Some time ago I wrote about the shift from hard skills to soft gradually occurring in the workplace. Strong technical skills have dominated the workplace for the last half-century. Now, increasing prominence is being given to—and paid for—strong social skills. One of these is using open-ended conversations.

One of the drivers for this change is that our concept of service has quietly and unconsciously changed.

We have long assessed service in a shop or restaurant in terms of soft skills. But when dealing with technology—cars and, increasingly, electronic devices—we saw it differently. Here we entered the domain of the technician, usually male, whose social skills often existed in inverse proportion to their technical ability. We could put up with their aloofness, silence, lack of eye contact, and the inescapable feeling that they regarded us as idiots. It was enough just to get our car or device fixed.

The ubiquity of technology

Not any more. The ubiquity of technology means we need this kind of service more than ever. As a result we are raising our standards. We expect not just technical fixes but a pleasant—even human—experience as well. As part of an IT service team, I see on a daily basis what a difference the ‘wrapper’ of good soft skills makes to the customer experience.

So what are good soft skills? I’ve already mentioned some—or, more accurately, their opposites:

  • Make eye contact with your customer (though don’t over-stare).
  • Make a little conversation. Standing at a counter, waiting for service and being ignored or excluded by a technician is a horrible experience. No matter how good you are at fixing things, no one on the receiving end of this will consider your service good.
  • Don’t put yourself on a pedestal just because you can fix something they can’t. They have skills you don’t have. How would you feel if you had to do their job—easy-peasy or would you quake in your boots?

However, in this post I’d like to focus on something else: closing out the conversation, whether it’s in person, on the phone, or by electronic message. This is your last chance to impress your customer, so it counts for a lot.

Open-ended conversations

In today’s world of service tickets and service level agreements it’s very easy to get into a mindset that the most important thing is to close out the ticket as soon as possible. That is quite likely what you will be measured on.

However, if your organisation troubles to survey its customer base, that is not what they will measure you on. They will gauge you by how they felt at the end of their interaction with you. Whether you fixed the problem will be a major consideration, but how they felt about dealing with you may be an even bigger one.

Closing out a ticket puts you into a mindset of termination, closure and “job done”. But if you’re not careful, that mindset can infect your interaction with the customer.

Closing out a ticket puts you into a mindset of termination, closure and “job done”. But if you’re not careful, that mindset can infect your interaction with the customer. They may interpret this as meaning that you’re glad to see the back of them, leaving them with a sour taste and a sense of poor service.

To avoid this, think of the current piece of work as part of an ongoing relationship—the start, perhaps; certainly not the end. Closed words—yes and no, or silence—close down conversations. Open-ended conversations build working relationships. Frame your words as if you welcome their engagement, and they will welcome their engagement with you. After all, without their service requests what would you have to do?

Hannah Wei