CXO

Supporting my laundry: Why some people are not cut out for the help desk

I don't like to be discriminatory, but some people don't have what it takes to provide computer support. Working the help desk takes rare hybrid of skills: customer service acumen and technical inquisitiveness. Not everyone can have these talents, as my landlord illustrates...

I don't like to be discriminatory, but some people don't have what it takes to provide computer support. Working the help desk takes rare hybrid of skills: customer service acumen and technical inquisitiveness. Not everyone can have these talents, as my landlord illustrates...

The communal washers and dryers in my apartment building are kind of quirky. They're not old, just cantankerous. Occasionally, they stop working for no apparent reason. Sometimes, my fiancée and I have had them reject the tokens we've put in, and we'll have to walk down the street to the laundromat, carrying our wet laundry in our arms and grumbling all the while. Usually, we come home from our trip to the Wash and Fold only to hear the mechanical rumble that indicates one of our neighbors had no problem using their tokens. In those moments, Spring Breeze fabric softener can smell like defeat.

Several times, I've had to go to the landlord and ask her for laundry tokens to replace those that were swallowed by the laundry machines. These tokens cost us one dollar a piece, and can only be obtained from the landlord or the maintenance man. The laundry token system is a pretty recent development for us. It's ostensibly a security feature. Hooligans won't resort to prying open the coin box on the washer if they realize all they're in for is a handful of plastic bits. Makes me feel a bit like my neighbors and I have been deemed theft risks, but I digress...

The problem with the token system is that it's unreliable, and it provides ambiguous feedback. Every now and again the old coin box machines would swallow a handful of quarters, but then the receiver slide would jam. You couldn't put in more money, even if you wanted to. This scenario would require a call to the maintenance man, and an on-site visit, but at least error message was unequivocal.

Fake Windows Error

Several times now—after the installation of the Token System Upgrade—my fiancée or I will be in the middle of an afternoon of laundry, with things going great, when the machine will ignore the fact that we put in a token. It will refuse to start on our next load. The slide won't jam, there's no error light, just stony silence. When this happens and I find myself with wet towels dripping on my shoes, I start thinking like a tech support pro.

"So, things were working fine before the error? Have you tried restarting? Let's see if we can replicate the problem..." In the first incident, the machine really did need maintenance; it swallowed the second token, too. The other two times this happened, though, the machine started right up upon insert of the second token, and churned away happily. Apparently, that load of clothes was so dirty I was going to have to pay two dollars to get it clean.

My landlord was completely confused when I went in to get our replacement tokens.

"I'm not saying I don't believe you. I'll give you three to replace those others; I just don't understand why you'd keep putting more tokens in after the first one didn't work."

My landlord just doesn't get what was going on, no matter how many different ways I tried to explain my behavior. She wasn't seeing the customer service implications of my situation.

Leaving the customer with dripping clothes might be unavoidable, if the machines are really broken and require service. And if you can't provide a timely resolution to the problem—getting our maintenance man to visit is like waiting for a Microsoft Service Pack—you can hardly blame the end user for trying to solve his own problem...say...by trying again. Putting a third token in the machine would have been silly, but we've had enough experience with this system to realize that sometimes it just fails for no obvious reason, and a second try might work out okay. Since my landlord's been paid for the tokens already, she has nothing to lose. And her lack of sympathy for the customer's situation is having an adverse effect on the business relationship.

She's also ignoring what my experience illustrates about the technical situation. The fact that both the washer and the dryer are subject to periodic random failures of the payment system—and that these failures seem to have no correlation to the ability of the machines to wash or dry—indicates that the payment system should be subjected to further testing. Maybe there's a developer patch available.

So, my landlord has trouble relating to the client's situation, and isn't interested in the evidence of a recurring problem with her hardware. Thankfully, she's a landlord, and not a help desk tech. These two things she lacks—empathy for the client's situation and technical inquisitiveness—are fundamental to being successful in tech support. Troubleshooting skills can be taught. Systems principles can be learned. Those other qualities, those are the ones you hire for.

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