Versatile help desk gives gardening and legal advice

My Sept. 9 column about help desks and their customers struck a lot of funny bones. All
of us have been on one side or the other of the help desk conversation. From the e-mail
I've received, a lot of you have been through some hilarious situations.

Bob Christian of Sierra Vista, Ariz., now retired from the customer satisfaction
business, wrote, "Having been a supervisor on both the technical and the
administrative sides of the house, I could relate to the funny and almost unbelievable
stories you told. I thought you might enjoy a few others as well."

Bob was a manager with the maintenance shop that responded to all help desk trouble
tickets. He dispatched a colleague to help a woman who was having trouble with her floppy
drive, one of the old 8-inch monstrosities. When the technician got to her office, he
found that she somehow had managed to cram TWO floppies into the drive and was trying to
insert a third!

After extricating the now-useless floppies, running diagnostics on the drive and trying
to instruct the woman tactfully on the proper use of the equipment, the technician turned
to leave.

As he started out the door, he happened to see the woman watering a potted plant
sitting on top of her computer monitor! As he stood staring in disbelief, water spilled
over the pot's reservoir and trickled down a well-stained path on the side of the monitor.
Finding his voice, the technician politely explained to the woman, "Ma'am, you may
not want to keep that plant on top of your monitor; it could be very bad for it." Of
course, he meant very bad for the monitor.

"Nonsense," she told him, "it's been that way for nearly a year, and the
monitor hasn't hurt my plant a bit!" The technician left without another word.

Bob continued with another anecdote: "One aspect of the help desk "adventure'
that you didn't mention in your article is the problem of non-computer related calls for
assistance. It seems that regardless of the problem, people see the word "help' in a
phone directory listing and take it at face value.

"I once took a call from a man trying to find where he could purchase a headstone
for his father's grave. I did a little research while he stayed on the phone and when he
finally hung up, he was another satisfied customer."

Patience and reluctance to jump to conclusions are hallmarks of the good help desk
technician. Bob observed: "Of course, there is the problem you mentioned of help desk
staff sometimes needing to help each other. Of course, it can be a judgment call as to
whether help should come as a good strangling! It only takes one tactless, short-fused
individual to make the help desk environment more stressful than it already is."

"I was at my desk one day in December when one of my younger staff members
suddenly started talking very loudly into the phone: "Well, if I were you, Ma'am, I'd
haul those stupid jerks to court and sue the pants off of them!'

"I covered the 10 or so yards between his desk and mine in hardly more than a
second. "What's going on?' I asked him.

"He asked the woman to hold, then explained: "This woman is calling because
she bought a Christmas tree from the Boy Scouts and it's already dead. I told her she
needs to drag them to court and sue!' "

As it happened, Bob's boys were Scouts in the local troop and working toward becoming
Eagle Scouts. They were involved with the Christmas tree sales as well. From past
experience, he knew that if there was a problem with a tree, it was probably because of
the supplier, not because of anything the Scouts had done.

After muttering a few choice words to this hot-headed employee, Bob went back to his
desk and picked up on the call. Because his wife was the local Scout troop's treasurer and
involved in selling the very Christmas trees in question, Bob could make the right
connections and get this woman's complaint taken care of. Nobody went to court. Mused Bob:
"Of course, I could have if I'd followed my urge to kill a certain young man!"

Amazing your customers with quality service requires many skills and great flexibility.
By being creative, we get the chance to help in unanticipated ways those who we never
imaged were customers.

I enjoyed Bob's "horror stories"--especially as they have happy endings that
show how to please your customers in even the most trying of circumstances. If you have a
help desk horror story to share, send it to me at [email protected].
  We all can use a chuckle.

Walter 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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