PATHWAYS — Volume10, Number 1 – February, 1998

Focus: New Trends in Technical Support

Quality technical support personnel are in critical demand. Compounding this demand are the expanding expectations of customers and employers for people in this role. Customers and employers always expect people in technical support to know their own products and services. But now, support personnel are often expected to help customers with all customer technical requirements, not just those associated with a specific product or service offering. This new, consulting relationship with customers requires a wide range of skills beyond traditional technical knowledge—especially skills such as interpersonal communications, problem analysis, problem solving, and negotiation.

These added expectations raise two key problems for management. First, can we (and should we) expect all technical support personnel to be motivated to excel in this re-defined job role? Second, how do we help people develop these new skills?

The motivation issue must be addressed up front. Some technical personnel will not be interested in performing this re-defined role. They are content being the expert on their own products and services. And, this is not necessarily bad; usually there continues to be a requirement for people in the traditional role. But, for technical support personnel seeking improved career opportunities and increased job satisfaction, the re-defined, consultative role can offer significant advantages. We constantly hear statements like these from individuals that have gone through the transition:

You have changed the way I do my job. I can never again look at working with my customers in the same way.

You have helped make my job fun again. I can see the results of my efforts and my customers have an increased respect for my services.

To develop these new skills we must re-think our approach to technical education— traditional lecture/discussion sessions supported with overheads and labs are no longer sufficient. More interpersonal interaction will be required to introduce and permit the practice of skills required to fulfill the consultative role. In the At Issue section, Van Wright reviews a few ideas you might want to consider if you are facing this challenge in your own organization.

John C. Wills
President/CEO

 

AT ISSUE
Moving People From Technical Specialists to Technical Consultants

As John Wills suggests in the Focus section, the education and training tactics we employ must change as job competencies change. Since training organizations have traditionally focused on knowledge learning, most already have a rich repertoire of techniques and delivery methods To teach product/service knowledge, they have drawn from a wide menu of traditional training solutions, including print self-study, classroom lecture/demos, multimedia presentations, distance learning and the like.

But, development of consulting-related skills requires a different set of approaches. The rest of this issue describes some of those approaches.

Technical Consulting Skills Development Approaches

To develop consulting skills, we must be concerned with:

Let's look briefly at each.

Problem Analysis/Problem-solving Training

Teaching consulting skills such as problem analysis and problem-solving suggests a case study or simulation approach. Since there is usually no single, ideal solution when teaching analytical and problem-solving skills, a "right answer" is normally not the real training objective. The goal, rather, is to introduce participants to appropriate consultative approaches, then provide them practice in a realistic but safe consulting situation. By "safe" we mean that participants can make analytical, judgmental, and problem-solving errors during the training sessions and learn from them without jeopardizing business relationships with actual customers. Simulations (often taking the form of on-going case studies) need to include such challenges as:

Interpersonal Interaction Training

Teaching such consulting skills as negotiating and persuasion requires interpersonal interaction. This suggests classroom activities such as role-plays, competitive team exercises, and the like as ingredients in the training design.

Training for Transfer to the Job

Transfer should be another key objective of consultative skills training. By transfer we mean that learners actually apply what they have learned during training to real business situations when back on the job. A number of activities can be built into training to help ensure transfer occurs. One of the most productive is to ask participants to bring actual examples of customer situations and requirements to the training session. During the session, they apply what they are learning to their own customer's situation, developing an action plan to address a total customer solution once they return to the field.

Follow-up mentoring sessions with trainers and managers also help ensure that transfer occurs.

Another transfer tactic is to encourage "networking" among participants, after they have returned to the job site. Today we can take advantage of technology to encourage networking. A Web-based experience-sharing forum can be established so participants can continue to benefit from each other's experiences after formal training is completed. Such electronic forums can also be used by trainers and managers for mentoring.

Performance Testing and Certification for Technical Specialists

The question often arises, "Did the training we offered really accomplish anything?" There is increasing pressure on staff development organizations to demonstrate that actual improvement in staff performance results from the training investment. Many organizations and industries are beginning to require formal certification procedures to verify staff competency. As with training, performance/competency testing methods are influenced by the types of knowledge and skills we are trying to develop. The table [below] shows a few ideas for measuring the knowledge and skills competencies of technical specialists.

Type of Learning

Examples

Methods

Knowledge Learning
  • Policies and procedures
  • Service offerings
  • Product functions / features / benefits
  • Use traditional objective testing techniques such as multiple choice, matching, etc.
  • Compare student written responses with a list of acceptable or ideal responses.
Hands-on Skills
  • Equipment servicing
  • Equipment operation
  • Provide untimed or timed performance task prescriptions for the person to complete.
Communications and Consultative Skills
  • Interviewing and probing
  • Problem/solution analysis
  • Problem solving
  • Negotiation
  • Persuasion
  • Use the same role plays, simulations, team exercises suggested for training practice as performance/competency measures.
  • Present hypothetical mini-case study situations from which the person being evaluated selects from alternatives and justifies the selection orally or in writing.
  • Have individuals develop portfolios of experience to provide evidence of growing competence.
  • Use trainer or manager on-the-job observation and rating.

 

Implications for Implementation

The types of instruction and performance measurement suggested here to develop technical consulting skills have major implications both for course presenters and for the managers of technical consultants.

The Presenter Role in Consultative Skills Development

We are using the term "presenter" here rather than instructor or trainer for a reason. Trainers instruct—the trainer's role is typically to deliver content, demonstrate acceptable performance, and evaluate student performance. But, in consultative skills development the presenter wears a different hat—that of facilitator and mentor. Instead of delivering information, presenters guide activities intended to elicit ideas, judgments, and decisions from participants. They answer procedural questions and provide overall pacing. Presenters may also play the role of customer or client during role plays.

What they do not do is intercede in discussions, give immediate, authoritative answers to questions, express what they would do in a situation, or specify a "school solution" as the only acceptable alternative during simulations and case studies. Instead, they encourage participants to evaluate the pros and cons of alternatives that other participants raise. Performing this new role is often as challenging for traditional classroom trainers as the consulting role is for technical specialists.

Often, too, the presenter's responsibilities do not end at the conclusion of a "training session." Presenters may be as involved as managers in providing performance feedback during portfolio reviews and mentoring situations.

The Manager Role in Consultative Skills Development

If you reflect on the training, transfer, testing, and competency measurement issues discussed earlier, it should be clear that immediate managers must also be actively involved if technical specialists on their staff are to succeed in their new role as technical consultant. Here are some things the manager may be called upon to do:

In Summary

The traditional methods we have used to develop technical competence are still required, but they are not enough. The development of consultative skills requires interpersonal, interactive practice and on-the-job follow-up. Trainers have to become facilitators and mentors. Managers have to become motivators and coaches.

Van O. Wright, Ph.D.
Manager, Product Quality Control

Quotation

You have helped make my job fun again. I can see the results of my efforts, and my customers have an increased respect for my services.

ęCopyright 1998 FLI, Incorporated
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Volume 9, Number 3 - Sept 1997 | Volume 9, Number 4 - Oct 1997
Volume 10, Number 1 - Feb 1998 | Volume 10, Number 2 - May 1998

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