Table of Contents
IT may be for rockstars but really, the trick to getting the best help from your techs is simple. Be honest, think about what the questions we ask you mean, be direct, and explain what you mean. Seriously. That’s all we need. Every time someone says ‘It doesn’t work’ or posts a reply in a forum ‘Me too’, we cry a little. If you’re vague, or don’t use normal terms, we may get a little pedantic on you, but the reason is that we need to make sure you have the problem we’re thinking you have before we tell you how to fix it.
Be Honest Be Honest
The number one reason why something ‘magically’ breaks is because you changed something. This is often seen, from the end-user perspective, as an at-fault change. “I changed this, it broke, therefore it’s my fault.” And in the business world today, no one wants to be at-fault. It’s an ego thing, but it’s also a responsibility thing. Here’s a secret for you. The IT people don’t care whose fault it is. Seriously. We just want to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s all we want. So when we ask you ‘Did you make any changes?’ just tell us ‘Yeah, I modified my profile to have this line.’
Sometimes YOU may not make the change. Sometimes you may have the server or someone else make a change. Sometimes the change seems, to you, totally un-related. It doesn’t matter. Tell us. “I didn’t change anything with IE, but I did install a new twitter app.” That may be the cause! Unrelated software sometimes is written poorly, or weirdly, or just in a way that conflicts with your other software.
If you’re using a CMS like Drupal, WordPress or Joomla, plugins often break things in insane ways you never predicted. And server upgrades can cause conflicts with older code on your installs. Always pay attention to what’s going on with your server.
Think about what the question we ask you means Think about what the question we ask you means
When we ask you if you changed anything, think about that for a moment. It’s like ‘Did you change your oil?’ That’s a pretty simple yes or no answer. But what does the question ‘What did you change?’ mean. Well pretty much it means ‘What’s changed?’ But it also means ‘What were you TOLD to change and you didn’t change?’
The other day, I had a weird situation where someone had modified their profile a month ago to have a line to let them do something else. This was seen as inefficient, and the server guy fixed the server and told them ‘Remove any changes you made or things may break.’ They did not. Fast-forward a couple weeks and my monthly process failed. I asked if they changed anything. They said, honestly, they had not. I talked to the server guy who said ‘Well, they SHOULD have changed this…’ We changed it, it worked. Strictly speaking, they were honest, but they didn’t think about the question. They got hung up on that at-fault point. “WE didn’t change anything,” they said in email and I replied ‘Yes, but you actually were told to change that. It’s not a big deal, it’s an easy fix, but next time, remember to make the recommended changes, or at least document why you didn’t make the change. It’ll make it faster for me to debug.’
That was singing to the wall, though. The guy was let go the next day.
Be Direct Be Direct
This does not mean ‘Be an asshole.’ And in fact, I subscribe to Wil Wheaton’s rule: Don’t be a dick. What it means is don’t beat around the bush. I don’t need to know that you’re logging in from home and it’s distracting. I don’t need you to IM me and ask ‘How are you?’ You don’t care, and neither do I. What we care about is this: What’s the problem?
I get a lot of IMs at work (which is why I don’t use IM at home, by the way) with people saying ‘Hello! How are you?’ and we waste about 10 minutes ‘chatting’ about stuff no one really cares about. I get that you’re trying to be polite, but you’re calling the help desk. The other problem is when someone says ‘Do you have a minute to help me?’ Honestly, rarely, but since I don’t know what you’re talking about, I can’t tell you if I have the time, so I have to say ‘Depends. What’s the problem?’
Here’s an example of a poor IM/phone conversation with tech support (this is, by the way, an actual conversation I had recently):
Tech: Hello, this is Jane, how may I help you?
User: It’s Tom.
Tech: Hello, Tom. How may I help you?
User: How are you?
Tech: Fine, thank you. How may I help you?
User: Do you have a minute?
Tech: Depends on the problem. How may I help you?
User: I’m having a problem.
Tech: Yes, with what?
User: With your application.
Tech: What’s the problem.
User: It’s not working right.
Tech: Okay, can you be more specific?
User: It’s my password.
Tech: Okay. What, specifically, is wrong with your password?
User: It doesn’t work.
Tech: Does it give you an error message?
User: Oh, yes!
Tech: And the error says….?
User: Something about the password being bad.
Tech: Can you try to login again and read the error, out loud, to me?
User: Sure. Okay, it says ‘Your password is incorrect and your account has been locked out.’
Tech: Ah. Okay, I’ll unlock your account and set your password to 123456 – Once you log in, you’ll be asked to change it.
User: Boy, that took a long time!
