Socrates died in
399 BC, of Hemlock poisoning. He drank it after being sentenced to death for
the crime of corrupting the youth. Times have changed, and today he would be
given his own radio show.

Before his
trial, Socrates was most well known for asking questions. He questioned
everyone on every topic, particularly his students. He was usually surrounded
by a horde of young men who sought to learn from him. Whenever they asked him
about any subject — virtue, ethics, even geometry — he insisted the inquirers
already knew the answers and would proceed to ask question after question until
they arrived at the truth. Many trainers today find this approach to be a very
effective method of teaching. It’s much easier for students to remember what
they discover than what they are told.

You might be
wondering, “What has all of this got to do with a helpdesk?” The
truth is most callers to the helpdesk hold all the answers to their questions.
They are the ones in front of the computers. They are the eyes ears and even
hands of the helpdesk analyst. Any solutions you might offer will come from
information you glean from the caller. In fact, when asked the right questions,
callers often discover the solutions, seemingly, on their own. So good analysts
don’t have the answers so much as they have the questions.

On the Socratic
Helpdesk, before any attempt to give an answer is made, the analyst asks
questions, even when the answer is obvious. Callers often don’t have the
vocabulary to word their questions correctly. “The printer isn’t working.”
might actually mean “I have no network connectivity.” Or “How do
I change the default printer?” We’ve all spent a significant amount of time
working with a caller only to learn we were trying to solve the wrong problem.
Asking questions instead of offering answers will help prevent that.

You might think that
being asked a lot of questions, instead of being offered answers would
frustrate callers. Since customers are often very frustrated to begin with, a
lot of analysts are reluctant to chance making things worse. That is a valid
concern, but there are a few guidelines to keep caller frustration low and analyst
credibility high.

Here are two tips that might make an
analyst’s job much easier. First, start the conversation by acknowledging the
issue, and, second, do so before asking for the caller’s name or employee ID.
The conversation could go something like this.

Analyst: Helpdesk,
this is Pat. How can I help you?

Caller: I can’t print
and I really need to get this document out or I’m going to be in big trouble.

Analyst: OK,
printer problems, I’m sure we can take care of that. But first, can I get your
employee ID so I can prove I worked today?

Caller: PA211112

Analyst: Thanks,
now back to printing. What error message are you getting on your computer when
you try to print?

Caller: None.

Analyst: Hmmm,
do you always use the same printer?

Caller: Usually
but yesterday, oh wait, I see what you mean. Yesterday I was in the Atlanta
office and added their printer. I think it is my default now. Yep, that’s it.
Thanks! I can change the default.

Starting out by
repeating the Caller’s statement accomplishes two things. First, it lets the
caller know you have heard him or her and are willing to help. Second, it lets
you confirm you heard the caller correctly. From there continue to ask
questions until you and the caller discover the answer. Usually it’s not this
quick but more often than not, those questions lead you and your customer to
the solution.

One last tip for
the Socratic help desk analyst: Never ask questions that have a yes or no answer.
You’ll get the information you need much faster by asking callers questions
that require them to think or even try something on their computer and report
the results.

Many helpdesk
analysts think their callers lie to them, and frequently they do. Callers often
feel their problem could be solved much faster, if the analysts were just
willing. So customers say whatever they think will move the call along. Therefore
“yes” is the answer customers almost always will give, regardless of the truth.

You’ll get the information
you need much more quickly by asking callers questions that require them to
think or even try something on their computer and report the results.

You may be doing
these things already, and just never thought of yourself as Socratic. If so, congratulations. You are most likely very good at your
job. If not, give it a try. Socratic Helpdesk analysts aren’t much different
than any other analysts. They just know that, on any given call, the answers
lie within the caller. Like Socrates, they are wise in that they know–without
the caller’s help–they know nothing.