I was a hyperactive kid and my grandfather always told me, “Slow down, Jeff. You’re not going to a fire.” He had another one I liked, too: “Don’t be in such a hurry—you’re not killin’ snakes.”

But in tech support, it feels like you’re always putting out fires or killing snakes. It feels that way because users have unrealistic expectations. They want us to be in two or three places at once, and they want us to move at the speed of sound—the sound of their voices calling, “Please come help me!”

And if we don’t respond quickly enough, what happens? They whine to their managers, their managers whine to our managers, and we get called on the carpet. So how do you prioritize tech support requests and keep everyone happy? Here are some suggestions.

It’s a real emergency when…
Many users like to cry wolf. No matter how large or small the problem, it’s always an emergency, and those users are relentless. They’ll call, send e-mail, or pace outside your office door. They drive support people crazy.

But there are certain situations that really do constitute a tech support emergency. Here are some examples:

  • When the problem affects more than one person. If an entire team, department, or building is cut off from e-mail or other network services, that’s an emergency.
  • When the problem affects money. People get ugly when you mess with their food or their money. If the payroll department calls and says they can’t do the check run, that’s an emergency.
  • When the problem affects a vice president. At first blush, you might think that tech support people rush to help a vice president or some other company executive purely for political reasons, but that’s not always true. If a vice president can’t receive or send e-mail, it prevents the executive from managing the people and processes that get products out the door and money in the bank. Tech support requests from company honchos are definitely emergencies.

It’s not an emergency when…
If an end user’s machine goes down, it may or may not constitute an emergency. While waiting for tech support to arrive, that person may be able to log on to the network and be productive on a colleague’s machine, a laptop, or a lab machine.

There’s also no emergency simply because a user can’t find a file, can’t get PaintShop Pro to run, or needs help installing or using a piece of software. Is it a tech support emergency if the printer runs out of toner or paper? Absolutely not, in most cases. In many shops, the users are expected to replace toner cartridges on their own. There simply aren’t that many occasions when a user absolutely, positively has to print something.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff’s View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you’ll get a bonus of Jeff’s picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers. To respond to this article, please post a comment below or send Jeff a note.
Making the definition of “emergency” abundantly clear
The challenge for IT departments is to teach end users when it’s appropriate to request emergency help. If your users call a help desk, your help desk technicians should quickly determine whether the problem deserves immediate help. If there’s no real emergency, your help desk staff should know how to comfort a frantic client and sweet-talk the user into waiting patiently for help to arrive.

If you use a trouble ticket system based on e-mail requests, you should establish a policy that gives users the option of flagging a message—either via a special e-mail form or with the word “urgent” in the subject field—as an emergency. When you implement such a policy, tell your users up front: “Don’t be the person who cries wolf all the time—don’t abuse the ‘urgent’ request form.”

We in tech support have to remember that end users are typically people who aren’t technical and who are often afraid of the technology they use to do their jobs. The same people who freak out when something on their computer goes wrong would never dream of calling 911 about a hangnail. It’s up to us to teach these users the difference between techno-hangnails (the problems that can wait) and the real emergencies.
To respond to this article, or to share your own tips for prioritizing requests for tech support, please post a comment below or send us a note.