Sometimes, the most difficult part of working a help desk isn’t fixing the user’s problem; it’s getting the user to tell you what the problem actually is. End users rarely know what’s wrong with their computers, which prevents them from reporting anything other than “something has gone wrong.” To overcome this all-too-common lack of information from the user, support techs can use three simple, yet powerful, techniques: listening, questioning, and understanding. When used together, these practices can help you quickly extract pertinent, detailed information from the caller. Here’s how.

1. Listen closely
In the hectic world of IT support, we are often forced to tackle too many tasks at once. You’re rushing to answer all the voice mail and finish the monthly report (which was due yesterday), while two of your people are sick and you’re fighting off the granddaddy of all network failures—and, right on cue, a support call comes in.

With so much going on, we often don’t listen closely and instead make a snap judgment about the caller’s problem. Avoid the temptation to get back to your to-do list. Don’t just listen to what the caller says; listen to how she says it. She may be worried that she inadvertently damaged her system or panicked because she can’t meet her deadline.

Such cases call for you to worry more about fixing the problem and less about achieving a new world record for speedy troubleshooting. A quick piece of advice thrown at a caller may or may not solve the problem, and it may make the end user think that you don’t care about his problem. Such behavior can cause end users not to trust the help desk and avoid calling in the future. This is not the image you or your IT organization want your clients to have.

Listen to the user’s whole story before attempting to troubleshoot the problem. Note any significant actions the caller may have taken that could have caused the problem, such as installing a new piece of software or opening an e-mail attachment. Be aware of when the problem first occurred, as it may correspond to a larger issue, such as a network failure or virus outbreak. Often, a seemingly insignificant fact turns out to be the crucial bit of evidence needed to solve the problem.

But what do you do if the user doesn’t give you any helpful information? Then it’s time to ask some questions. Just be sure you ask the right ones.

2. Question effectively
Ask questions that are going to elicit the answers you need. It’s a simple concept but one commonly overlooked by support techs. Too often, you may ask:
“Have you installed the correct driver?”
To which comes the inevitable reply:
“Of course I have; do you think I’m stupid?”

The caller has installed what she believes to be the correct driver, no question. A better question to ask is:
“What driver have you installed?” or “From where did you get that driver?”

Either of these two questions will elicit a much more detailed and useful answer than the first. With a little work, you can even get the caller to read you the name of the actual driver. Bingo! It’s as you thought; the caller has installed a driver for a different model, and it will not work with the item in question. Award yourself a pat on the back for using effective questioning, but don’t get too comfortable. It’s now time to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

3. Check for understanding
There is a famous, probably mythical, misunderstanding that is often quoted by military radio instructors. It goes a bit like this:
The original message is sent as:
“Send reinforcements; we’re going to advance.”
Which is received at HQ as:
“Send three- and fourpence; we’re going to a dance.”

Despite the reference to Britain’s old predecimal currency, this example clearly illustrates the need to make sure everyone understands what’s going on.

It is easy to check your own understanding by simply repeating the caller’s problem back to them. For example:
“So, Mr. Smith, your screen image has broken up into fuzzy, colored bands, and there’s smoke coming out of the back of the display?”

The caller will either confirm that this is indeed the case or, if you have missed the point completely, communicate the problem again, perhaps using different words. The caller may not be an expert communicator, so give him every opportunity to clear up any confusion.

Likewise, ensure that callers understand what you’ve asked them to do by having them repeat back to you exactly what they’re doing as they do it. This may sound tedious, but imagine missing a single, critical step during a software install. Such a mistake could corrupt the install and require you to walk through the entire process again. Save yourself and the end user some time by getting it right the first time.

A final word
When giving information to callers, don’t make assumptions about what they know, unless you become aware of a certain knowledge level during the call. Keep explanations in plain language and avoid technical jargon. Doing so will prevent the common end-user complaint of feeling talked-down-to or deliberately baffled by IT lingo.

The next time you and an end user aren’t thinking along the same lines, remember to listen carefully, ask the right questions, and make sure that you understand the problem. Stick to these three principles, and you can’t go wrong.

Please, use small words and speak slowly

As Jeff Dray mentions above, end users often criticize IT support personnel for using technical jargon. We want to know how you combat this temptation in your IT organization. What common words and phrases do you use to explain complex computer terms? Post a comment to this article and let us know.