Monday, November 24, 2008

Help Desk FAQ

A long time ago, I managed technology help desks for some very large companies. Although it's been years since I traded my headset for a pen, I continue to provide ongoing technology support - and writing help, and whatever else comes along - to a wide range of friends and family members. When the phone rings, I have a hard time saying no. Indeed, all I want to do is make things work for people.

Most folks I work with are overtly appreciative and kind. And make no mistake: I absolutely love helping this vast majority of people. The occasional person, however, still manages to tick me off. Since this is something I gladly do because it's the right thing to do, I thought now would be a good opportunity to review some fairly simple ground rules. Some folks, it seems, need the occasional gentle reminder:
  • Politeness. Kindly say please or thank you at least once. Similarly, if you call my house and my wife picks up the phone, please at least pretend to be glad you've reached her before you hurriedly ask where I am.
  • Effort. If I e-mail you an answer with some suggestions, please don't call me a day later without having first read my message.
  • Time management. If, after an hour of involved discussion, you're still not "getting it" after I've made a dozen different suggestions, please keep in mind that I might prefer to spend the rest of the evening (or Sunday afternoon, or whatever precious little free time I've got) with my wife, my kids, my dog, or alone. I appreciate when folks recognize the value of my time.
  • More politeness. If you've figured things out, please let me know. I like when folks close the loop with me and don't leave me wondering where things are at. (See previous "value of my time" point, as when you fail to do even this, it's clear that my time really doesn't matter to you.)
  • Prioritization. If you call me while I'm working and I can't immediately respond, don't be upset with me. At the end of the day, I have bills to pay, a career to sustain and a family to raise, too.
  • More prioritization. Per the above, if you are upset with me for failing to drop everything and move you to the top of my priority list, I really don't want to hear it.
  • Listening skills & respect. If I set boundaries around how or when to call me, please respect them. Don't keep calling my cell phone during core business hours when I've explicitly asked you to either call the home line or e-mail me during that time.
  • Limits. Know when to say when. I'm happy to share editing tips on your marketing plan and make suggestions on how to punch up that web copy. But if you ask me to make sales calls on your behalf or attend meetings with your marketing team - who you're paying for their time - then you're seriously pushing it.
  • More limits. Don't "hunt" me. What's hunting? It starts with an instant message, then becomes a voicemail at home, a voicemail on my cell, and an e-mail message. Leaving multiple messages in rapid succession will not accelerate my response to you. It will, however, force me to waste time retrieving said multiple messages, and it will accelerate the rate at which I get ticked off with you. Add bonus unhappy points if you try repeat-calling me while I'm in the middle of an interview.
At the end of the day, I'm happy to help. It's my nature to just say yes. But to the relative minority who consistently abuse that trust, please know that this really is a two-way street. I don't expect quid pro quo payback - if you think that's why I do this, then you really don't know me - but I do expect a little respect, empathy and appreciation. If you can't give me at least that, then you may want to find another help desk in future.

Your turn: Am I being too tough here? I'd love to hear your thoughts on your own "help desk" experiences.

One more thing: I know this entry may just upset some folks. I'm sorry about this. But if you're one of the righteous majority - and frankly, 99% of you are in that majority - you know this absolutely doesn't apply to you. If you're one of the 1%, you recognize yourself in this, and you hear what I'm saying, hopefully we'll have a new level of mutually respectful understanding. And if you're not hearing me, I've just gotten back some time to spend with the people who matter most.


All This Trouble... said...

This is the nicest "coming to Jesus" talk anyone has ever had with me. That's what we call "Gentle reminders" down here in the south. I'd think one would certainly prefer this to a nice jab in the jaw.

Some people just can't be helped. It's their problem so...Chin up!

Mojo said...

Wow ... this resonates in a big, big way. And no, I absolutely do not think you're being at all unreasonable about it at all. I almost cringe when I answer the question "So what do you do?" because the answer ("I'm a computer programmer") is almost invariably going to elicit at least a few questions about "why this or that program is running wonky on my PC". I can usually deflect those with the follow up "I work in a UNIX shop, so I don't really know much more about Windows than you do". But now and then I get somebody who doesn't understand that there's a vast difference between one system and another. (Yes, Mom, I'm looking at you.)

And like you I really, really want to answer them all, solve all the problems and make things work (maybe I have a hero complex or something). But really? All the advantage I have over the typical Windows (or Mac for that matter) user is a knowledge of basic programming concepts. Which might lead me to a solution eventually, but don't ask em to decipher that string of error messages that Microsoft puked up when your program crashed. I have no more idea what those mean than you do.

So yeah. I'm feelin' your pain.

Lori said...

You're hardly being tough on people. I'm appalled that you even have to say these things as I'd think people would automatically just 'get it'. As you say, if people are angry at these words, then they are exactly those you're speaking to.

Thank you for visiting my blog. I have been horrible about writing for some time now...lots of changes going on around me and I'm having trouble the written word! I appreciate your remembering that I'm still around and I, in turn, will try to be better about making the rounds myself.

Blessings to you and your family.

~j said...

we're self employed and we get these kind of requests all the time. it can be awkward and frustrating. i think you handled it nicely. although, i doubt that the 1% will see themselves. they are usually pretty clueless. =D

caramaena said...

