Is it possible to laugh about your work and do it properly as well? Is it necessary to be totally straight faced about your end users in order to provide the correct level of service? Jeff Dray explores these questions.


Some time ago, I wrote a piece that was intended to be lighthearted called 10+ dangerous species of help desk callers, which got quite a lot of reads and many comments.

The comments were split roughly 70/30 with the minority castigating me for not showing the correct level of respect for my end users. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each customer I help gets my full attention while I deal with the problem, but I have found that it is necessary to see the funny side of the problem too.

I was reminded recently of this feedback when I visited a fairly angry-sounding customer who demanded that I come immediately to sort out an equipment failure. He was none too complimentary about our goods and services and was ranting even before I got there. When I arrived he continued to sound off, so I decided to try to defuse the situation by cutting to the chase and asking to see the equipment.

When I saw it, it was obvious what the problem was. The office was in the process of being rewired, and I could see that the socket that the machine was plugged in to was no longer attached to any live feed; there was a bank of new sockets next to the old ones, which had still to be removed. I pulled the plug out and put it in to the new one and, would you believe it, it worked!

Inside I was sorely tempted to make some cutting comment, but I resisted the temptation, particularly as I noticed that the customer was looking pretty sheepish already. It would have been easy to be fairly scathing, and I probably will be when I relate the tale at our next team meeting, but, to my surprise, I managed to be fairly diplomatic about it to him.

He was suffering enough, particularly when I explained that, since it was a false callout, it would be chargeable and not covered by the maintenance agreement. That customer will probably be a little more diplomatic when speaking to me in the future. I have always believed that respect is a two-way street, and I hope that the message got across to him.

We have all seen the old stories that have been rattling around the Internet, like the one about the customer not being able to see if his PC was plugged in because the office was in darkness due to a power cut (outage), or the one who was told to put his PC back in to the box and return it to the shop, because he was too stupid to own a computer, and, while I suspect that most of these stories are apocryphal, they are usually based on something that the support tech would like to have said or what they actually thought but didn’t say.

Thereby hangs the art of the help desk analyst: a good analyst is someone who can hold two conversations at once — the one that the customer can hear and the one that stays inside the analyst’s head.

When a customer says something like, “You must think I am a complete idiot!”

You tell him, “Of course not, it could have happened to anyone; I’ve done it myself!”

Whereas inside you are saying, “Complete idiot? No, some bits are missing.”

You can find yourself bottling up these small frustrations. The apparent lack of respect for customers is more likely to be a symptom of those frustrations being released in the form of humor. Is it safe to bottle up your emotions? I don’t think so. However, it is not a good idea to vent in front of a customer. I often wait until I get back to my car before calling a colleague and sounding off to him. He does the same with me, between us we have enough daft customer stories to fill a book, maybe we should write them down and publish them.