A friend of mine, who I’ll call Ramon, recently relayed an interesting story to me about an experience in our company cafeteria. This anecdote brought to mind the concept of good customer service and how it is given and received.

Ramon was in line waiting to place his lunch order when a man in front of him requested “only the rarest cuts of beef” for his $6.95 beef lo mein entrée. The somewhat surprised server began to agreeably sort through the heap of beef. The line began to pile up as the man tapped his foot impatiently, but as Ramon put it, “Nobody waiting in line behind him was in a very sympathetic mood.”

That got me thinking about the phrase, “The customer is always right.” I’ve always thought it should be amended to  “the reasonable customer is always right.” Having once worked on an IT help desk for several years, customer service still remains a strong theme to me and so I have some perspectives to share, which  will apply both to in-house and outside help desks. Justin James wrote a good piece for TechRepublic a couple of years ago titled, “10 things help desk techs can do to improve service,” which anyone staffing a help desk should read and live by. With that in mind, here are 10 ways to get the most out of your help desk.

My goal here isn’t to single out the user community for being pushy or self-absorbed nor excuse IT personnel who might exhibit poor or sluggish service, but rather to assist both sides in providing and receiving the most meaningful service for mutual benefit.

1. Be a good customer to get great customer service.

Help desks are a stressful place both for the people who work them and those who are in need of service. IT technicians get that, which is why many of them exhibit strong “bedside manner” skills since those are just as meaningful as technical know-how. It’s understandable that users get upset, frustrated, or even afraid if their systems have malfunctioned, email isn’t working, or their mobile device was stolen. But as the saying goes, “Give respect, get respect.”

Venting about something is perfectly okay. In fact, if you show up venting about some ridiculous Internet Explorer error, chances are I will be glad to vent with you while we fix the issue. However, if the venting is unfairly directed at the help desk/IT department, that sets things off on a poor footing.

A few years back a routine series of Windows updates produced an issue with the document imaging function on one user’s system at my organization. I knew things were going to be rocky when he came over to exclaim: “What’d you guys DO to my system?” We got it working again but some time was wasted soothing emotions and making assurances that we really weren’t out to get him. It’s the nature of the beast sometimes and anyone who works in IT ought to have a thick skin, but an analogy I always use is that you wouldn’t go to your doctor blaming him or her for your upset stomach; your doctor is there to fix your problem and so is the help desk.

What if the help desk actually is to blame for the issue, say by accidentally deleting all your files? There’s always a proper time and place to hold people accountable and enact measures to ensure such incidents don’t reoccur, but this should come after the crisis is over.

2. Play by the rules.

Every single company I’ve ever worked in had a system for tracking help desk tickets. This is essential to avoid a free-for-all of pure mayhem as several users vie for the attention of their technicians. The system is there so the user community has a single point of contact and the IT department can sort and prioritize issues.

What would happen if everyone decided they weren’t going to bother stopping for red lights? There would be collisions at every street corner. The body shop owners would probably love the results, but nobody else would. It works the same for your help desk and the need to log tickets with them for service.

 I’ve known a few users who seemed to think to themselves: “Yeah, opening tickets, that’s for suckers. I’m just going to go bug those guys until I get what I want.” That might have worked when things weren’t busy, but on hectic days these folks were sent back to their desks to open a ticket, which was a waste of time for all around. Don’t be those guys. Just…. don’t. Otherwise you may find yourself wondering why the IT department doesn’t have any screwdrivers on hand to loan you when you decide to rearrange your cubicle.

If you have an emergency it’s okay to let technicians know you’re having a work stoppage issue, you’re “dead in the water” or whatever else is afoot at the moment, but make sure it really is an emergency. If you cry “Wolf!” too often it may be hard to take your requests seriously down the road.

3. Plan ahead.

Stuff breaks all the time. If your computer just blue-screened and you need it running for a 10 AM meeting, by all means call your help desk immediately. That’s what they’re there for.

