When the help desk actually helps

Derek Schauland describes a recent software upgrade that went awry and the positive support experience that changed his attitude about making the call to an external help desk.

Calling external support can be quite a double-edged sword for some IT professionals. Many, myself included, have issues calling other company's help desks due to waiting for an obscene amount of time or playing phone tag for days. Sometimes, we just want to avoid being asked if the computer system has been restarted.

I have been on both sides of the support call, which hasn't really lessened my hesitation to call the help desk. In cases when support is mediocre or worse, the call is quite a drain, likely on both ends; however, when the support you receive meets or exceeds expectations, the experience is very encouraging.

I still think it's best to call only after exhausting all the possibilities that you can think of on your own, but don't count out the help desk if you're at the end of your rope.

I recently had a positive support experience with Microsoft, and since people usually write only about their bad experiences, I thought I should give credit where it's due. For all you customer service and support professionals out there, here's a positive story for a change.

Software upgrade with Murphy looking on

I was working to perform an upgrade of my organization's CRM application and the underlying SQL Server to the latest version. Getting help from a software partner with the actual CRM upgrade went quite well. However, when I tried to get the SQL Server to upgrade from 2000 to 2008, the problems seemed to come in by the bucketful.

The SQL 2008 installer requires that Windows Installer 4.5 and .Net 3.5 SP1 are installed. No problem — I figured I could download the needed updates if they weren't on the CD and proceed. The installer for .Net 3.5 SP1 failed. The downtime scheduled for the upgrade was approximately five hours; with the troubleshooting of .Net, the actual completion of troubleshooting took approximately one week.

Note: The weeklong troubleshooting did not require all the users to be out of the application for the entire time. Due to travel schedules and issues downloading files, some remote users had to schedule their PC upgrades the following week. To get things moving again, I upgraded our SQL Server to 2005 while troubleshooting the .Net issue. Actual downtime, though longer than expected, lasted about a day and a half.

.Net failed...and failed...and...

Being a bit stubborn, I tried the .Net install four or five times before calling Microsoft, just in case I missed something. When I did call, there was a chance I would not be able to use my existing support contract for after-hours support and the process to determine that lasted about 15 minutes. Given the current state of my upgrade, any help at all was the way to go, so I waited.

Upon reaching a technician, I was told that after-hours support was callback only and that could take 2-3 hours. As it was after 10 p.m. at this time, I wasn't hopeful but was quite surprised when the callback came 20 minutes later.

The issue was found to be a problem with a component of .Net, and the log files were referred to another team for further investigation.

After escalation, I was to receive a callback in another 2-3 hours. Unfortunately, the call did not come until the following morning. Once I got in touch again with support, the issue moved quickly up the ladder and was shared among teams and support personnel.

Note: Even though the support on this issue was excellent, it obviously was not a speedy fix. Because of the nature of the problem, there were several calls between me and Microsoft Support.

The calls continued, and the trial and error lasted for a few days. After removing and reinstalling .Net all the way back to 2.0 and installing a few single hot fixes, we were able to get the framework updated to .Net 3.5 SP1.

Microsoft support proved on every level that it is a good expenditure to ask for help when needed. I wish I had called earlier when having trouble, given the exceptional service I received.

I would encourage all of you to give any help desk professionals more of an opportunity to assist you. If you are a support professional, keep up the good work and continue to help those who ask.

With this issue, I am quite certain I would not have figured it out without help. With the help of both support and product engineers, we were able to get this solved.

On to SQL 2008

During the process of getting things running again for the users within my organization, I installed SQL Server 2005. After things settle down, I will likely move forward to SQL Server 2008; however, for now I want to do a bit of research and determine all I can about the next upgrade.

A quick thank you

I would like to thank all the Microsoft support personnel and other support personnel who assisted me in getting both the database and the CRM application running.

Just remember that the people who are on the receiving end of the support call are there to help customers get their issues solved, so be patient and follow their advice.


Derek Schauland has been tinkering with Windows systems since 1997. He has supported Windows NT 4, worked phone support for an ISP, and is currently the IT Manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin.

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