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.




Comments (7)
  1. David manuel vasquez says:

    I am so excited and hope I get a spot of this tema because I am only 19 and honestly I am stuck to the learning documentation and also I m very eager to learn more and honesly I found out I was ment for this when I went to go explain myself to some close
    friends of mine because they asked why I was on the computer for like three four days and I had told them that I was basically reconfiguring the automation management of my azure profileing and that I had to basically right a sql server to basically i had
    to break it down like this to my friends They are not there to fix machines, they are there to make sure the business is successful vis-à-vis its users.
    and it honestly went over all their heads and they said that i was ust waiting time and that i was trying to just find a way to make some quick fast cash and that i am going to get into trouble soi told them just to watch that one day these computers are going
    to run the world and that beyond all of them i am going to the one that is actually preparing for the future and honestly i know that their only allowing my generation master these computers because the simple fact that the people who came up with them had
    never thought that they would be able to access the data they do now and now also becuasemy generation was the very first to ever be able to make the computer a everday thing my father RIP(03-29-2015) HAD NEVER OT TO SEE the imacullant things that i have been
    able to tdue and ever scince he died this year i have really spent my time and efforts into learning more about this system of correspondence and honeslty ive spent well over 90 hours learning and note taking and also when i was in high school i was the first
    class to graduate that had a 3-d animation class and computer diagnostics i have gotten familiar with mudbox , 3ds max, auto desk my i had gone to a newhigh school and they had bought the newest software adnd honestyly another reason i know i better be included
    in this tech team my nickname,is tech btw buht the reason is i i am sick and tierd of everyone looking at me like i ham speaking a foreign language and i have tcome to relize that you need special techs or special desk techs like me to be able to understand
    how to read and understqand the terminology that are profound to be a new age in this systmatical relm that i live in sopleasse can i come amongst fellow pupil that can conprehenind what i need them to and also can i start asap

  2. Tony F. says:

    Hire from the hospitality industry? So you want to turn IT's into customer service representatives. I've worked in both fields. I'm currently a Network Security Administrator, and I've worked in hospitality. A few things you should know:

    1. Turnover in hospitality is ridiculous. You can hire someone one day, and next week they disappear for no reason. This goes for any job where you are interacting with end-users (i.e. the public). The cost of hiring that person, training them to handle the
    multiple aspects you're talking about, only to have to turn around and do it again a month later after they burn out would be astronomical compared to simply hiring a fully qualified person, and paying them a good salary so their job is worth the effort.

    One of my earliest jobs was at AT&T Wireless, where they did exactly that. They hired from hospitality and customer service backgrounds. There was a full five-week training course that went 40 hours a week before you fielded your first call. Most people, once
    they made it out to the floor and started taking calls, left within 30 days. AT&T can afford to do this because it's a huge multi-national company. For the vast majority of business, this is completely unfeasible.

    2. ITs in the professional world have no background in business. This doesn't mean hire a business major and teach them IT material. This means prospective ITs need to be smart and prepare themselves to work in the corporate world if they want to last. Major
    in Computer Science, minor in Business. Or, for lower-level technicians, get an Associates in Business, and get MCSA and/or CompTIA certs to get your foot in the door. Know about the world in which you are going to live. Prove you have the bigger picture in

    If you hire someone with a non-technical background who has no real interest in IT, computers, networking, you're going to get burned. The cost of dealing with that knowledge gap is far greater than an IT who knows his stuff, who needs some training in how
    to deal with people. Companies need to recognize this, and also make better efforts to make IT staff feel like part of the team. I have plenty of colleagues in a variety of IT roles, and they all say the same thing: The company makes them feel like outcasts.
    They are constantly ignored, and sometimes even verbally abused by executives. This needs to change.

  3. jarod says:

    Thank you for your insights Tony.

    As with all situations, we are talking about striking a balance. I use the hospitality as an example of an industry that is oriented around customer experience, but it certainly isn’t meant to say that all employees from this vertical are well suited to work
    in IT. The fact is, you post articulates the point I’m trying to make, in that it’s well written, it’s clear and it’s concise. Those aren’t terms I’d associate with IT communication in many organizations. This is about finding the right skill set, where technical
    skills are absolutely a requirement. I wholeheartedly agree that just taking CSR’s and assuming they can cut it in the IT environment is a mistake and I also agree that people who have no indstest in the job they are hired to do will burn the employer. This
    isn’t exclusive to IT. We are all looking for the blend of employee who is highly motivated, self-sufficient, and extremely engaged. These individuals do exist and that’s the call to action here, is that IT professionals need to look into non-traditional hiring
    pools for talent.

    Lastly, I think there is some onus on IT to proactively reach out to the business – so to help change their perception in the business. When most of the business engagement happens with the help desk (when there already is an issue, and therefore stress/pressure
    tied to the situation), IT starts the conversation behind the 8-ball. IT can borrow lessons from the customer relationship management realm to better improve the relationship, and ultimately change perception.

  4. Jay M (Ambiguous Jay) Cross Platform Developer, says:

    Next Generation seems to have more than one meaning. I working the IT Realm of Cross Platform Development since it became mandatory for me to have only one platform or pc to handle all my iOS, Android, and sadly even my blackberry data demands. I have
    crossed all platforms and let me tell you that I have a random skill set, but trust me I have had to work in many industries to grasp the true needs of the end users. Just know that your skill set cam really hold you hostage.

  5. Nigel Morgans says:

    This is a very good article. I have been in the IT industry for over 35 years, and languish at the Level 1/2/3 mark for what ever reason, but what I will say is that you become a "A jack of all trades, master of none", with the variety of systems on offer.

    I have the experience and skillset to progress further, but it is that final push for training that a lot of companies fail to make in training their staff. It is the people that run an organisation not IT.

  6. jarod says:

    Thanks for the feedback Jay! I am in full agreement that "next generation" has multiple meanings. I will say that the ability to grasp the needs of different users IS a skill I'd want for my service desk. There's value in being extroverted (to a certain
    extent) and being able to truly understand how to utilize your skill set and the tools at your disposal to add value to the business.

  7. jarod says:

    Thank you Nigel for the nice words! Training is often overlooked and you're right, we're in the people business at the end of the day. Often it's a situation of needing to stop fighting the alligators and draining the swamp – typically the reason we don't
    have time to train and improve is because we're fixing all the things that training and improvement would solve. I like to use the concept of slowing down to speed up, and it will be keen to see more IT organizations taking that approach in the near term.

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