Help desk staff members are a different breed of techie

CUSTOMER: I can't log on.

HELP DESK: What are you trying to log on to?

CUSTOMER: My terminal.

HELP DESK: Where are you calling from?

CUSTOMER: My desk.

HELP DESK: No, I mean what location are you calling from?

CUSTOMER: Oh, I'm calling from my office.

HELP DESK: OK, let's start over. What do you have on your screen?

CUSTOMER: Nothing.

HELP DESK: Have you checked the power?

CUSTOMER: If I didn't have power, then I wouldn't have a cruiser on my
screen, would I?

HELP DESK: What did you say you had on your screen?

CUSTOMER: You know, the cruiser ... the little square thing that

Across the federal government, befuddled and frustrated employees call their computer
help desks with an incredible range of problems.

The help desk worker who answers the phone must have the skills of a computer nerd and
the empathy of a therapist. Of course, some customers swear that their help desk has the
exact reverse.

The help desk employee needs the tact of Lettitia Baldridge, a sense of humor equaling
Robin Williams' and the patience of a saint. By the time callers contact the help desk,
they often are frustrated, angry, confused, embarrassed or all of the above.

They may not be in an emotional condition that lends itself to participating in
effective problem-solving. Little wonder that employee turnover rates at the help desk can
be high.

However, help desk work has its rewards, particularly when it comes to legendary humor.
One technician told me of a colleague who held a sheet of paper against his monitor in the
hopes of getting a copy of his screen when he pressed the Print Screen key.

Other users reported they were having difficulty getting their 3 1/2 inch floppy disks
out of the plastic holder. That metal piece on one side was particularly tough to remove.

An irate caller asked the help desk technician why he got 72 copies of the same
one-page fax. The technician contacted the sender, who complained that her fax machine
wasn't working properly. "Every time I put the page in one side," she said,
"it keeps coming out the other."

The help desk staff get to deal with the full range of strange behavior. One told me of
a woman in his organization who worked her mouse with her bare feet. Another reported that
a caller complained, "My computer says it can't find the printer. Even when I turned
the screen toward the printer just a foot away, it still can't find it."

Another user said he "couldn't get the computer to respond when he pointed his
mouse at the screen and clicked the buttons." Lamented one caller, "I can't find
the `any' key."

Many help desk problems can't be solved over the telephone; some situations are so
bizarre they must be seen to be appreciated. Someone called to complain that none of the
floppy disks in the office would work. When the help desk employee arrived, he discovered
that the workers in this office kept their floppies stuck to a file cabinet with
refrigerator magnets.

To overcome the risk of data loss and disaster, one organization air-expressed floppy
diskettes to every office on Wednesday with instructions to do a backup onto the diskettes
and return them via air-express the next day. One day a PC actually had a catastrophic
failure, and the help desk technician eagerly flew to the site with the precious backup
disk to save the day.

Upon arrival, she discovered the disk was blank. The office, and many others like it,
couldn't get the backup to work but had dutifully sent the disks back every week. The
moral of this story: Inspect what you expect.

Sometimes the help desk staff need to help each other. A new help desk employee had
been working for about three weeks and had become frustrated at the difficulty of
mastering all the hundreds of tasks and skills she was responsible for. The supervisor,
seeing that she was upset, asked her what the problem was. She said she was overwhelmed by
the amount of information she needed to learn.

The supervisor, in all seriousness, told her, :

"Well, maybe it would help if you wrote down everything you didn't know and we can
start from there." Stunned, the employee nodded her head, then sat in a daze for the
rest of the day.

My help desk friends ask that customers be prepared with as much information as
possible when calling for assistance. In case they need to call the help desk back,
customers should write down the trouble call ticket number.

Help desk staff need training in interviewing techniques, such as what questions to
ask, and how to anticipate the ways they might be misunderstood. Most of all, both help
desk staff and customers need cooperative attitudes that focus on problem-solving.

In these times of shrinking training budgets and "user-friendly'" software,
your agency's help desk may make the difference between IT success and failure. Effective,
knowledgeable, empathetic and gentle help desk employees are essential.

R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.//

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