Helpdesk or hurtdesk? Your company’s reputation depends on your customer support team

Your company’s helpdesk is supposed to help users when they encounter problems. Unfortunately, many times all users end up getting is frustrated. I’ve encountered this many times over the past couple of decades, although I do admit to having had a few good experiences with helpdesks in various contexts. A couple of years ago though I had a really frustrating experience with a system vendor’s helpdesk when I tried upgrading a newly purchased laptop from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. The vendor involved is HP, a company I’ve liked a lot ever since I purchased an HP-35 calculator way back during my undergraduate physics studies at university. In fact, one of the business books I have on my “short list” shelf is The HP Way written by David Packard, the co-founder of HP. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it for any young entrepreneurs who have dreams of building something big that lasts, or as much as anything lasts these days.

Anyway, I thought I’d share portions of my experience with helpdesks and how several colleagues sympathized with my experience. As you go through this story you’ll find several suggestions on how a helpdesk can be improved and I hope that any readers of this article that manage a helpdesk or support operations for their company or organization will take what’s been expressed here to heart. Readers who want to share their own frustrations and lessons learned with a helpdesk should feel free to use the comments feature below to add their observations and experiences.

My helpdesk experience


Right off the bat, my biggest mistake was underestimating the amount of time it would take to upgrade my HP laptop from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. I started off by researching the HP Customer Support website for some guidance on upgrading the machine and found some information that helped me outline the series of steps involved in performing the upgrade. After installing 150 or so updates from Windows Update, I noted that the BIOS version for my laptop was out of date and needed to be updated before I performed the upgrade.

I checked to see whether there was a newer BIOS version available for my machine, but the information provided by the HP Support Assistant utility wasn’t clear (or maybe I was just tired and couldn’t think straight) so I decided to open a chat window with HP Customer Support and ask a simple question: “Can you please check your support database and let me know what the latest BIOS version is for my laptop?” This led to an interesting chat session, which reconstructed from memory went something like this:

Helpdesk: Hello, how can I help you?

Me: Can you please check your support database and let me know what the latest BIOS version is for my laptop?

Helpdesk: Certainly, I can help you with that. What is your product number?

Me: It’s <string>.

Helpdesk: That’s not correct.

Me: But when I press the FN + ESC keys the HP System Info window opens and that’s what it shows there.

Helpdesk: That’s not correct. Please do <complex series of steps> and let me know the result.

Me: OK I now see <string with fewer characters>

Helpdesk: Thanks. OK, how can I help you?

Me: Can you please check your support database and let me know what the latest BIOS version is for my laptop?

Helpdesk: Yes I can do that, it will take me a few minutes…

Me: <waits>

Helpdesk: Can I please have your permission to take control of your system?

Me: Why?

Helpdesk: So I can perform the BIOS upgrade for you.

Me: Uhhh, no. If something goes wrong my system will be bricked. I’d prefer to flash the BIOS myself by following the instructions on your website.

Helpdesk: OK, how can I help you?

Me: I need to know whether my system has the latest BIOS or whether there is a newer version available.

Helpdesk: I can help you with that. Can I have your permission to take control of your system?

Me: No, could you please just tell me how to determine this?

Helpdesk: OK. Open the following web page and <perform a series of steps to find the info which is hidden somewhere on the page>

Me: OK, it looks like <string> is the latest BIOS that is available for this machine, is that correct?

Helpdesk: Yes.

Me: Thanks, I can handle it from here onwards.

Helpdesk: I can install the new BIOS version on your system if you like.

Me: No thank you, I can handle things from here.

Helpdesk: I’d be happy to upgrade the BIOS for you.

Me: No thank you!

Helpdesk: OK…can we consider this support session completed?

Me: Yes. Thank you. Goodbye. <disconnect>

By this time I was feeling somewhat stressed over the helpdesk’s constant insistence on trying to help, so I decided to head off to bed and finish the upgrade the next day. The rest of the upgrade process took longer than I had originally anticipated, but at the end of day, I had a fully functioning Windows 10 laptop, which was the first Windows 10 machines we used for our business. Since then I’ve upgraded several other machines and purchased new ones, and most of our systems are now running Windows 10 except for two that have legacy hardware/software required for working with certain vendors we partner with.