Look at how long that was. Want to see the GOOD version of the same conversation?
User: Hi, Jane, it’s Bob. I’m having a problem with your Foobar application. When I try to login, it says my password was incorrect and I’m locked out. Can you help me?
Tech: Sure thing, Bob. I’ll unlock your account and set your password to 123456 – Once you log in, you’ll be asked to change it.
Look at how much faster that went because Bob was direct and to the point. He got his problem fixed really quickly because he came prepared. And if the Tech had been busy, he could have easily transfered the call, or opened a ticket, or done a variety of things.
Oh and for the record, I answer the phone: Company name, this is MY NAME. How may I help you?
Explain What You Mean Explain What You Mean
In my previous example, Bob got to the point and explained what the error was right away. This falls under ‘Explain what you mean.’ The phrase ‘It’s broken’ has lost all meaning, if it ever had any. And due to the complex nature of computers, even if your problem as simple as a botched password, we really do need you to explain ‘When I try to log in, the software says my password is invalid.’
If you have a weird error, take a screenshot. They are rarely a bad idea, and can sometimes streamline a problem from ten minutes of talking ‘Okay, where is the icon?’ into a quick ‘Oh! Yeah, I know that one.’ If you get an error message, use the exact error with the exact verbiage, in your support request. Also remember to put your screenshots in a generic format. While PDF, RTF and DOC (and DOCX) are mostly universally readable, XPS is not. PNG is also a great one. Anything that is readable only by proprietary software is a bad idea, even if you know the other person has that software!
Also be descriptive about what you’ve already done to trouble shoot. Don’t say ‘I did everything I could find online!’ That’s vague. Say things like ‘I tried to reset the admin password via SQL, email, PHP, and the emergency script.’ That’s descriptive and tells us what we can skip! On the other hand, don’t get all pedantic. Likely it doesn’t matter if you logged in from home or from work if your email crashes every time you read an email from Bob. On the other hand, if you can get to a website from home and not work, the odds are location does play a factor. While you should be descriptive, think about relationships between what information you’re providing and what your problem is. Later on, you might be asked ‘Does this work if you try it at home?’ But we probably won’t ask if it works on your Mac, if it’s a Windows Only application. Again, think about the questions and the relationship.
Don’t get mad when you’re treated like a noob Don’t get mad when you’re treated like a noob
If you’re a user, sometimes when you provide a limited amount of information, techs default to the lowest common denominator. If you ask a question which we think is pretty standard, is answered in the FAQs (or by 5 minutes in Google), we tend to assume you’re new at all this, and pitch you the simple answer. This means you DON’T get told how and why something works, just how to do it. This means you may get what looks like a flippant response. This does not mean we, techs, think you’re an idiot. It means we can’t tell, from your post, if you’re a BOFH or a bean counter. So we assume bean counter and if you reply ‘Yeah, I did all that.’ well it’s your own damn fault for not telling us what you did in the first place.
I try not to treat people like rank newbies, but. But. Sometimes I get a question that is mind-numbingly obvious with ten minutes of looking. Asking for help should be the last resort for some people. Like if you’re running a blog on your own server, you need to learn how to help yourself. On the other hand, at work, you should call for help when the software breaks. Someone is paid to fix it, and you should utilize them. Of course, if the techs have made a quick FAQ ‘if you get this error, you need to delete this temp file’ you should read it and try it.
How to write a good help request How to write a good help request
For your help desk at work, it’s pretty simple:
I’m using software FOOBAR and when I try to do BAZ I get the following error:
. I’ve included a screenshot. I was able to do BAZ yesterday, and I have not installed any new software.
I’m a new user of FOOBAR and I can login, but when I click on BAZ, nothing displays in my right hand menu pane. Included is a screenshot.
I need to use FOOBAR. How do I get it installed on my PC?
Not too hard, eh? At work, generally people know if you’re an end user, a developer, or a programmer, and can skew support thusly. For public support forums, however, we have no idea so here’s a good idea:
I’ve been using FOOBAR since version 2 and I recently upgraded from 2.9 to 3.0. Now when I try and add a new BAZ, I get an access denied error with the following output. I’ve disabled all my plugins and re-copied the files up. Same problem. I’m using a linux server and I have PHP 4.
Variations of that rarely go amiss. Also remember on CMS support forums, most of the people there are volunteers, so calling them names will get you shunned, if not banned. On free forums (WordPress, Drupal, etc), you’re NOT a paying customer, so don’t expect to be treated like one.
Do you have advice for the best ways to handle support requests, as a tech or a user? Sing out in the comments!