How well do your customers understand what you tell them?

Jeff Dray finds that his relationships with customers often allow him to find out things about them that hadn't been noticed by their own colleagues. As he has pointed out before, the people are a lot harder to fix than the equipment.

Are you a great communicator, or when you explain things, do your customers glaze over and nod knowingly, hoping that you will stop soon and let them get back to their preconceptions?


I try not to treat my customers as though they are foolish, but sometimes I realize that I am going into too much detail when they ask what has gone wrong with their equipment. I try to involve the customer, particularly when the fault they have reported is intermittent or obscure. There is a hard and fast law that states that any intermittent error or failure will not occur when a tech wants to see it but will invariably happen as soon as his or her back is turned. This can make a diagnosis quite difficult, and any fix can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair.

Today, I was asked to investigate a mailing machine that was freezing up mid-cycle. I got the operator to show me the fault and, unsurprisingly, it performed perfectly. I looked at the system error log and looked up some of the more frequent error codes.

I found and fixed a couple of minor faults, but I can’t be confident that any of them were responsible for the customer’s experience. I tried to get her to demonstrate what happens when the fault occurs and determine if she had seen any error codes displayed on the machine. After a while, I realized that the problem may have been related to the way she was using the machine, so I suggested a better way of operating it. This was fine, but there was still something on her mind.

“Jeff, it makes a funny noise sometimes.”

“What sort of noise, Wendy?”

“Well, it’s a kind of screech-plonk noise.”

I wondered what kind of "screech-plonk" noise it was, and what could it mean. Fortunately, the machine went into a maintenance cycle and Wendy cried out:

“That’s the noise! What is it?”

“That’s the print carriage wiping and capping itself. It does that if it hasn’t run for a while.”

“So it’s quite normal then?”

“Yes, because you are normally using the machine continuously, you wouldn’t get to hear it very often. There’s nothing to worry about."

This seemed to give her confidence, and she asked about other features of the machine. Although she had been using it for a while, I got the impression that she hadn’t had a very good training session from her boss when she had started the job.

The upshot of this was that I spent an hour there going through the features of the machine and how to get the best out of it. I felt sure that I should have done this long ago, but I had never noticed that she had any problems. She started to communicate with me when her boss wasn’t there, and I realized that she was quite a nervous kind of person.

We had a light-hearted couple of moments doing impressions of other strange noises that the machine makes, and I took my leave before the madness rubbed off. It got me thinking that there was probably a training need with this customer, and there are probably many more in a similar situation.

How do you handle support situations when you can see there's a need for user training? Can you take the time to do it yourself, or do you alert someone else to the problem?


If it's "A Sky is falling scenario" Whenever given the chance, I try to take users from their immediate group(if possible grab similarly challenged users along the way) and give them training up to and slightly above their skillsets. I'm assured they'll be asking more questions in the future about what's now expected from them as far as: What do I do now(?), that I've exhausted what I've recently learned... If users feel empowered, they'll try and ask more probing questions relative to the errors / situations which have brought us together.

Juan Ferzara
Juan Ferzara

In my experience, it is something akin to diplomacy, because every one thinks that if someone appears to need help from the "techie" then it means that he/she is not working well. It would have to begin with the change of notions, and that very well could be in the role of user training.


This is a sore spot in my organization; users need training, but should IT provide it, or defer it to the Staff Development department, who provides other facility training? The problem with this is, a person in IT with good communication skills and patience is a natural for training users - but the pervading thinking throughout IT shops seems to be "we are technical - someone else can do the people skills." According to everything I read about the future of IT, we are all going to need more business relationship, communication and customer service skills. So, when it that going to find its way into our practices? There is not only room for a good communicator and teacher in the IT department, there is a gaping hole that needs to be filled. When will technical people realize this only rounds out the services we can provide?


...those outside the IT department realize how much more IT could be doing for the business and start adjusting IT budgets and resources accordingly. I've been in many companies where IT could seriously benefit the business if they did user training, but generally IT were not given this role and never had the time or resources to carry out training. Usually IT is expected to support the hardware and software but 'someone' else is meant to train the staff, so each department usually do their own in-house training and IT are still called in when all hell breaks loose and are expected to be the experts. In large organizations, if the business made sure IT had extra resources (staff/$$$) to do user training the business would benefit as a whole. In my experience though, most IT departments are too busy and understaffed to take time aside to do user training beyond the basics. The larger the business, the more different types of hardware/software you need to support and train staff in using. In my experience this is why IT has only supported/trained the basic Tier 1 & 2 apps, while teams that have their own custom software/hardware have to train their own teams. Problem here is usually each team has different way of handling training and some handle it very poorly (which falls back to IT to step in and save the day or waste time fixing issues that could have been resolved with better user training). Yes, I think IT in many situations are in an excellent position to do this sort of training, but for many businesses this could mean increasing IT staff by 30-50% (rough estimates). Generally, the larger the business, the larger the range of supported products, meaning IT staff requirements would expand exponentially, making it uneconomical for some businesses. I'd like to work somewhere where IT purchased all hardware/software and then renting it back to the users. So instead of Graphic Design team buying Adobe Photoshop CS3, IT buys it, and then sells it back to the business with cost of training and support included. Then using that extra revenue to hire more staff to take on the extra workload. Nothing new about this idea, but I'm yet to work somewhere where they do this effectively.


Jeff - Thank you for so clearly having documented how you availed yourself of this opportunity to care for someone who was in need. Too often, the metrification of the processes we [techs & other sorts of support personnel] use to perform our role robs us and our society of great benefit. Unfortunately, the efficiency engineering has enabled financial-profit driven motivations to squeeze the lifeblood from the care we can provide so well to our "patients". Too much emphasis on how many calls you took, whether you answered the phone on the first ring, how long it took you to learn [about], analyse & resolve issues raised, forces our treatment to be cheapened so that the truly valuable care which could have provided returns for a lifetime [at least for the lifetime of the hardware/machine of interest] are obliterated from consideration. Thanks & All th' e-Best, *(TM) Rusty Tyson, CPA, AICPA, MCSA with Messaging, ... xyz


I took particular interest in this post because I came to my current position w/support of users as a selling point for hire. Working for IT in a field not obvious for it's technical challenges makes for good story telling. Previous post's of images w/various objects forced into media drives comes to mind. I like too encourage users to take ownership (figurative) of their computer. I say, "this is your computer," and some take the confidence I have in them as permission to be competent. It's really like affirmations but for office and business applications.

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