Eight tips on how IT folk should deal with finicky users

Those damned users. They’re always whining about how people in IT don’t get them, don’t know how to communicate, and need to “align” to their interests. As if only IT pros have to do the work in the relationship.

But we all know that this unfair situation is common, and IT suffers as a result. And IT pros particularly suffer when it’s time for cutbacks. Fortunately, IT pros can get the upper hand by thinking of users as a problem to be solved through a rational plan, as if it were any other vexing issue that gums up the works.

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To help IT get the upper hand, InfoWorld has put together an eight-part plan for dealing with users, which we call the “Users for Dummies” plan, after the famous line of books that teaches everything from Windows Vista to sex for the novice, um, user.

HR people and hiring managers, bless their hearts, would call this “soft skills,” a squishy term that often insinuates that IT pros will never get it. Herewith is InfoWorld’s guide to mastering those soft skills in a way that anyone with a disciplined, engineering mind can use.

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By the time you’ve worked through this eight-step guide, you’ll have a working arsenal of soft skills — and the advantage of being able to work with users at their level while remaining fully in command of your right brain.

1. Your company doesn’t exist just to employ you.

Find out why it’s employing everyone else, tooConsider the breadth and depth of the tasks the IT department is routinely asked to perform: Keep our systems secure! Build us internal tools for updating the Web site! Craft arcane queries for our database! Cut back IT spending by 20 per cent by implementing green technology!

It’s no wonder that it’s tempting to simply focus on the demands of the job. However, it’s important to be able to look at how IT department serves the company as a whole. This way you can explain to other departments, in their native tongues, why they should pay you proper homage in the form of appropriate budgets and personnel.

Why should you do this? “If you can figure out how to apply technology skills to what your company does and its specific business models, you can help it save money. You can help it run more efficiently,” says Tom Silver, a senior vice president at tech job-search site Dice.com.

But why should you care about your company’s bottom line? Because companies that run efficiently tend to be more successful in the long run. Some of that will rub off on you — or, at least, you’ll remain employed.

How do you do this? Your first step may be to figure out what your company makes and how it makes it. It’s very easy for a Web developer to get lost in the AJAX underbrush, but look up and start seeing where your work fits into a bigger picture. If your organization has business analysts who move between the tech and business development departments, start hanging out with those folks. They’ll be your emissaries to the brand-new world beyond the server room.

What’s the likely payoff? Not only will you be able to see where the ax falls during the next round of layoffs, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re nowhere near the whistling blade.

2. Money talks, so learn to speak the language

Look — we know it’s important for you to invest in technologies that will let you improve network security, provide up-to-the-minute backups, and optimize the performance of all your servers. But nobody else in the office is going to care unless you can drop the best-practices lingo and speak to them in their language. No, we’re not sugesting you talk slowly and use small words (although that may help). We’re telling you to always present your demands in terms of how they’ll benefit everyone’s bottom line. And when people ask you for something? Learn to say yes or no in a way that implies the alternative is much more expensive or much less profitable.

Why should you do this? Ian Anderson, who heads up the Independent Oracle Users Group, says, “IT can no longer hide and operate as a separate entity from the rest of the company, especially in light of the poor economy and the resultant conservative stance of many in senior leadership.” Roughly translated: Every conversation you have outside your department needs to remind the bean counters that IT’s an investment against future earnings.

How do you do this? Make friends with someone who’s fluent in speaking money. This person can help you present your IT goals and projects in terms of “value propositions” — that is, the bottom line for the company bean counters. Your ultimate goal, says Silver, is to show how your technical to-dos translate into dollars and cents.

What’s the likely payoff? By speaking the language of the money people in your company, you’re increasing the chances that they’ll understand what you want to do and why you want to do it. And that will make them more likely to say yes.

3. Stick to your vision of IT and ignore the focus groups

The reason you work in IT is because you know what technical solutions best meet your company’s needs and which ones help your users or customers do their jobs to the best of their abilities. However, sometimes, you’ll run across people who are under the impression that you work in IT because you secretly yearn to indulge the counterproductive whimsies of everyone else. Your job is to deprogram these people and help them see the light.

Why should you do this? Because if you do not, you could end up explaining to a C-level executive why a user brought down the company’s servers when he began forwarding an e-mail promising untold wealth from deposed Nigerian princes.

How do you do this? Illinois Institute of Technology systems specialist Valeria Scarlata says it starts with e-mail: “Write a clear, friendly e-mail and send out updates and notifications of IT interruptions and maintenance and changes well ahead of time.” Once you’ve mastered that, move on to using that friendly communications style to explain why IT does what it does.

A lot of users automatically put their wants ahead of company priorities — and, of course, IT’s priorities. So they need a little reminder from time to time that their wants could have repercussions beyond their desktop. And maybe, their me-me-me attitude could use a little adjustment.

What’s the likely payoff? If everyone in the company understands where you’re coming from and why, they’re either going to have to support you or they will be the ones explaining to that C-level executive why they’re making the oh-so-diligent IT department’s job that much harder.

4. Idiot-proof all your hardware

A sys admin who asked to remain anonymous shares his secret for managing everyone else in the office: “If a user needs to use a machine or use a service like an internal database server, then bulletproof the thing such that if it’s rebooted, then everything comes up without hand-tending intervention.”

Why should you do this? Says the sys admin: “I would far rather spend five minutes tweaking an init script than to be called at home when someone kicked the power cord out accidentally. Just this extra little bit of work goes a long way in keeping people out of your face.”

