For years I've been leading classes in communication skills and many of my clients have been technology companies. I tend to work with their Level 2 and Level 3 engineers, and inevitably a participant will tell me “I think they enrolled me in this class by mistake. I don’t work directly with customers; I’m an escalation engineer and everyone I work with is internal.”
While everyone agrees that service and support people need to be nice to their external customers (the ones who pay for our products and services), some fail to see the role of communication skills in creating a happy work environment that sets everyone up for success.
Here are a couple reasons why communication skills training is essential for “internal-only” employees.
Reason #1: A common service language helps break down barriers.
Indigenous to technology cultures is an “Us/Them” attitude* which has both good and bad consequences: it bonds team members while inhibiting inter-department communication (Note: Anyone who doubts this should spend nine years in a technical support department as I have and see if you feel differently). There’s Support vs. Development; Support vs. Sales; Engineering vs. Management; Field engineers vs. Phone support; Everybody vs. R&D. One of the main reasons behind this is that different departments have different priorities, and it’s a rare day when any of those priorities are in alignment. The biggest thing on Support’s plate, for example, may be a burning customer issue, while the highest priority for Sustaining Engineering may be to understand why the latest regression test failed. Sales needs to move product; managers need to hit their numbers. We close ranks with those whose priorities are closest to our own.
Communication skills are the tools we use to help begin aligning our priorities. The skills one uses to calm down an upset customer are helpful in answering a flaming e-mail from someone in another department. The skills used when you can’t fulfill a customer’s request are valuable when explaining to a manager that your queue is already full but here’s what you can do that might be helpful. Bottom line: good communication reduces friction between departments.
Reason #2: Happiness starts at home.
The less friction we have between departments, the nicer it is to work for our company. There’s plenty of research showing that organizations with good internal communication are more productive than those with poor communication. You don’t need to cite research to understand why: we’re more productive when we’re happier. “Internal-only” employees with whom it’s easy to communicate contribute to happier “external-facing” employees, who in turn contribute to happier, more loyal customers. Bottom line: if you want happy customers, begin by ensuring that your inter-department communication is as effective as possible.
How does a company improve internal communications? Here are some of the best industry practices employed by those organizations with loyal customers and happy employees:
- Start with an understanding that we are all customers of each other. Some of our customers are internal, some are external, and we can communicate better with all of them by using our best communication skills.
- Get everyone on-board with a common service language. This doesn't mean that a field engineer, a manager and a phone rep always share the same communication needs; it means that communication skills training for your organization should provide a comprehensive framework which encompasses the vocabulary, skills and scenarios characteristic to all positions.
- Finally, employ the communication skills you want your employees and coworkers to emulate. Don’t speak negatively about other departments, choose your words just as carefully whether you’re sending an e-mail or speaking on the phone, and remember that respect and patience go a long way in helping us align our understanding with other groups.
As Gandhi so eloquently stated: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
* It’s my belief that if Pink Floyd hadn't written “Us and Them” for Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, a song by the same title would have been written by technical support engineers a few decades later.