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The Ups and Downs of User Support

Robin Olsen holds a B.Sc In Computer Systems and has over 20 years of IT Experience. In that time he has worked in many different industries

it's nice to have someone to call when it all just stops working

it's nice to have someone to call when it all just stops working

We work in a digital world

The workplace today has become a complicated place to be. Scanners, personal computers, high production printers and network infrastructure are everywhere. To the average user who was trained to do something other than configure machines all day this can be a frustrating place to work.

As the one responsible for keeping it all working, you are in a rather unique position. No one else except maybe senior management will ever see your organization from the perspective you will see it from. You will encounter all the technical problems from the sales department to shipping/receiving. Sure, everyone gets the full tour on the first day but very few return to those ‘other departments’ on a regular basis. You will.

I have done several rounds of user support in my time for a wide variety of users with varying personalities and attitudes. You get to know people over time. I have seen all types of workplace behavior at one point or another. I have gone from ‘Hero’ to ‘Zero’ and back again, over and over, and so will you.

The frustrated user. They are this way when you get there, they should not be when you leave.

The frustrated user. They are this way when you get there, they should not be when you leave.'s broken you say?

Most of your co-workers you are not always going to interact with daily and when you do interact with them they will usually be in a semi-frustrated state. After all, they have work to do and their tools are broken, this is why they called you. Sometimes they can even be a little scared. All this emotion can reflect in the problem report.

Frustrated people tend to say ‘This damn thing doesn’t work!’ and throw their hands in the air. Not a very detailed problem description. You will want the details.

Small Talk? Really?

So how do you get to them to relax? How about a little small talk to ease the frustration?

I find that small talk can go along way to providing a more comfortable work environment for you to do your work, even after you got the details. Sometimes, it is not a issue, the user will ask you how long and then just leave with the answer and return after that time. Sometimes they hover nervously. That's when a little small talk may come in handy but what to talk about eh?

Most people love to talk about themselves or their families. They pin up photos of family members or even customized desktop wallpaper displaying photos of family, friends, good times. Any one of these things can be used to trigger a simple conversation.

Just do not let your small talk distract you from the reason you are at the user’s desk to begin with and never loiter, when you are done you are done and it is time to get back to work for the user so end it politely, I usually like to make a little harmless joke or something like that, and move on.

Never leave your co-worker feeling stupid. This will just restrict their desire to report problems.

Never leave your co-worker feeling stupid. This will just restrict their desire to report problems.

What did you do to fix it?

Believe or not most users do not care why their system does not work right. I found it best to avoid allowing my ‘brilliance’ to shine too brightly. I don't normally discuss the technical details involved in any work I do unless the user or a manager asks me to. Offering it freely can be frustrating to users, unless the technical detail is something I need to tell the user, like ‘use the mouse not the track pad’. Just tell them it works now and walk away the ‘Hero’.

You should also discourage assigning blame for computer issues unless such an assignment would somehow help you fix the problem or is useful in preventing recurrences. Blaming the user for common problems is unprofessional and discourages the user from reporting further problems down the road. Even doing it as joke should be discouraged and never imply the user is not intelligent, everyone is intelligent, not everyone has the technical training.

Escalation is never a desired resolution but sometimes it is the only way to go.

Escalation is never a desired resolution but sometimes it is the only way to go.

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When escalation is the resolution...

One of the worst things that a user can hear is that support cannot handle the issue and it needs to be escalated. This does happen and it is very frustrating for the end user as it means they are going to be offline longer than anticipated and there may be potential data loss involved as well. Two things a user does not want to hear.

Make sure that the reason for escalation is clearly understood,whatever it might be.

Follow through on the issue as well, make sure that the problem gets resolved, don't just move on and forget it, also make yourself available to act as a 'go between' for your co-worker and what is most likely an off site help desk. This will build confidence in you with your co-workers.

Document Everything!

Document all support calls and have your users submit all problem reports in an email that you can then keep. Don't take problem reports on the fly. Typically, if the organization is too small to justify a ticketing system for problem reporting then you, as a computer professional, are probably wearing more than one hat so to speak. Documenting really helps out in this case, especially when you are jumping from network administrator to user support and back again all day. This will help protect you as well from the occasional user who will be unsatisfied with one of your answers.

Never engage in a hostile discussion or even disagreements that you can simply pass up the chain to your supervisor. If things get ugly simply back off, promise nothing and tell them they need to talk to your (or their) supervisor.

Always make sure you stick to protocols and guidelines within your organization. Doing favours for people will only get you in hot water. They will not blame the user for illegal software installed on corporate machines if you are the only one who has rights to install software.

A support person is a fly on the wall...

At the end of the day...

The final point to make is about keeping confidence. As you support your organization you will come into contact with every level and department they have. This includes interactions with and supporting senior management and executive level people. You hear things, you see things. Your end of a phone conversation, email subject lines, document contents. Never reveal what you see as you go about your duties or you will destroy any trust you have built and you need their trust to succeed.

I joined I.T over 25 years ago. In that time I have performed in every aspect of a I.T department from DBA and Developer to network administrator to user support and in all aspects of the I.T profession one constant has always remained – dealing with people is as big a part of your job as dealing with technology is.

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Robin Olsen


Robert Nicholson from Silicon Valley on July 28, 2020:

My job requires me to frequently deal with tech support reps from many companies. The quality of support varies widely, mostly due to the policies set by their companies. However, I always try to be courteous and professional, because I know it's a tough job.

Amelia Griggs from U.S. on January 20, 2019:

Hey Robin, I can appreciate this article, as My background is IT as well, I worked at a help desk too and visited people’s cubicles. I found it rewarding and even amusing at times. I moved to training and dev/Instructional Design.

Your article made me think of the Nick Burns Computer Guy skit on SNL with Jimmy Fallon, extremely funny! I’m sure you’ve seen it but just in case here’s a clip, I could not find the whole thing on YouTube.

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