Fixing computers or fixing people?

Jeff Dray has been a support specialist for twenty years and has found that even when technical knowledge fails, possessing the right soft skills can help you become a successful help desk analyst.

My speciality is help desk support. I suppose that over the last twenty years I have spent far more time than is good for me taking support calls, and I have found that when my technical knowledge has failed, my soft skills have stood me in good stead.


The truth of the matter is that most problems are relatively easy to deal with if you have the right kind of mind and skills to extract the required information from the caller. When there is something technical I don't know, I can ask the relevant department and make notes for future reference. This is when we have to examine the true role of the help desk.

Is it intended to keep the users from bothering the busy operational staff by filtering out the trivial questions?

Are they there to provide the first line of support in order to get speedy resolutions to users' problems?

Is their role to collect data from the user base so that future planning decisions can be made from a more knowledgeable point of view?

Maybe they are there to manage bookings for training courses and to operate the password system?

The answer is: all of these and more. The ability to draw an analogy rather than use technical language, the insight to understand how a fault looks from a user's perspective, the patience to calm down an angry or nervous user, and the knowledge to tell them apart, even understanding how a new product or application will impact the support services and being able to anticipate or predict the kinds of issues that will arise from any new rollout are the kinds of activities that most help desks thrive on. All these skills are routine to the help desk yet few are really technology-based.

They are more about people than machines. It has been said that help desk work is more about fixing people than fixing computers. The truth is that you need to know a bit about both, with more emphasis on people.

These days when teaching children, it is common to use props such as puppets or cartoon characters. On the help desk we can't resort to such tricks, so you have to create a character who, no matter how bizarre or silly the problem, has done it before, only worse.

I tend to use a made-up person and tell people that it is me — the one who called in the expert when the plug was out, the one who forgot his password four times each day, the one who put the CD in the drive upside down, and the one who has done whatever you have done but worse, not because I'm a dope, but because the most important thing is to stop the caller from feeling silly.

What kinds of ploys do you use to settle down unhappy users or comfort the befuddled?

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