Help desk technicians must often work with clients of varying technical expertise and communication skills. Users may be disorganized and talkative or angry and withdrawn. Successful support professionals should adapt their troubleshooting technique to match the user. Here’s an example of how I used the “effective questioning” technique to handle one user who just wouldn’t follow directions.

The call
The caller announced himself to be computer illiterate and in need of help configuring his ISP on a handheld device. I explained that he need not worry, the device was designed for use by non-technical people, and I would have him up and running in no time. Or so I thought!

From the start, he questioned every key press, asked about every other button on the device, and then had the audacity to say, “I thought you said that this wouldn’t take long.” Normally, if they are interested, I like to explain things to people, but this chap was stretching things a bit. Not to the mention the fact that I was desperate to go to the bathroom and wanted to wrap up the call as quickly and tactfully as possible.

Stop pressing buttons and listen!
Here’s a sampling of how the call was going:

Me: “Just select Remote mailbox settings from the menu.”

Caller: “What about the Phonebook menu?”

Me: “No, we don’t need to look in there just yet. The mailbox settings…”

Caller: “Oh yes, do I go into the fax program?”

Me: “No, let’s deal with the E-Mail client first. (Cheerfully) One thing at a time, you know!”

Caller: “OK, I’m in the settings page now. Can this device do spreadsheets?”

Me: “Let’s deal with the E-mail settings, shall we? Can you see the line headed ‘own mail address’?”

Caller: Oh yes, I’ll just key in the POP server name. I’ll have to put the phone down….”

Me: “NO!”

Caller:…tap-tap, tap tap tap, tap.

Me: “Hello! Not in there, the E-mail address goes in there….”

Caller: …tap, tap, tap tap tap, tap-tap.

Me: (To myself) Oh, great!

Caller: “Right, that’s in. Now where do I key in my own E-Mail address…”

Enough is enough
It went on like this for a while until I decided that enough was enough and called a halt to the proceedings. I finally said, “It seems that I need to explain myself better. When I say ‘press a button,’ I want you to press that button and nothing else. If we carry on like this, we will both be ready to retire before we’re done.” Fortunately, he laughed at this and we carried on, albeit a little more quickly. However, I did have to check him twice more as he started to ramble. That’s when I remembered the effective questioning technique.

Effective questioning
When dealing with a talkative caller, it’s best for you to control the conversation. Closed questioning is a very effective method for doing this. A closed question, such as ”Can you see the power switch?” can only be answered with a single word, either “yes” or “no.” An open question is one that is designed to extract information. An example of this would be, “What do you think about the way the government is handling the gasoline shortage?”

I started to bombard him with closed questions in response to the open rambling ones he was asking.

Me: “Can you see the word ‘Protocol’ on the menu?”

Caller: “Yes.”

Me: “Scroll down to it and click ‘Change.”’

Me: “Is the POP server name filled in?”

Caller: “No, I don’t know what to put there…”

Me: “Type xxxxx.”

Caller: “Okay.”

He stared to apologize for being a bit slow. I told him not to be sorry, at least he was inquisitive and interested.

Building the caller’s confidence and understanding

Keeping your instructions simple will build the caller’s confidence and understanding. Do one operation at a time, and check at each stage to ensure the caller understands what’s going on. Soon he or she will be working nearly as fast as the more confident callers, but probably with fewer errors.

Looking back at my performance
We ended the call on good terms. After I had belatedly set the ground rules, it made the whole process much easier for both of us. Where could I have improved the call? I could have been firmer sooner. It was nice chatting with the chap, but we both had other work to do. I could have used the closed questioning technique sooner, if only I had remembered. I could, perhaps, have done something sooner to display my expertise to the caller. I don’t like to show off, but he needed to understand that I knew what I was doing. He didn’t need to question my every move.

Here we go again…
Laughably, the very next caller was one who appeared to only have the ability to converse in grunts.

Me: “Good afternoon, my name is Jeff. How can I help you?”

Caller: “Eh?”

Me: “Good afternoon, how can I help?”

Caller: “‘Snot working.”

Me: “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

Me: <<Sigh>>

What do you think?

How do you handle talkative users who won’t follow directions? What do you think about Jeff’s idea? Let us know. Post a comment, or send us a note.