What if you know you need equipment for a new hire starting next week, or you would like to borrow a mi-fi to take on a company trip this Friday? The same answer as before applies: call your help desk immediately. The best possible time to hear about long-term user needs is Monday at 9 AM. The worst possible time? You guessed it – two minutes before you need it. I have actually heard of help desk techs being grabbed at 5:30 pm in the parking lot to ask if they can set up a new user for Monday morning, bright and early. Come on, folks. There’s no such thing as opening a ticket too early.

It’s not just about opening tickets but padding your options. If you are presenting a meeting in a conference room with a cranky projector and might need help desk assistance, go early to set up. While it’s exciting to be able to troubleshoot a stubborn display issue in front of thirty impatient executives, your help desk staff will probably worship you for reporting the problem twenty minutes before anyone has arrived for the big show.

4. Triangulate issues to provide the best possible input.

I used the phrase “dead in the water” in tip #2 since I heard that quite frequently while working the help desk. However, it really only applied to people whose systems were in smoking ruins and otherwise unusable. Often I found issues with one browser not allowing access to a site – but other browsers worked okay. Other times someone couldn’t print to their local printer – but printing to the network printer worked fine. Such discoveries lessened the impact of the problem – it was still important and needed a resolution, but the user wasn’t actually “dead in the water.”

Contrary to the stereotype, IT staff isn’t threatened by knowledgeable and tech-savvy users. If you’re having a problem and need assistance from your help desk, I’m not saying you should go online and start researching the problem yourself every time. Rather, try some different angles to see if you can approach the problem not from the symptom’s point of view (“Firefox won’t let me connect to an internal company site”) but rather from that of the original problem (“I am getting a prompt that the site is not trusted but I can’t seem to proceed.”) This leads to my next tip.

5. Describe the problem in full detail.

Follow the “Five Ws” reporting basics when logging requests: “who, what, when, where, and why.” For instance, a help desk ticket with “Unable to open PST file on C: drive in Outlook” will work better than “Help!” or “Outlook not working.” Include what you were doing, when this last worked, what you tried to fix, how you attempted to work around the problem, and any other salient details that may be of use.

I hope I don’t have to also tell you this: be honest.  If you did something, mention it.Techs should also admit mistakes when they happen. It’s damaging to coworker relations to try to engage in cover-ups and fibs.

I’ll relate a story about a user I’ll call Sharon. Sharon was given a company laptop to take home for work purposes only, but it kept showing up at the help desk riddled with viruses and spyware, along with curious games such as World of Warcraft, which didn’t exactly seem her cup of tea. She insisted she knew nothing about these issues but it seemed likely the teenaged son whose photograph hung in her cube did. Despite her denials, it kept happening. Worse, Sharon actually complained to her boss she couldn’t get her work done and needed a new computer. It took a sit-down chat between Sharon’s boss and myself to permanently resolve the situation by removing Sharon’s ability to install software on the laptop and she was issued a verbal warning. It shouldn’t have come to that.

Oh, and one last suggestion on this topic: if the problem goes away on its own or you figure it out before the help desk staff can jump in, make sure to let them know you no longer need help and the ticket can be closed.

6. Don’t batch the problems together unannounced.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Know which five words your help desk staff fear and loathe the most?

“As long as you’re here.”

Why do these words cause such a reaction? Because fixing that corrupt Word document is now about to lead to figuring out where that file you downloaded disappeared off to. And then why you can’t print to the plotter. And how come you keep getting a security error when trying to get into a company folder. And so the 15 minutes the technician scheduled with you is about to turn into a half hour, forty-five minutes or longer although there may be other users waiting for assistance. A help desk technician is like a train with several stops – in many cases you are merely one such station. And so now this individual is faced with the hard choice of submitting to unplanned work or telling you he or she will have to come back later, which might prompt you to respond: “That’s crazy. You’re here now, right?”

