10 user complaints about IT support

Being a support pro can entail a fairly high level of aggravation, some (maybe a lot) of which can be laid at the doorstep of the very customer you serve: the end user. But IT pro Becky Roberts advocates taking a step back occasionally and considering the situation from the user's perspective.

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The issue of complaints and their resolution is a perennially hot topic in the virtual world of TechRepublic, with views expressed about the peeves of an IT manager and a support tech and complaints about CIOs. But nowhere in all these discussions have the most important people in our universe--our users--been given a voice.

In an attempt to redress this imbalance and put our own complaints in perspective, I took the liberty of asking my users to provide me with their complaints about us, the IT professionals. So here, in no particular order, are my users' grievances, together with a few thoughts about how they might be addressed and/or how they could have been avoided.

#1: Applications and hardware that don't work

Several users raised this issue, expressing frustration at features of their applications they knew to be available but that didn't appear to work. Upon investigation of a few specific complaints, it became apparent that although the issues were genuine, the cause of the problems was being misrepresented. In most cases, the apparent application or hardware failure was actually due to lack of knowledge on behalf of the user.

This is not to say that the complaints weren't justifiable--quite the contrary, as my department had been guilty of giving the users new applications and peripherals without providing them with the knowledge to use them. It was interesting that this issue came up most frequently in reference to digital cameras and scanners, raising the further question of whose responsibility it is to provide training for such devices. As more and more devices become available, the issue of who in the company should be responsible for managing the required training needs to be addressed to avoid both frustrated users and overburdened IT departments.

#2: Inconsistency of WiFi configurations

With the exception of a handful of the more computer literate users, this is a common complaint among the road warriors. We strive to make the process of establishing a remote connection with the corporate network as straightforward as the necessary security measures will permit, but our users still routinely encounter WiFi configurations we've neglected to prepare them for. Many late nights are spent talking to the techs responsible for a hotel's installation, persuading them to add our VPN software to their permitted list or make other modifications to their configuration. Although we rarely encounter resistance, this is a time-consuming and frustrating process for both us and the user.

#3: Slow computer/network

Dealing with this complaint is an occupational hazard. Every place I've worked, users have constantly complained about how long it takes their computer to boot, load a page, open Word, copy a file, etc. I'm not sure that such complaints can ever be completely eliminated, but a few steps can help reduce them. For instance, we can ensure that users who frequently interact and/or perform the same job function have identical, or very similar, computers. This will prevent direct comparisons: "Fred's computer runs the same report five seconds faster than mine!" Computer performance complaints occur so frequently, it's tempting to dismiss them as unimportant. I would advocate a different approach. Sometimes, simply showing users that you take them seriously and acknowledge that their computer's performance is less than desirable will cut down on complaints, even if nothing is done to actually improve the situation.

Of course, this is not to say that every complaint should be dismissed as the user's perception, particularly if the user reports a sudden slowdown or a slowdown following a specific event. Performing the usual procedures to check for spyware, adware, viruses, and other potential issues not only lets users know that you are taking them seriously--it might unearth a real problem. We had one user who absolutely refused to reboot his computer. Months would go by without a reboot, while we would watch in fascination as he struggled with steadily degrading system. In the end, it took a power outage to cure him of his phobia.

#4: Frequently required password changes

Just when everyone has finally adapted to their new passwords, the dreaded message pops up announcing the impending password change. For several days, we reset passwords and remove the ubiquitous post-it notes that start sprouting from monitors: "No, I'm sorry, it's against company policy to write your password down. No, sorry again, I'm afraid it really does require a numeral or a nonalphabetic character, and yes, it really does have to be that long."

Having to remember a whole herd of passwords myself, I can genuinely sympathize with the users' distress over this issue and recognize it to be a real problem. Even when a user can be made to understand the importance of the policy, it doesn't help them conjure up and remember new, sufficiently complex, nonrepeating passwords every 90 days. The more we try to secure our environment, the less convenient it is to use. Apart from sympathizing with users and listening while they tell me just how much I'm increasing the stress in their lives, I really can't think of an appropriate solution to this very real problem.

#5: Not being administrators of their machines

A primary goal of almost any IT department is to maximize the availability of all computer systems, including personal computers. Unfortunately, whether it's through inadvertently changing settings or deliberately installing unauthorized applications, the users themselves can present a major obstacle to the attainment of this goal. For this reason, it makes perfect sense to give users the minimum level of privilege necessary to perform their job function on their personal computers. For obvious reasons, this approach is not generally well-received--Big Brother is at it again.

