Much of the future growth in tech jobs will be in customer-facing roles. In a 2015 survey, some 73 percent of CIOs said their IT departments were interacting more with external customers, while 37 percent indicated that they were spending more on external customer interaction and relationships.
In light of that trend, developing customer-centric skills and behaviors can help ensure your career success. But how should tech pros acclimate themselves to the complex world of customer service?
Become More Extroverted
You don’t have to lead the rumba line at the next office party or undergo a major personality change in order to better interact with external customers, but you will need to adopt an outward focus, with enough poise and social skills to handle a variety of situations. (Are you an introvert or extrovert? Conduct a self-assessment.)
How can you become more outgoing? Ease into it, advised Ron Beyer, the president of software builder 6D Systems LLC.
Despite his long history of interacting with customers, Beyer self-identifies as an introvert. “If you jump into something that makes you uncomfortable, you’ll never adjust,” he said. Instead, start off by interacting with peers on sites such as Stack Overflow; once you’re comfortable in that environment, escalate to speaking more at company events. After that, move on to conventions and seminars, where you’ll frequently cross paths with strangers (and potential customers).
“Don’t try to be perfect or worry so much about what others may think,” added Adam Leffert, a freelance full-stack developer who’s worked with external clients for years. “You’re not being judged as harshly as you might think.”
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: as you become less self-conscious, your mind will be free to focus on what the client is saying, as well as their needs. Shifting your attention outward can help you overcome anxiety and develop a service mentality.
Sharpen Your Soft Skills
Patience, empathy, flexibility, communication and active listening skills are important; how you apply them will ultimately determine your success in a customer-facing role.
“Don’t assume that your solution is better or automatically say ‘no,’” Beyer said. “Let the client state their position, consider their needs and be flexible in the way you deliver the solution.”
Working with end users and non-technical clients can test your patience. Knowing what sets you off, and waiting until you calm down before responding to a client’s criticisms or suggestions, can help you become more patient.
Focus on positive actions instead of finger pointing (or going off on a rant) when things go wrong or seem overwhelming. Remember, patience is a mental skill that you can develop over time, not an inherited trait.
Develop Situational Awareness
Whether you’re gathering requirements or trying to explain the technical problems associated with a proposed design, the ability to communicate effectively with a variety of clients is vital. Some tech pros prefer to be direct and honest, while others emphasize the need to put a positive or optimistic spin on client messages.
Tailoring your messaging and style to match the client and culture is the way to go, according to Leffert. “Know where you are,” he said. “And be aware of your own style and how that’s going to come across.”
For instance, if you work for a major consulting firm, it’s probably best to consult with your manager before you provide feedback to a client. If you work for a small software development company where there’s no business associate to act as a communications conduit, you can probably be more direct.
Mirroring and matching the client’s communications style and body language establishes rapport and makes the listener more receptive to your recommendations on a subconscious level. Taking cues from a new client can help you choose the right communications path as you get to know each other.
“Follow the company norms, especially when addressing edge cases,” Leffert advised. “You can be more open and direct once you make emotional deposits into the client’s bank account.”