The help desk staff is there to help you; that’s their job. You know it, they know it, and there’s no legitimate objection to performing one’s duties. However, it’s not about avoiding the work but rather timing it appropriately. If you know you have four issues on your PC, put them all in the original support ticket (or even better, open one ticket per problem). Techs get credit for the work they do this way (or at the very least the problems are then logged for future reference). I can guarantee you that if you batch requests together and hit someone up for a couple of hours of work when they budgeted only for a fraction of that, they might drag their feet a bit next time before they appear.

7. Give them some breathing room.

We all know it’s important to get a break to decompress, recharge, and remain focused. It’s great to be needed – within the appropriate context. Being needed while at your desk on duty is fine. Being needed while you’re at lunch, headed out on your own time to run a few errands, or some other obvious “off the clock” scenario? Not so great, unless something is in flames, of course.

If the sight of your favorite help desk tech jogs your memory that you’ve been having a sticky USB problem and have been meaning to put in a ticket, no problem to go ahead and say so if you bump into them in the hall just to give them a heads-up. However, if you go visit them and they’re hastily gobbling a sandwich it might be best to check in later. Nobody wants to be seen as unhelpful, especially in this age of cost-cutting. But trust me, not even die-hard IT pros sit there eating and thinking, “I really wish I had some work to do while I have my lunch.” Go by the golden rule with this one.

8. Go easy on the home PC questions.

It’s a good relationship if you see your IT department as a trusted resource, and chances are they won’t mind if you run a (genuinely) quick question about your home PC (or which iPad to buy, what ISP is the best, and so forth) past them from time to time.

However, your help desk staff shouldn’t be seen as a bunch of genies in a bottle providing endless wishes at your command. It’s not fair to them or the business. Showing up uninvited with your wireless router asking someone to fix it for you so you can work from home is quite likely the dictionary definition of chutzpah.

I once had someone call me up on a busy Monday morning and ask me to elaborate step-by-step over the phone how she could integrate her new Mac in her home network. Had I complied with the request during business hours it would have been the equivalent of permitting her to steal from the company in the way of misused resources as business needs would have piled up.

Technicians want to be useful, but nobody wants to be used. The rule of thumb should be if the home PC question takes more than 5 minutes to answer it might be better to pay them while off the clock for their advice and input.

9. Know when to get their manager involved.

There are times when you may need to invoke the assistance of the help desk manager if things aren’t going right or you feel your needs aren’t being properly met. I’m not going to tell you otherwise. However, if you cc: the help desk manager on your dissatisfied emails, make sure to balance the scales and do so when you’ve appreciated good service or rapid assistance. The techs and their manager will take you seriously and respect your input.

And speaking of managers…

10. Advice for help desk managers…

My advice here isn’t just for users, but some applies to help desk managers as well.

The single greatest tip I can offer is to support your staff by enacting good policies for them and the user community to follow and then make sure these policies stick.

Recognize when your staff is bogged down. Don’t come up with some crazy “system” to track time (it will be obvious to your staff that you’re just trying to squeeze more productivity out of them without actually addressing their workload problem) but roll up your sleeves where necessary and pitch in – or arrange for added staff where possible. The greatest boss I ever had was perfectly willing to get into the trenches with me when things got difficult; he never uttered the words, “That’s not my job” nor did he project the attitude that fixing a printer was beneath him.

Reward those late nights and long hours. When stuff breaks don’t lay blame unless it’s deserved; say “what could we do differently?” and help change course to set new policies and guidelines.

Represent and market your group to the company. Your staff quite likely feels that nobody notices them unless something is broken. There is plenty of value they can add in the form of adding new services, conducting user training, and other “proactive” steps which would make company staff see the help desk not as firefighters (who may sit around doing nothing until the bell rings, an absurd perspective of any help desk) but instead as solution providers.


My purpose here wasn’t to single out problem users. 99% of the people I’ve served while working on a help desk have been kind, patient and fair. Your help desk technicians are there to serve you – help them do so to the best of their ability by adhering to these tips. These courtesies will help make your help desk a valuable resource you can depend on and they will go the extra mile for you out of respect for your consideration.