When supporting the highly technical systems under our care, we often forget that the end user is usually not a technical person, nor does he or she share our interest in such matters. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of regarding those who do not fully understand computers as somehow inferior. When an engineer asks you a question that sounds ridiculous from your point of view, ask yourself how much you know about engineering. To help you improve how you communicate with your end users, here are five steps to follow when you are providing tech support.

1. Gain your user’s confidence and trust
It’s important that you establish a rapport with the caller where they feel confident enough in your abilities to follow your instructions to the letter. If you sound unsure or lacking in confidence, then the caller may not feel comfortable about following your advice, particularly if they feel that one wrong move will trash their expensive equipment. Gaining confidence and trust is the first thing you should do when you answer the phone. A cheery, business-like greeting can set the tone for the whole call. It establishes you as the person the caller can rely on to solve their problem.

2. Go one step at a time
With an inexperienced user, it can be very easy to provide support if you go one step at a time and tell them what to press, click, or whatever.

Here’s one example:

Help desk: “Place the mouse pointer over a blank area of the Windows desktop, and press the right mouse button once.”

Caller: “OK”

Help desk: “Can you see “Properties?”

Caller: “Yes”

Help desk: “Good. Click on Properties, then on “Settings.” Can you see now where it says ‘Desktop Area?’”

Caller: “Yes.”

Help desk: “Great. Now click on the box that says…,and so on.”

Note that throughout all of this, you are checking the user’s understanding and making sure that they are looking at the same screen that you are. Run through the process on your own system so you will be able to tell them the exact wording on each screen.

3. Encourage
Sound encouraging, but try not to sound patronizing. To say “Well done!” to someone simply for clicking on an icon definitely falls under the second heading. Saying “Great!” or “Good!” is better; it affirms that the caller is on the right track and keeps the mood upbeat without talking down to the user.

4. Check understanding
Use as few technical or industry terms as possible. They don’t impress anyone and can cause the caller to feel as though they are missing something. If there is a plain English way to describe something, use it. The caller may wish to use technical jargon to show you that they are technically-minded, but don’t be tempted to follow suit. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that the terms are often misused. Users often say “download” when they mean “install.” How often have you had to explain that disk space and memory are not the same thing?

5. Use jargon to your advantage
Sometimes, however, jargon can be used to your advantage. I recently received a call from a user who announced himself as an IT consultant, so I’d better not try to pull the wool over his eyes! Taking this at face value, although privately somewhat annoyed at his unwarranted aggression, I proceeded to pitch my advice at the level I would use with a fellow professional. After a while, it became clear that he did not have a clue what I was talking about, so I brought the conversation back down closer to my normal level. I threw in a couple of bits of industry jargon to confirm my hunch. He soon “came clean,” and I then offered helped him in a direct and normal manner. With users like this one, it’s sometimes useful to have a dirty trick up your sleeve to make sure you are communicating on the appropriate technical level.

In conclusion
The way you question your callers should adjust as you discover their level of skill. To start with, I imagine the caller to be of average skills and knowledge, based on a vague mental idea I have built over the years of the average user. Their responses will indicate if I need to turn up or down the level of my explanations.

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