I’ve done my share of the helpdesk thing of providing support a few times in my long career as an IT professional, and I’m still the go-to person when something goes wrong in my own business or with a project I have the lead on with a partner company or client. And let me tell you, being “the answer guy” is no fun — period. You’re expected to have all the answers at your fingertips no matter how mysterious or complex the problem. If you don’t resolve things quickly, stress rises all around. The bigger the company or organization you work at, the more stressful being on helpdesk can become. What’s the best way of managing this stress while making sure you can help the various parties that contact you with their problems? Wayne Hanks knows all about this. Wayne, a longtime reader of our popular weekly newsletter WServerNews, resides in Perth, Australia, with his wife of 24-plus years and two teenage sons who both want to work in IT (he obviously has not scared them off enough!). Wayne has been in IT since Noah was a boy and he has the scars to prove it. Having worked for various Western Australian companies and government departments, Wayne has a wide range of experience especially in the areas of providing helpdesk services and systems management over wide areas and questionable data links. You can find Wayne on LinkedIn and he also blogs occasionally about life in IT. Let’s here what Wayne has to say.
Heldesk hell: Dealing with internal staff
Regardless of the industry your company is in, there are certain constants that will impinge on you as an IT person. Everyone in IT starts on helpdesk as it is usually the most-hated of IT jobs and one of the most important as it is the “face” of IT with which most other staff deal. The variety of staff that you will interact with your role on the “helldesk” can be a bit overwhelming for a new hire to a company.
As IT people, we are generally logical, methodical, and thorough (at least we like to think we are!) and this is what appeals to the almost OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) among IT people. Therefore, computers and technology appeal to our sense of order.
What we as helpdesk operators need to understand is that for many of our clients, the computer and systems are just tools, like a hammer or screwdriver is to a tradesperson. If you call them clients, you are less dismissive of their issues. Many of our clients have worked out how to do their job on this tool and when it doesn’t work as expected, their stress level goes through the roof.
So as a helpdesk person, our job is not so much to fix the problem but to help relieve the stress. As the saying goes, “A problem shared is a problem halved” and in this situation, we are the other half. Before we resort to the standard “Have you turned it off and on again?” maybe we need to listen to the person on the other end.
Before we get to the people, we need to talk about terminology. For many non-tech-literate people, the “computer” is actually the monitor on their desk. When they say that their computer is not coming on what they really mean is that the monitor is not on. Ensure that you are talking about the same thing when you ask them to turn the computer on.
Different kinds of internal helpdesk clients and how to deal with them
Below is a quick summary of the different types of clients I have experienced. No. 1 rule, don’t lose your cool and No. 2 rule, don’t be a jerk when someone makes a mistake. Whilst it might make your ego feel good short term, in the long term, the hit to your reputation can be quite detrimental.
The mature clerical
The mature clerical individual is generally an older person who, whilst very good at their specialty, is not flexible when it comes to computer issues. They have a checklist they use with the computer to do their job and anything that deviates from this causes chaos. Even forcing a regular password change for this person results in stress, and updates to their usual software will cause a meltdown. What has worked for me with these types is to connect to their computer, walk through their checklist with them, and make suggestions on how to change their list to easier achieve their work. These people are generally very grateful when you can resolve their issue quickly for them. Things to avoid — jargon and trying to explain why you have changed a setting (it just confuses them).
This is the young guy (or gal) who knows all about computers. Sometimes they can be very helpful when it comes to troubleshooting strange issues, mainly because they caused the problem in the first place. Letting them describe the troubleshooting steps they have taken will quite often lead them to the solution on the phone. Make sure that you include these people in your solution. If you must do something in the backend to get them working, describe what you are doing as you do it. If you need to consult someone else in your team, try to get them on to a conference call. These users are your informal IT support and will be eager to help their fellow users as it feeds their ego and takes a load of minor issues off your shoulders. However, these guys can also be the source of much of the “Gray IT” that happens in companies — for example, in one company I worked at, we found that a bunch of users were using Dropbox to store files so that they could work on them at home, instigated by one of their workmates. So as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” said, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Welcome any suggestions they make and look at them seriously. Give them feedback on their ideas so that they don’t go off and do their own thing.
The harassed personal assistant
A subset of the clerical, these people can be particularly difficult to deal with as they quite often are the power behind the throne and can make things difficult for IT if they feel you are being obstructive. Sometimes all they need is a bit of sympathy and guidance and they can keep working at making their boss look good. Unfortunately, sometimes their requests are impossible to fulfill, and you need to be creative in finding a “just as good” solution. Anything that lets this person impress their boss is good for the IT department.
The senior executive
If you are doing internal support and going to people’s desks, this person can be a real trap. They will assume you will be there straightaway even if you are in the middle of a server crash recovery. Some of these people can get off on making others look bad or belittling people in front of other staff. It must be a function of their ego that they need to make others look bad, so they can feel better about themselves. Usually, the issue they are complaining about is something trivial, but they blow it out of all proportion. Caution: Do not sink to their level and make them look like an idiot! This is the surest way to paint a target on your back. The best way to deal with these people is to fix their issue as quickly as possible and with a minimum of interaction. At no time should you admit that it is an IT mistake, as these executives will use this to make the IT department suffer. Trust that Karma will take care of them in the long run. Note that this only applies to a small subset of senior executives as most are very people-oriented and are aware that you are only doing your job to the best of your ability.
This is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure others can add more. The takeaway that I can give you is “Do not make people feel or look stupid, even if what they are doing is dumb beyond words.” This only breeds resentment and can come back to haunt you later.
For those that really hate being on the helpdesk, the link above takes you to one of the earliest clips I saw about working on the helpdesk. It’s called “Welcome to the Internet Helpdesk — Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie,” and it’s something I think you can relate to.
And for those who think IT should be in charge of things, here is The Bastard Operator From Hell (BOFH) archive.
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