automation platform, does he call IT first? Not necessarily—he might call a peer first, then do a Google® search, and then call Marketo. What about a Macbook® that’s shutting off randomly? A business user might talk to someone in IT, and that person may escalate the case up the chain to an in-house specialist—who may ultimately recommend a trip to the Genius Bar at the Mac Store for help.


In the past, by comparison, most software packages were procured and managed in-house, and solutions bought off the shelf were highly customized to meet the needs of the organization. The CRM system was hosted in the company’s data center, and everyone’s desktop was connected to the company’s network at all times. There was no Marketo and no VPN to remote into.


Now things are decoupled and virtualized. This change has benefits, but it also means that when your user has an issue, you need to figure out where the point of failure is across many different potential points of failure. That’s not easy.


Managing an IT service desk in 2015 means having technicians that understand a landscape filled with multiple service providers, devices and operating systems. The people working with business users need to understand how those services are consumed, for what purpose, how that purpose serves the business and the impacts various types of issues have upon the business.


Service desk analysts are not offering end-to-end technical support for every program and every device. They’re getting a busy salesperson or the accounting lead headed in the right direction towards the help they need, as quickly as possible.


It’s less about “Let me take control over your device or what’s broken?” and more about “It worked yesterday for you. What changed between now and then among the many elements that comprise the service you’re consuming right now?” That’s a skill set traditional service desk professionals often don’t possess, yet it’s becoming more and more imperative.


2. Exceptional customer service skills


How do you run your service desk interviews? Here’s a tip: don’t ask anyone to unscrew the bottom of a laptop and take you on a tour of what’s inside. Find out the last time they encountered an irate customer, calmed them down and got them through their challenge.


Traditionally, there has been an adversarial relationship between the service desk and the business user, where the technician is frustrated because of the user’s lack of technical know-how. Today many business users speak “tech.” OK, maybe not in the same way an IT person does. But their level of digital literacy is light years ahead of their 1990’s counterparts. As such, the service desk analyst needs be respectful, assess the level of tech savvy of the business users and adjust the way they interact with them. The technician isn’t reading from a script, but is rather engaged in a dialogue.


Your service desk should be staffed by people who can quickly get to know the people on the other line and understand their frustrations. The conversations should sound something like this: “I understand why you’re frustrated. You’re in accounting. It’s the end of quarter and you can’t access a crucial application. The fact that you’re in accounting and it’s the end of quarter makes this the most important thing we do today.”


Service desk people need the skill set to gather context based on their conversations and keep broader business goals in mind. They are not there to fix machines, they are there to make sure the business is successful vis-à-vis its users.


3. Excellent collaboration and communication skills


When an IT ticket is opened, getting to a resolution can be very easy or very difficult. A lot depends on how the ticket is written. If the description lacks detail about the level of urgency, the nature of the problem or its complexity, the IT technicians tasked with solving the issue will suffer—as will the end users they are trying to serve.


Service desk staff have a lot to consider when opening a ticket. For example, everyone knows that silos exist between different IT specialties within a company. The person generating the ticket should know this and understand how to communicate the issue so that the right people are involved, at the right time, in the right way. Proper translation of the initial service desk call, enhanced with the appropriate level of detail, is critical for your internal team. Anything that’s not written down didn’t happen and creates extra work for the tier three technician whose time is too precious to waste.


Think of it as journalism. You need people who can ask the right questions, capture information skillfully and communicate it effectively so that everyone involved is set up for success. Your service desk analysts are both a translators and facilitators. They should be the first and only point of contact, assuming everything goes smoothly.


Find people who can write, tell a story and communicate. Those are the abilities that will help your team move faster internally, provide the service your business consumers expect and move the business forward.


Hire for Empathy, Teach the Tech


There is a war for talent. If you want lasting, successful service desk teams, you really shouldn’t look to the technical arena. You can teach the technical. Consider instead hiring from the hospitality industry, retail or other verticals that place a premium on teaching customer service, people skills and empathy. These skills should comprise the core of your team. Hire people who can talk to business users, capture their stories, translate them into tech and see them through to resolution.

If you’re an IT lead at a company, your reputation depends on business users’ interactions with the service desk. The people you hire need to match the new realities of IT so everyone can be successful together.

For further reading, be sure to download Cherwell Software’s eBook on how to step up your IT service desk game, and add real value to the business.