For Technical Support Teams: A Short Guide to User Personalities
Test and Monitor | Posted December 11, 2013

Most people associate “profiling” with negative behaviors, but categorizing users by background and interest isn’t a bad thing. Developers have long used user personas to design software that addresses each user’s need. Smart business people use profiling to read the people they work with, to suggest causes and effects and to adjust their behavior accordingly. There’s no reason why profiling can’t be used to help a technical support team offer better service.

For well over a decade I have directly supported or managed teams that support thousands of users, from the technically challenged to the DIY client. I realized that most users fall into one or more categories I call profiles. Each of these six profiles represents a class of individuals and skill levels that your technical support team deals with on a regular, if not daily, basis.

Some customer support team members may already work with these personalities naturally: Just look for the engineers who are not only the most popular with users but who also perform well.  These profiles are not presented for those support people for whom user-management skills come easily; they are for the rest of your team, the people who can benefit from identifying user personas to improve their performance – and the satisfaction of the end users.

A few rules can help these profiles work to their greatest effectiveness:

  • People should never feel they are being profiled. The sole purpose of these profiles is to help your engineers better understand how to work with these very different types of people. Don’t reveal to anyone these profiles. Never apply the cutesy names to real people.
  • The watchword should always be patience. Even if some of your engineers are not able to apply these profiles, they must not be rude, intolerant, or wear negative emotions on their sleeves. The user should always feel comfortable and that you are working hard to resolve their issues.
  • Unlike other industries, in IT the user is not always right. It is not your team’s duty to point this out. Instead, explain why the user’s expectations are not possible – clearly, and free of rancor and condescension.

Remember, the people you support are just using technology. If they fully understood technology they might very well be working in the IT department, but they aren’t. It is Technical Support’s mission to make sure these people can do their jobs.

The profiles are best determined in person, though it is possible to determine from a phone or chat support client. However, it is better to maintain a simplified support methodology when using these remote support forms.

Mr. Clueless

This individual isn’t a Luddite; he simply does not grasp the concepts of general computing. Mr. Clueless is not necessarily ignorant on other subjects; they are often professionals such as lawyers, doctors, administrators, or the like. Some can even be officers in a corporation, but this is not common (See: Ms. Chairman).

Most of the skills Mr. Clueless has learned are by rote. He merely repeats steps, and if something changes in his routine he is immediately lost (i.e., an update changes the desktop icon or modifies a dialog box).

I have come across a number of people like this in the past two decades. Think of them as people who only speak English and yet, when thrown into Japanese culture, expect to make their way without effort. One such client required daily tutoring for over a month after switching from Windows Me to Windows XP due to the changes in the Windows Start menu.

At times, it can be a challenge to maintain your patience levels with Mr. Clueless, but it’s always worth it. To this day that client still speaks fondly of that month and he has remained one of my biggest fans.

TREATMENT: You must be patient with Mr. Clueless and visually verify all aspects of their issues. To win him over, identify with his issues. He wants to feel you understand him and aren't just an arrogant support desk engineer.

For Mr. Clueless, the engineer should initiate a remote session. The less the user must describe, the more comfortable he feels, and the less frustrated the support person will be – since it’s likely that Mr. Clueless doesn’t understand the technology well enough to define the problem.

If it helps, you can tell Mr. Clueless that it’s okay to leave his desk to complete other tasks while you work on the problem. Many Mr. Clueless types appreciate not needing to be included in the process. Just make sure you understand what he needs beforehand. Be prepared to walk him through processes that are not what he expects. If you can, give him written instructions to refer to over and over again. (This may also have the benefit of keeping him from calling Support as often.)

TIP:  As soon as you identify a Mr. Clueless, permanently install the remote client so he never has to click on anything again to get remote support.

Ms. Chairman

This individual’s focus is on business, logistics, and operations. Her technology skills are fair to median, but she views technology (whether it’s her desktop computer,  Blackberry, or in-house custom Web application) as means to an end. When it doesn't perform, she is frustrated.