Although educating the users can go a long way toward increasing their acceptance of such restrictions, perhaps a more creative approach is required. What if users, through attending training, could earn the right for increased privilege? Perhaps they should start out as an administrator of their computer and lose that privilege only if they violate clearly stated corporate policies?

#6: Spam filtering

This complaint is another one that falls into the Big Brother category. The degree to which my company watches and controls the users' interactions with their computers has dramatically increased in recent years. Until approximately two years ago, we had no company policies governing the use of the corporate e-mail system. Users became accustomed to using their SMTP addresses for personal contacts, Boy Scout mailing lists, Shakespeare Sonnet of the Day, exchanging movies and pictures with friends, and so on. Before long, spam accounted for more than 90 percent of inbound mail, mailboxes grew to unmanageable sizes, and files you wouldn't want your grandmother to see were being backed up to tape and archived. Something clearly had to be done.

We purchased and implemented an antispam solution and established a corporate policy banning the storage of personal mail. Mail identified as spam was held for seven days and then eradicated. Users were told to send an e-mail to the help desk if they did not receive mail they were expecting, so that the sender's address could be white-listed. The users were not happy, to say the least. The complaints and general discontent were completely understandable, as the users' e-mail environment had been radically restricted without obtaining their buy-in. Although it wasn't inappropriate for the IT department to recommend spam filtering, management should have been given the opportunity to first understand the problem and--more important--participate in the solution. Now we're left dealing with discontented users who feel as though they're being punished by having a privilege revoked and are being watched by the prying eyes of the IT department.

#7: Restricted Web access

This is probably the most frequently heard complaint. Cries of "Why can't I order from Victoria's Secret?"; "Why should you get to decide what's ‘tasteless'?"; "A site I order parts from has suddenly been restricted"; and "Why can I use e-bay for only 30 minutes a day? How do you know that I'm not using it for business purposes?" echo throughout the building.

This situation parallels the problem with spam filtering. Both e-mail and Web access were introduced at the same time with no thought given to how they should be used. After a few years of completely unrestricted use, the IT department made the decision to implement certain restrictions because of the understandable burden this freedom placed on IT resources. Once again, the IT department was compelled to act unilaterally, and as a result, now has to deal with an unhappy, confused, and threatened user population. Although I don't question the need to exercise some controls over Internet access, the IT department should be in the role of an advisor, implementer, and administrator and not the sole policy maker and enforcer.

#8: Not being allowed to use company computers for personal use

This is a common complaint of the notebook users, especially those who spend days at a time living out of hotels and sitting in airports and on planes. We do not have a clearly defined policy on this issue, but in general, although we don't mind the computers being used to watch movies while on the road or to create the occasional personal document, we do have a complete ban on installing unauthorized applications, storing personal documents, or attaching personal devices. This is probably our most abused policy. Even those users who don't abuse it aren't hesitant to express their discontent, frequently citing the example of other companies that allow their employees to install games or any other applications they desire.

I understand the users' point of view, but having spent hours rebuilding systems due to user abuse, I would be reluctant to completely relax the policy. Perhaps instead of declaring war on the users, it might be possible to reach a compromise by providing certain games, allocating an amount of disk space for personal use, and supplying a list of approved devices that may be attached. But I don't know whether this approach would resolve the issue or merely open the door for more abuse.

#9: Unresponsiveness of the IT department

I can run reports until I'm blue in the face to prove to users that 99 percent of their problems are resolved within an hour of being reported, but it is always the 1 percent they remember. What accounts for this difference in perception? To a certain extent it's just human nature. The time the doctor kept us waiting for half a day will always figure more dominantly in our memory than the 27 times we were seen on or before our appointed time.

This tendency probably can't be changed, but we can do a few things to improve matters: (1) Communicate with users, acknowledging that their problem has been received and immediately issuing an ETA; (2) Ask users to sign off on a completed work order; (3) Send users a follow-up e-mail to solicit their feedback after a work order has been completed. Constantly communicating with users and keeping them informed lets them know their problem is important to us, so they'll have less reason to accuse us of being unresponsive.

#10: Arrogance of the IT department

We don't have to directly tell a user he or she is stupid to be guilty of this. Less overt signs, such as rolling our eyes, tutting under our breath, or a taking on a certain look still tells the user that we think he or she is stupid. This can also be a problem with the wording of our memos. If we send out memos written in Geeklish instead of the user's native tongue, it alienates them and makes them feel ignorant. The memo becomes useless because nothing meaningful is communicated.

We do this in more subtle ways, too, such as impatiently fixing a simple computer problem instead of teaching users how to do it for themselves. In effect, we're saying, "You are too stupid to perform this simple task, which takes me about 20 seconds." For a look at these and other miscommunication problems, see "The 10 worst ways to communicate with end users."