In my experience working the help desk for several companies, I’ve observed that the more you educate your end users, the fewer support calls your help desk receives. And the end-user training doesn’t have to be advanced. Countless help desk calls can be eliminated by providing end users with basic skills. Before you jump right in and start training, however, you should learn the pros and cons of user education by reading about my real-world observations on what works and what doesn’t.

To train or not to train
I know several support people who will absolutely cringe when they read this article (you know who you are) because they subscribe to the popular school of thought that says having users fix problems is bad news. Indeed, I’ve encountered many situations over the years in which an otherwise simple repair was complicated by a user’s attempt to fix the problem.

However, when I talk about educating users, I’m not talking about having users do anything complicated or potentially damaging to their systems. I’m talking about educating users to make very simple repairs and perform routine maintenance that prevents the need for repairs in the first place. As you read this, you may wonder if there’s really a need for such elementary education. But in every company I’ve ever worked for, I’ve encountered users who didn’t know how to properly shut down a computer or change the toner cartridge on a printer.

What doesn’t work?
One of my first help desk jobs was for a large insurance company. A few weeks after starting this job, I was astounded at just how little the users really knew. I discussed the problem with my manager, and as you might expect from a large insurance company, he implemented a typically bureaucratic solution.

His solution was to institute a mandatory computer-training course for department managers on one day of each month. The managers were then to go back and teach their staff what they had learned.

This solution didn’t work for several reasons. First, none of the managers wanted to be in the class, so they gave the material minimal attention. Second, because of the nature of their jobs, the managers used computers less than their employees. In fact, many managers had old 286 machines that hadn’t been turned on in years or didn’t have a computer at all. The end result was that although the training material was simple, it was beyond the audience’s grasp. The trainers tried to teach completely foreign material to an audience that didn’t want to or didn’t have the capacity to learn it and that didn’t have the time to pass the information on to the people who really needed it.

What does work?
As negative as the situation above sounds, it taught me a lot about end-user education. Since that time, I’ve found two training methods that really do work: training as you repair and voluntary training classes.

Train as you repair
As you fix people’s computers, you’ll discover a variety of interest levels in what you’re doing. Some people couldn’t care less what you’re doing, and some people want to know every detail. There are also people who think that what you’re doing is interesting but think they could never do something like that. If you run into a user who has some level of interest in what you’re doing, you may be able to demonstrate a trick or two that will allow the user to diagnose or repair a problem in the future.

For example, one of the companies I used to work for ran a Novell network and ran the NPRINTER module on some users’ machines to support network printing. However, because many of the machines were old, NPRINTER would frequently fail, and the help desk would get lots of calls from people who couldn’t print. While resolving these calls, I was able to show many end users a simple command they could use to restore network printing. When a user acted hesitantly, I would explain that this fix was instant and that if the user called the help desk instead of learning this simple command, it may take hours or even days to get a response, depending on how busy we were. That was usually enough to inspire the user to learn.

Voluntary training classes
The other training technique that worked well was to have training classes for the end users, but instead of making the class mandatory, we made the classes open to anyone who sent an RSVP to our invitation. In each class, I would teach something different. For example, I might teach how to clear a paper jam from a printer or how defragmenting a hard disk can make your computer run faster. The cool thing about having this type of class is that you have a captive audience of people who are eager to learn and who can’t wait to try out what you’ve shown them.

The right training can save time
In the end, I’ve always found that the right kind of user training can really cut down on the number of calls the help desk receives. This saves you and the end user time, energy, and frustration. If you have a great end-user training tip, post a comment to this article and share it with your fellow TechRepublic members.