I worked with a number of Ms. Chairmen, ranging from small business owners to the CEOs of multinational corporations. While they have different personalities, at their core there is a commonality: intensity. The company is in their hands, and success is a measure of the quality of their job. The technologies they use are just tools to help them achieve that success, and if those tools do not work, they often decide what the better tools are – and that does not reflect well on IT. It is, after all, IT’s job to make sure the best tools are implemented.

It is not always easy to make technology work, but in my experience I have found that communicating early and often helps Ms. Chairman understand that you are as concerned about making the tools work as she is. This can be an opportunity to make recommendations about replacement technologies. Just make sure that your team processes such recommendations through the proper channels and that the changes are justified. I often find that it is helpful to use ITIL methodologies for change management to develop project plans.

TREATMENT: You must be deferential to Ms. Chairman, as she approves departmental budgets. She also is likely to expect her service to be better than others and to come first.

There are two types of Ms. Chairman. First is the In-Your-Face Type-I who does everything on her own, because she can’t rely on others to get it done to her satisfaction. Second is the Through-A-Proxy Type-II who uses an assistant for everything, even direct human contact. When dealing with a Type-I focus primarily on getting an engineer at her desk immediately. While it is not the best situation to be in, be prepared to provide as much support as possible to Ms. Chairman and work hard to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

Circumstances are easier to manage with a Type-II. You can generally work with the profile type of the assistant, but always be aware that he is a proxy for Ms. Chairman; do not let your guard slip.

TIP: The Ms. Chairman profile is frequently another profile at the same time. Apply the treatment recommendations for that profile, but the Ms. Chairman profile takes precedence over the secondary profile.  

Mr. Loungechair

If there is a laid back, easy going individual, its Mr. Loungechair. He’s cool with everything, is generally very self-confident, and understands your issues – including that’s he’s not the top of the heap. Mr. Loungechair likes to joke around and is often very easy to deal with. In fact, this lounge lizard may lull you into a state of relaxation that you cannot afford. From the moment you’re on the phone or in IM with this person, you are his best pal. Mr. Loungechair is frequently also a Mr. Clueless.

TREATMENT: This profile may be chill and happy-go-lucky, but don’t let this fool you. Consider Mr. Loungechair’s loose attitude as dangerous as a loaded gun. Proceed quickly to a solution, avoiding as much small talk as possible. If you have the facility to quickly manage issues at the same time you engage in his antics, that’s fine. If not, then resist the urge to chatter; just maintain at least some small interest in what he is talking about or he feels ignored.

The reason Mr. Loungechair is dangerous is because this profile is often associated with someone influential, possibly even a board member. Class Clowns classically are not low-level employees who rise in the ranks due to their silliness. Mr. Loungechair can be freewheeling because he has influence and suppressed the urge to be a prankster as he worked his way up the ladder. If you do not properly service Mr. Loungechair, he may mention this to the influential people he regularly interacts with, and that is not desirable.

TIP: Remain calm.

Ms. Stresslevel

This character comes in two primary forms: Alpha Stresslevel and Proxy Stresslevel. Whether she is naturally high strung, is feeling job pressure, or reports to a high-level executive who passes on the pressure, Ms. Stresslevel must have every issue dealt with in a timely fashion, preferably last week. The typical form of expression for Ms. Stresslevel is that every single problem she experiences is the end of the world.

If I had a dollar for every Ms. Stresslevel I’ve had to support, I’d be a rich man. I find her at all organization levels, but she is most frequently in positions that get a lot of work traffic that a number of departments count on.

I commonly schedule peremptory strikes on Ms. Stresslevel users. For example, monitor her remaining hard drive space to ensure she isn’t going to have a problem; or stop by her desk to ask how things are going, even if she didn’t ask a question. She correctly interprets this as tech support cares and can be trusted. This reduces the level of stress coming into the technical support team, and also helps the perpetually-stressed individual. It’s nice to help others, and it never hurts to build some positive emotional capital.

