Guest Column | March 8, 2021

Why Human Skills Are More Essential Than Ever In A Virtual World

By Paul Hesselschwerdt, Global Partners Training

Virtual Pharma Companies: The Future Is Now

In his 2015 book, Humans are Underrated, author Geoff Colvin argues that the most essential skill for 21st-century employees is the ability to create empathy. Colvin writes; “Empathy is the foundation of all other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances.” Colvin goes on to define empathy as “Discerning what some other person is thinking and feeling and responding in some appropriate way.”

Colvin wrote that back in 2015 when most of the time service people interacted with customers face-to-face or at least on the telephone. Although emails and texts were increasingly used as standard forms of communication, most people knew that to understand the difficulties a customer might be experiencing, you had to be able to interact with them directly. Things like their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice could provide valuable clues as to what someone was thinking and feeling.

COVID-19 changed all that by making it difficult, if not impossible to meet with people face-to-face. The COVID-19 restrictions also accelerated the use of AR, VR, and other digital technologies that decrease direct human-to-human interactions. In 2015, Colvin cited research that showed that the ability to create empathy was already declining due to the increase in technologies such as texting and email. No doubt the trends of the past year have made the use of human interaction skills more difficult, and yet more essential, for service people.

So, what are the essential ‘human’ skills that make service people especially valuable to their customers and their companies in the new virtual world? Here are three skills that service people are finding to be most important.

Hyperactive Listening

The first is what we call Hyperactive listening. According to communication guru Alfred Mehrabian, active listening can be defined as using all your listening ‘Channels’. This means listening not only to the actual words spoken by someone but also paying attention to their tone of voice and observing their non-verbals like body language and facial expressions. The challenge of using all the Mehrabian channels is that they work best when you are in a face-to-face, unstructured discussion, where these subtle clues are more likely to come up. Zoom calls and other structured virtual meetings don’t allow the time or surroundings for people to notice a tone of voice or nonverbal sign.

To overcome these limitations, people need to ramp up their active listening by doing a couple of things. First, be aware of the context surrounding the virtual meeting. What’s going on right now that is likely to be affecting the people on the call? Are they likely to be distracted, anxious, or fearful about their business? About their situation? Being aware of the context of the meeting helps to anticipate people’s likely state of mind which enables others to recognize their hidden concerns and respond to them empathetically.

Second, listen for differences in the way people are discussing issues in the meeting vs. how they might have behaved in the past, especially in face-to-face meetings. One supply chain manager we know described a customer who would always ask questions about the data that was being presented in their weekly meetings. As meetings became virtual, the same customer simply stopped asking questions. The supply chain manager noticed the behavior change and started asking the customer directly what questions they might have. She even started anticipating the customer’s questions, answering them proactively, then asking what other questions might be on the customer’s mind. The customer quickly returned to their inquisitive ways.

Empathetic Acknowledging

Hyperactive listening helps to reveal the state of mind of others, even in a virtual setting where non-verbal clues are not available. It enables people to then acknowledge empathetically the hidden concerns that people might be holding back. As Colvin points out, understanding those concerns is not enough, you then need to ‘respond in some appropriate way’. This can simply mean saying something that shows you understand. Simple expressions that start with…” I can imagine…” or “I understand…”, “I don’t blame you…” immediately convey that you understand and want to help.

Asking Powerful Questions

Powerful questions are open questions, intended to evoke a thoughtful, detailed response. They are often initially answered with a “Now that’s a good question!”. Powerful questions are also informed open questions; that is, they let the other person know that you have information and insights that will help address their situation. For example, service people who are using VR and AR to provide remote service need to ask questions that tell them how well the customer on site understands the problem with the equipment or how well the customer understands the VR tool or both.

Use The 3 Essential Skills Together For Maximum Impact

All three essential skills build on each other Hyperactive listening enables a service person to determine all the customer’s concerns, including hidden ones. These insights are the ingredients that are used to acknowledge empathetically. Powerful questions then drive deeper into the details of the situation, while providing the customer with new insights.

The results from applying these skills are compelling. Service people report faster and more complete resolution of customer problems, despite the limitations from remote service and use of complex VR and AR tools. They also describe increases in credibility and trust and perhaps most importantly a shift in customer thinking from simply having a good supplier to having a trusted business partner.

Coming Next: The next article in our series on Digital Transformation looks at how industry leaders are working to offset the negative impacts of the shift to working in virtual environments.

About The Author

Paul Hesselschwerdt has been a senior executive in training and consulting firms for more than 30 years. He has designed and implemented programs in customer service, sales and marketing, leadership, and project management across a range of industries, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and high technology. For additional insights, please visit