Carmi, there's a reason have a tshirt saying 'No, I will not fix your computer' :)

I'm a helpdesk rep and my partner is also in IT. We've helped our respective families with PC problems over the years but thankfully there hasn't been a lot to deal with. I know where you're coming from though!

Michael K. Althouse said...

I remember asking you to look at one of my articles I wrote for a magazine writing class while I was an undergrad. I was honored that you agreed to take the time to look at it and blown away when you sent it back to me. It was obviously more than just a few minutes of your time... and the feedback I received from you has remained in my tool box to this day. I appreciated it then and it's still true today.

It also set another kind of example as I have been able to pay it forward on more than one occasion. It is not too much to ask for a little courtesy - besides, you shouldn't have to.


Mystic Thistle said...

I have made "practicing being more assertive" one of my goals this year. You were kind yet firm and it was well said. I honestly may print this out and refer to it as a way to practice. And share it with a friend of mine who has made this same goal for herself this year. Thank-you.

Pamela said...

This is a good thing. I would rather have someone tell me up front then wait until I'm out of ear shot and call me something worse than Ramona the Pest.

But, hey -- you're going to find out that some of your Ramona's won't recognize themselves even if you read it to them.

By the way, I need some help on my... (

bwaa ha ha ha ha ha)

Lori Schmidt (LoriProPhoto) said...

Hi Carmi
I can definitely relate to this but on a different level. I get so tired of people thinking that photography is a "hobby" and won't I just come and take this shot of so and so or go here and just take a few other pictures while I am there etc. Taking my camera with me is WORK and any income I earn is through my photographs and no I don't want to always be the one to bring my camera (for no monetary compensation) to family functions to capture such occasions. I also have bills to pay and it makes me mad when people can't understand that.

Vent over. Stay warm.


sealaura said...

I don't think you are being harsh I think these are great reminders. I know that when I see IT people at school I get so excited because I want them to help me so bad, but I try not to jump on them like a wild dog because I realize how much our relationship needs to be nurtured in order for them to help me. I have to admit I have hunted in the past, but that is why your post is a good reminder for our inner wild dog!

Anonymous said...

Oooh boundaries, without out them what is there but unneccesary pandemoniom, with them a sense of balance.... still working on all that! ;)

Gretchen said...

I'm reading your list going, Yes, uh-huh, duh, of course, yep, I CANNOT believe this isn't normal common sense for your friends and family.

You're a treasure.

Sleepypete said...

You're spot on.

I used to run a few Outlook folders at work, which were dedicated to sorting out people's PC problems. I was always very happy to answer questions put on the forum, mainly because I could pick and choose what questions I'd answer. (Usually by whether I knew something useful :-) And I got a kick out of getting a reputation for knowing all the answers to all the problems.

Trouble is though, some people started going beyond the forum, thinking they'd get a better response by emailing or even phoning me direct. That's not how it works ! It's not just cutting the wider community out of getting a chance to answer or see the answer, it's an intrusion into core business activities ...

It is great to be able to help people out and it's a confidence booster when you're the "go-to guy" when people have a problem but its a pain when they get intrusive.

smarmoofus said...

Completely reasonable. I try to treat everybody as if their time is in short supply and I express my appreciation for any of it that I am granted. Even when a request results in unsatisfactory results (problem couldn't be resolved, they didn't have the answer, or they are not able to provide the item I'm looking for), I always thank them anyway. It's not their fault it didn't work out, and I am glad they were willing to spend the time and effort to try to help out.

Hopefully the people who need this lesson will get it. Good luck.


awareness said...

Batten down the need to do this...and I need to be more clear about my own. NOT like anyone would ask me to help them with their techie stuff....that is laughable given that I am a luddite when it comes to that. However I often have people calling, emailing, dropping by, to my home and office.....heck it happens at the convenience store and the market... before i know it, I'm counselling. Do you know how weird it is to be in the aisle at Walmart and have someone pour their guts out to you about the impotence of their lover? Or, how their son is an addict or, or, or...?

I am interested in people's stories, and I would never turn someone away whose obviously hurting, but I do have a life.

I guess it happens in many careers, eh?

Debbie said...

This applies to so many fields - even my career - I am on call 24/7. From the moment I hit the office, they use my brain instead of their own, if I were not there - what do they do? Scary?

Anonymous said...

Gosh, Carmi. Nobody EVER calls my cell phone. Seriously. I don't have a pager, a blackberry, and I have the cheapest cell phone they offer. I even turn it off half the time. My home phone rings MAYBE three times a day. I'm so not wanted! ;-)
People really don't have a good concept of boundaries, and that's a shame. They don't respect or value family time. I think you've done well to draw these lines firmly and honor them.
It's not too harsh.

Anonymous said...

You ask, "Am I being too tough here?" I say that you are not being tough, you are just setting reasonable ground rules. You have every right to your own life and to setting your own priorities in that life.

It is a shame that those who need to hear your message probably don't think it applies to them.

Anonymous said...

If people are persistent in abusing your kindness, then start sending them a bill for your services.
Do not , however, do something so mundane as asking for cash payment.
Make them send you obscure strange items.
Example: pancakes, a mattel '63 volkswagon micro-bus ( with surfboard attachment), a coupon for bikini waxing....etc

Only if they acquiesce to your outlandish requirements, will you then grant help in the future.

Bradley Bannerman

P.S. any request should start with
" Carmi: Computer Barada Nikto ! "