What did I learn about working with helpdesk personnel from this experience? My advice to them is this: Don’t try too hard to help. The laptop, PC, or server you’ve been asked to provide assistance with is the customer’s, not yours. Let the customer determine the pace of the support session, not you.

Other helpdesk experiences

When I shared my story with colleagues, they responded with their own observations that confirmed and extended my observations. John, for example, shared the following comments that I found illuminating as I’m not that familiar with what goes on inside most helpdesk operations. Here’s John’s story:

“Many years ago, I supported a full HP and Dell office. We had several HP ProLiant servers, and about 150 HP laptops and desktops. I had a string of machines that arrived DOA from HP. All I wanted was to replace these machines, about 10 of them, in fact. The technician insisted on connecting to my machine to test things. Why? What part of D-O-A did he not understand! Finally, after about 20 minutes of going back and forth about the moribund state of these machines, I was about ready to throttle the guy and hang up and start over another day. He then got it and issued me an RMA for them!

I think the issue is not listening to what the customer/user wants and instead going by a rote method or script. This is not uncommon and it becomes worse as companies hire unskilled workers to work the helpdesks. Instead of listening, they follow exactly what’s on their computer display and get lost like ants that lose their trail back to the nest.

Now HP support, in general, is sadly not the best. Maybe it’s better (or worse) now than it was back in the 1990s, but I’m not so sure. Honestly, it seems that they are about the worst of the bunch with Dell being the best followed by Lenovo then HP. What really irks me about HP is they got a hold of the best-of-the-best, tech support organizations when they purchased the Compaq-DEC organization. DEC had one of the best in the world technical support operations in Boulder, Colo., that Compaq salivated over. Today, most of the support is done overseas to save costs and this level of service isn’t there anymore if at all.”

Another colleague (whose name is also John) confirmed what the first John says about the dangers of having poorly trained helpdesk personnel who always adhere to a script:

“My biggest frustration with helpdesk staff is when they are so stuck on a script that they are not listening to you. Or if they did not read the original ticket. For instance, a hypothetical:

Me: My machine is doing X. I have tried rebooting it, but X still is happening.

HD: Have you tried rebooting your machine? That solves a lot of issues.

Me: My machine is doing X. I have tried rebooting it, but X still is happening.

HD: I know that you have already rebooted your machine, but would you mind trying again?

The latter way of communicating such a request allows the tech to go through the company-provided script as designed without making me feel like they are not listening. I know from personal experience that sometimes basic steps were not done, and verifying that they were done can potentially save a lot of time. Just as long as I am respected as the customer and not treated like a complete moron, I’m fine.”

I feel John #2 makes an excellent point here, namely that support techs should always verify what the customer tells them before proceeding to the next step so the customer knows they’re really in tune and listening to them.

One other colleague, whose name is Raymond, also offered helpful comments by pointing out the possible source for why the helpdesk person you’re communicating with may seem not to be listening to you that carefully:

“Your transaction with the helpdesk draws attention to two problems of support. First, the helpdesk is multitasking — handling more than one support call at a time — to the degree that he or she cannot remember what transpired. This can be a support policy of the company more than a problem with the technician.

The second is more clearly a problem of the technician: not recognizing the level of expertise of the customer and thereby not respecting the customer. In your (and our) case, the overzealous helpfulness is actually a hindrance to the productivity of the support person as well as of the customer.”

It’s supposed to be helpful!

If you want to make sure that your company’s helpdesk or support team offers the best possible experience for customers experiencing problems with your products or solutions, pay special attention to the issues my colleagues and I have highlighted in the article. The bottom line is that a helpdesk is supposed to feel helpful when you make use of it. Otherwise, what’s the point? A hurtdesk (dysfunctional helpdesk) is only going to hurt your company’s reputation, not help it.

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