TREATMENT: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to send this person somewhere to distract them. While it may not be pleasant to deal with Ms. Stresslevel because her perception of what constitutes the “end of the world” is out of whack, it’s still quite real to her.

Engage Ms. Stresslevel in the solution to win her over. Focus on the problem and suggest a possible solution as quickly as possible, and then explain it to her from a 10,000-foot perspective while you are working on the solution. If you can show that you can figure things out, calm her down, and fix the problem all at the same time, she will develop a (sometimes grudging) respect for you. Winner!

TIP: Pay attention to her reactions to your explanations and adjust them accordingly. If you start your explanation and she becomes restless and distracted, curb it. If she engages, continue. Ms. Stresslevel often feels better when she perceives she has a grasp on the problem, which gives her a measure of control over the situation.

Mr. Professor

Mr. Professor is your “friend,” but in a rude, condescending way. He is always right and knows far more about technology than the entire support team put together. Any problems Mr. Professor encounters are the fault of the support team, or occasionally a software or hardware failure. He is often indignant about not having administrator access to “his” system and looks on the need to call for assistance with great loathing and disdain. The Professor’s modus operandi is to angrily explain all of the technical things he did to identify and solve the problem (and to demonstrate it’s not his fault).

I’ve found at least one Mr. Professor in every office, and they represent a range of personalities. In almost all small companies, most often I’ve found this profile to be the person with the greatest technical aptitude who was pushed into being “The IT Guy.” He can be very protective of “his” baby, though some can be relieved that you are there to “take over.”

In larger offices and corporate environments, Mr. Professor desires control in all things. He almost always requests (sometimes demands) Administrator rights. Resist the urge, no matter how friendly he acts.

TREATMENT: Don’t interrupt Mr. Professor while he is listing all of the steps he tried so far. This information can be helpful in determining if he actually knows something.

Do not, under any circumstances, explain how the technology works to this personality. Doing so invites comparisons to Mr. Professor’s beliefs, which can frequently be incomplete or just wrong, and this can spark debates which may lead to an argument. Arguing with users is unacceptable, so it’s best to avoid such “discussions.” It’s best to not discuss anything outside the problem scope. Negative interactions get around the office, and that could make things harder for the IT department.

TIP: At no time shall you reveal to Mr. Professor that the problem was user error, even if it was.

Ms. Perfect

Ms. Perfect is the perfect client. She is attentive, kind, accommodating, and speaks well of you to the ends of the Earth. She is so pleasant to serve that you make a point of checking in with to her make sure she is happy. You fix any issues as quickly as you can, even though she says she can wait (another endearing quality). It is this small set of people who make your day.

I have known precious few Ms. Perfects, though they do exist. I have always found them in well-managed organizations in low stress positions. The ones I have known have, however, been influential, and they have good relations with most departments. In some cases, I’ve leveraged a positive relationship with a Ms. Perfect into leverage elsewhere, in part because she’s willing to speak well about someone’s true helpfulness or other virtues.

TREATMENT: You naturally try to help Ms. Perfect as much as you can. Do not, however, take her for granted. Her praise, liberally spread around the office, fosters and grows your cachet in the office, and causes more Ms. Perfects to be born. Cultivate your Ms. Perfects and you will soon have several more.

The Wrap-up

These profiles are sometimes combined, so always take your time to evaluate all new users. Be swift, sure, friendly, and respectful until you know more about the person you’re aiming to help. If you do, you can't go wrong.

About the author:

Tyler Regas is a professional writer, self-proclaimed nerd, and consultant with over 15 years of experience. He has worked freelance jobs as a small business and high-end consultant, for managed services companies and in corporate IT departments. He has done everything from crawling under desks to designing server environments for entire organizations. He lives in Southern California with his wife of 17 years and their 15-year-old daughter.

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