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How do you do this? It’s a matter of figuring out which user errors are most likely to command your attention, then finding a way to either circumvent them or have the error appear to fix itself. Our anonymous sys admin says that one of the most basic idiot-proof jobs he ever did involved tweaking the company servers so that all the necessary data and security services auto-started.

What’s the likely payoff? You’ll have fewer interruptions from people who have inadvertently dimmed their monitor to black. Unless, of course, you rely on those incidents for cheap entertainment every day.

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5. Teach your users to fish, so you don’t have to hit them with the fish once a week

IIT’s Scarlata offers this hands-on advice: “The worst thing IT staff can do is just grab the mouse and do everything for the user.” We know, we know — the temptation to just do it in two minutes yourself to spare yourself the agony of watching someone else do something wrong for ten is overwhelming. But it’s essential for the user to learn why something works. Otherwise, they’ll never learn to do anything correctly themselves.

Why should you do this? If your users are prevailing on you to help them with tasks you know they’ll be doing all the time, they’re really wasting your time. By teaching them, you’re taking back your time.

How do you do this? Jump ahead in the article to Tip No. 6 [8]: It helps to have good documentation to leave with your users. But don’t just fling down a few pages of instructions and walk off. Sit down and show the user the process — then have them walk through it using your instructions.

This requires you to listen and talk to the user. We’re sorry about that, but them’s the breaks. “Tech support has to listen for clues to determine at what level the customer is and be sure to approach the situation that way,” says Krista Cizzozzi, director of technical support for PracticeWorks, a dental-office IT support subsidiary of Eastman Kodak.

What’s the likely payoff? Not only will you spend less time fixing the same problems over and over again, you’ll also gain a reputation as someone who can help decode the mysteries of the tech infrastructure. This kind of profile will only burnish your reputation throughout the entire company.

6. RTFM is a valid user management tactic. But you have to WTFM first

Documentation is the ultimate source code — it tells everyone how something’s put together, how it works, and what you can do with it. It is also a handy way to keep people off your back: Refer them to the documentation and let them learn to help themselves.

Why should you do this? Let’s put aside the “Because then people will stop bothering me!” argument and think about this from a career-strategy perspective. According to consultant and product developer Johanna Rothman, being comfortable enough to teach other people how to do things marks you as a team player. For reasons beyond our ken, team players are typically more trusted in the workplace (possibly because they don’t hold companies hostage by refusing to disclose how they do their jobs).

Trusted employees get more interesting and lucrative work assignments. And if all it takes to earn that trust is a Word doc, why haven’t you started typing?

How do you do this? Rothman suggests trying this first: “Put yourself in the role of someone who’s new to the application, new to the system, and possibly new to the company. That person doesn’t know the details you know, and those details are key to great documentation.”

Once you’ve finished this exercise in empathy, think of how the process or code you’re documenting fits into the IT system or the company as a whole. In other words, start by looking at the details that trip up users, then move back so everyone gets a clear look at the big picture.

What’s the likely payoff? Writing documentation typically helps you master your subject inside and out — so this provides a valuable opportunity to find a system’s weaknesses and start working to eliminate them.

7. Schedule time for the care and feeding of users

PracticeWorks’ Cizzozzi says, “The technical support world is one of relationships.” You don’t ever want to be in a situation where your boss is telling you that this relationship just isn’t working out.

Why should you do this? Because nobody wants their job — or their client — to break up with them. Not doing sufficient relationship maintenance now could lead to drastic financial triage later.

How do you do this? Cizzozzi admits this is tricky, since you have to strike a balance between the quality of your interactions with your users and how much time and money such relationship maintenance eats up. Like all good relationships, this one starts when both parties understand what’s expected of them, so ask how your users want you to spend your time, then work back from that. Their job is to dream beautiful dreams and your job is to say, “So, if you’d like me to support 100 users and upgrade 1,000 machines to a new OS, you will be paying more, right? Or shall we prioritize?”

All the subsequent maintenance goes into helping the customer get back to what they told you they wanted, leavened with a healthy dose of reality. It’s the equivalent of ending an awkward conversation with “Please don’t let me detain you. Good-bye.”

What’s the likely payoff? Your customers — be they internal or external — will start thinking of you as the person who’s respectful of their time. And they won’t notice that the time you’re most respecting is your own.

8. Designate a departmental scapegoat

Think “Lord of the Flies” meets “Hackers.” Designate one or two people as your IT department’s public faces. They’ll be the ones who are dispatched to handle external customer demands and troubleshoot for panicky users. This way, the people in your department who shouldn’t be exposed to users can be kept safely away from them.

Why should you do this? Because you personally don’t want to deal with someone having a hissy over their e-mail. But you’ve got to find a good excuse for making someone else do your dirty work, so try this one: Dealing with the users enhances professional development. Or, as Cizzozzi says, “Using a person’s strengths benefits them personally and the department as a whole.”

How do you do this? Pay attention to which team members have a knack for soothing the savage. Once you’ve done the preliminary scouting among your IT team, find a way to reorganize the department so that your designated troubleshooters know what their duties include. Then be sure to pass the word around the company as to who the new IT heroes are.

What’s the likely payoff? For you, it keeps the users out of your hair. For the unlucky scapegoat, they get a chance to polish their instructional skills, find out what decisions within the company will affect them and their department, and generally become well-known — so much so that they might be layoff-proof. We’ll leave it to you to decide who in the department got the better end of the deal.

Source: Infoworld

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