Tech Manager—Can You Help Me? What Your Users First See and Hear

People who come to you with problems seek quick and decisive answers and corrective action. That is what Tech Management is all about. You are the “go to” person.  The problems come to you because no one else can figure them out, reduce the impact, and put measures in place to prevent recurrences. Their hopes are riding on your ability to fix things. Getting it fixed is expected. Getting it done fast is anticipated.

The perception of your ability to correct the problem is often based on the users’ observation of your initial reaction (Do you know how bad this is?) and their sense of your empathy (Do you “feel their pain”?). The first words out of your mouth and your initial body language will either launch you as a first responder with situational awareness, or tumble you into a difficult conversation that slows your ability to make progress.

When people bring you problems, they often provide very little detail. They just dump it on your desk. They say things in very short sentences, such as “The plotter is down” or “The client can’t download the files.” There is very little information that is brought in the opening transaction. They may exaggerate the impact. “We may never get the project done now.” They may actually identify the problem as something that has no relationship to the real event. “I can’t open the furniture database because it is locked by Mario,” when Mario has not opened or locked the file at all.

So let’s take a look at what you do first and how it frames your ability to make quick corrective moves. As we do this, we will be thinking about what these users might perceive from your actions.

Your Initial Body Language

Even before you open your mouth and respond verbally to the situation, your body sometimes projects the wrong impression.  Look at this from their eyes. If you do not stop what you are doing and you delay focusing your attention on the person with the issue, they will think they are either interrupting you or that you care more about what you are currently doing than helping them. I understand that they are interrupting you, but it is your job to be interrupted. People don’t make appointments to bring you problems; they burst right in. You need to allow that and embrace it.

Quickly stop what you are doing and turn your full body toward the person addressing you. Push back from your computer and look them right in the eye.

Get out of your chair and start moving toward them and in the direction they came. By moving, you exude “action” and they start seeing that you are on the job and ready to dig in.  If you are in a conversation with another person, give that person a quick apology and tell them that you will get back to them, then start moving toward the person with the problem.

Your First Words

Now that you have positioned yourself to respond, take care with your first words. They frame the early interaction that can relieve, calm, and inspire confidence. They can also offend, push people away, or make them want to go talk to someone else. Listen to yourself with their ears. Expressions of surprise, disbelief, frustration, downplaying, or distancing will cause others to shrink back. Here are some first words and how they might impact the hearer.

“What? We just fixed that!!” Shock or surprise is not a comforting motif for your initial communication. This is not the time to complain or show frustration. You might feel that way, but keep it to yourself. People will think that you do not completely fix things and that is why it is happening again. They may think that you do not know how to fix problems because you should have seen this coming. Most issues are not avoidable and being proactive often still does not keep hardware from failing. Just keep the shock or surprise to yourself.  Better to respond with “Interesting. That was just corrected last week. It happened again?” That is the same message without the shock value.

“It is not that urgent; let me get back to you.”  The person may not agree, even if it is true. You need to take the tack that every problem brought to you is critical, urgent, and project-impactful. Better to say, “I can take a look at that right now” followed by walking back to their desk.

“You need to go talk to Carla about that.” Don’t pass on the problem to someone else.  This is distancing you from the person, the problem, and the remedy. Even if another person is working on it and you know will get it fixed, it is better to say, “Let’s go talk to Carla. She knows how to get that corrected.” Then escort the person over to Carla and don’t leave until she is working on the issue. Check back after a while to see how it is going.

“What did you do?” Saying this is almost always taken as “You broke it!” We will discuss the questions that might be asked later. For now, just avoid using terms that sound accusative.

Don’t Joke Around

Some managers try to cut the tension of problems by making jokes or using sarcasm. I would suggest that this might be allowable based on the situation and the person. You know the people in your office and their demeanor. I would suggest that you do not start off with a sarcastic first reply. Jokes are not funny if the person is not ready for them. You may not know the full impact of the problem and jokes may fall horribly flat. They may even be offensive. These folks have a problem and need your help. Sarcasm can offend if the person thinks you are being flippant. I suggest avoiding this possibility and not joke about the issue until you know the full breadth of the setting—even with people who are constantly joking with you.

Don’t Remind Them of Past Lessons

“I already told you how to fix it” is not a good opening line. You may have already advised the questioner about how to avoid the troubles, but they are not there to be reminded of that. They are coming to you for the solution, not to be scolded. If you must go back to a prior solution conversation, then couch it as a question. “Did the fix that we discussed last week not work this time?”  This lets them know that there might be a previous fix that can be applied, and it allows them to just say that it is not working now.

Don’t Tell Them What to Do

Unless you know it is an easy, two-step fix that absolutely cannot fail…  do not tell them what to do and expect them to go back to fix it themselves. If you do this and the fix you provide does not work, or they fail to apply it correctly, then they have to walk back to your desk and ask again. That is not good customer service.

Improving Your First Words

If the first words are so critical, what should they be? How can you actively start the process of getting people back to full productivity? Here are a few things that I am sure you already do, but as a reminder, let’s review them. First, stop what you are doing, get out of your chair, and start walking back to their desk…

  • Ask for more info. Start the process by asking for additional data.  “What exactly is happening?” “When did it start?” “Is anyone else having trouble?” Immediately entering the diagnostics process by asking questions as your first response shows that you are already working on the problem. You gather critical information and start formulating a plan of attack as you walk to their desk. When you get there, ask them to show you the problem. Don’t just have them tell you what the problem is. Watch what they do and the steps they take. They may have actually initiated their own troubles by leaving out a step in the process. You may see an anomaly as they demonstrate, which will tip your mind toward the answer.
  • Provide comforting words. It may seem so simple and yet proves so valued. Words of assurance can go far. You should bring calm and reassurance at the start. “I am sure we can get you going again quickly” or “This is one that I have seen before, I know just what needs to be adjusted.” Don’t offer false hope. Don’t tell them the fix is easy if you have no idea what is going on.

Just Offer to Help

The most basic thing you can say at the onset is that you will help them. “I can help with that. Let’s go see what is going on.” When users hear these few words, it reinforces the confidence they had when they decided to bring you into the event. Focusing on the problem and moving quickly is what the users want. These simple words can make the restoration of workflow start. Your technical skills can then kick into high gear and you can provide the corrective action that is so valuable to your firm. 

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