by Megan Santosus

Advice for Tech Support Reps: Be Polite, No Matter How You Feel About Users

Mar 01, 20027 mins
IT Leadership

NOT TOO LONG AGO, WHILE CHATTING with Jim Shanks, then CIO at CDW, a well-known computer reseller, I found myself?for the first time?strangely uncomfortable. Now, I like Jim, and we were having a pleasant conversation. But I was seeing my relationship with him in a whole new light. I was seeing myself through his eyes. Why? Because as part of a promotional contest, his company had invited CIOs to share their most ridiculous, egregious, harebrained and pathetic end user support stories. The winner?that is, the person with the most amusing story about the dumbest user?would receive an all-expenses paid trip to Comdex, the supersize computer trade show, in addition to the chance of having her oh-so-comical story star in a television commercial.

As I was talking to Jim (who now heads CDW’s government subsidiary), I realized that he was probably seeing me as one of those hapless, clueless users who at the first hint of a minor glitch reach to call the help desk, their voice tinged with equal parts desperation and ignorance. In other words, he was seeing me as a potential ticket to a junket in Vegas.

And after a little internal struggle, I’ve come to accept that this is not a bad thing. If I can provide the IS folks with a bit of fun, even if it’s at my own expense, then I’ve performed a useful if somewhat modest function.

So go ahead, laugh at my calls every time I try?and fail?to log on to the network from home. Snicker at my pleas to help me find that file?again?on my hard drive. Scratch your head in amazement when I inquire once every few weeks about how to create a customized e-mail list. Wonder in endless puzzlement why I can’t seem to remember how to delete more than one file at a time or reconnect to my docking station. Snicker and chuckle and scratch away. But please, do it discreetly.

Simple Yet Stupefied

Some of the computer problems that have recently stymied me are so mundane that if I had any pride at all I’d be embarrassed to fess up to them. For example, so I wouldn’t have to walk an extra 15 feet?and waste a good 10 seconds each round-trip?I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to change my assigned network printer to another. The next morning I caved in and made a quick call to the IS support hot line; in five minutes I was ready to use the new printer.

Then there are the times I fall victim to the unexplained (and always fleeting) yen for organization. When it hits, I sit down and attempt to instill order on my C drive. Of course, since I can never remember how to create new folders, I end up deleting at most a dozen files and calling it a day.

Which reminds me of that black day when I somehow deleted the toolbar at the top of Word files. I’ve never figured out how to get it back. Consequently, I haven’t used bold, italics or underline since 1998.

For me, the computer is a glorified typewriter. It’s not that I’m thickheaded; it’s just that I’ve never particularly needed to know more about my PC than how to turn it on and use it to do my job?which mainly involves typing. I’m sure that if my job involved spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and serious HTML crunching, I’d find the wherewithal to become more proficient.

As is, I can get by with my Word files and basic e-mail application. Accuse me of beating my own drum a bit too loudly, but I’d even characterize myself as something of a whiz at cutting and pasting.

One time, at the suggestion of my employer, I tried to emerge from my technically challenged state. I attended numerous workshops, all geared to help me and my PC become the most intimate of friends. I flipped through any number of those books for dummies, idiots and imbeciles. Prominently displayed on my cubicle bookshelf is a manual for Windows 98 that rivals my Webster’s in heft. Yet when it comes to the intricacies of desktop software (and by intricacies, I mean anything more involved than creating and saving a Word file and sending said file via an e-mail attachment), my mind is a sieve. Study my software documentation? Aspire to become a power user? Frankly, I’d rather eat paint chips.

If my office is a microcosm of the world at large, then the world is chock-full of people just like me. It therefore behooves CIOs to consider (or rather, reconsider) the type of people they hire to staff the support center.

My first experience with tech support occurred in the computer lab back in college. I couldn’t quite grasp the concept of properly shutting down my computer. And after waiting half an hour for help, I decided to take action. Yep, I unplugged the machine. That certainly got the support guy’s attention. His obscenity-laden tirade cannot be printed in CIO, which many of you, we’ve heard, bring home to your families.

Since then, I’ve heard too many stories of haughty IS folk who don’t bother to disguise their contempt for those of us who couldn’t initialize a floppy disk if our life depended on it. Hey, most of us know we’re not any good at desktop technology; we don’t need to be reminded of that fact by the people who get paid to help us.

I’ll Tell Your Motherboard If You Don’t Behave

While possessing technical know-how is certainly essential for a support specialist, having a good desktop manner is much more important. After all, technical knowledge is something that can be acquired (unless, of course, you happen to be someone like, say, me), but communicating humanely and effectively with a vulnerable, stressed-out colleague who needs your help is a gift. The ideal support person should have the demeanor of a good therapist?someone who’s there to listen to your problems and offer a nod of understated acceptance?who acknowledges that while we may have certain deficiencies in the brain department, we’re still human beings, worthwhile and valued coworkers.

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with smarmy, know-it-all support people. Call me a suck-up, but I’ve never come away from a support encounter here feeling devalued or anything less than a fellow member of an intelligent species. The strength of CIO’s support staff is their people skills. All the guys who work in support here share the same calmly reassuring, never condescending tone. They have the singular ability to make me feel as if my lame problems are actually absorbing, intriguing and novel rather than what they most assuredly are: laughable. In their spare time, they could volunteer as counselors on a crisis hotline.

At the end of the day, most people don’t particularly care if they find out that they’re the butt of jokes down at the help desk. Deep down, we always suspected it. Still, like people the whole world over, we crave to be treated with respect and courtesy. At least to our faces. So laugh about us if you must, tell jokes about us if you will, but please, do it amongst yourselves. Maybe in Las Vegas.