By Michelle Hutchinson

My job in the IT department consists of many duties, only one of which is computer support. When I first started, I looked forward to helping less adept computer users with my technical knowledge. But as time went on and my duties grew, I had less and less time to help users and share that knowledge. It wasn’t until my latest project really tied me up that I realized that I had been holding the hands of my users to the point that they were helpless without me. How did this happen, and what could I do to keep it from happening again?

It’s my own fault
I now know that I brought this on myself by giving my users the answers instead of helping them find the answers for themselves. I wasn’t doing them any good by just fixing their problems for them, which is exactly why I had the same users consistently call for the same troubles. They never really learned how to fix the problem, let alone understood what may have caused it. Of course, with more significant problems, such as video cards or memory, users should always seek help from the support desk. But simple software problems are certainly something they can learn to fix themselves.

Give your users self-help know-how
I want my users to be so confident that they feel good about trying to figure out a solution on their own. To help nurture this confidence, whenever it’s possible I will try to explain in simple terms what happened, what may have caused the problem, and what to do in the future to keep it from happening again.

Show them how to find the answer
If a user calls with a problem and I can discern that it’s a simple software issue, I’ll walk him or her through the process of using the help screens to find a solution. During this procedure, they might even find helpful information that they didn’t know to ask about.

Another way I’ve been able to get the user to help search for the solution is simply by telling him or her that I didn’t know the answer but that we could look it up together. Obviously, this method should only be used occasionally so that your employer and the users in your office don’t begin to wonder what, if anything, you do know.

Include a “getting help” component in software training
When conducting internal software training classes, I now include more detail on using the built-in help screens. I tell my students that I couldn’t possibly know everything about any particular program, so I use the built-in help screens quite frequently to answer a question that I may have or to search for an easier way to perform a task. For those who have Internet access, I’ll also direct them to a few Web sites that offer even more helpful information.

A little extra work pays off in the long run
These methods do not work with everyone, and I still have users who would rather call me than attempt to find the answer themselves. But I have noticed that my call volume for the simpler tasks has significantly dropped. My users are finding new ways to help themselves, and they seem to feel pretty good about it. They get so excited when they find something new or fix a problem on their own that often they have to come tell me about it.
It’s your turn to give us a grade. What do you think of Michelle’s tips for helping users to help themselves? Post comment or write to Michelle Hutchinson and let your voice be heard.