An examination of how good auto mechanics attend to their customers can provide some guidelines for how the help desk can provide a high level of service. Six tips for support pros.


When I was recently arranging a routine service appointment for my automobile, I was struck by the fact that, for once, the shoe was on the other foot. I’m used to being the expert who has to explain a complicated technical issue to a nontechnical customer. When it comes to repairing cars, I know just enough to make myself sound stupid. Suddenly, I find myself in the position where I have to have things explained to me, often more than once.

I have a great mechanic, so when I work with him, I’m seeing customer service done really well. My visit to the garage got me thinking about some of the practices of good auto service professionals, and I realized that the techniques that produce a positive car repair experience could serve as a guide for creating a positive support experience for my users. Here’s the list I jotted down while waiting for my car to come down off the lift.

  • Triage effectively. My mechanic, Jim, is great about making sure that emergency situations are given special attention. Engine threw a cylinder on the highway? He’ll immediately send a wrecker to pick you up. Just need your oil changed? If there are more pressing tasks, Jim will gracefully let you know he’s too busy and will ask you to drop off your car in a day or two. The takeaway here is that most customers don’t mind waiting for nonemergency service, as long as they’re given a firm date when they can expect attention.
  • Provide an estimate. When I work with Jim, his estimates usually have two parts: the cost and the timeframe in which the work will be done. Cost may not always be a factor when the help desk is serving a user, but there are other things to take into account. It may be necessary to order replacement parts, for instance. Providing your customers with estimates of what the work will entail and when it will be completed will manage their expectations and lower their stress level.
  • Offer alternate arrangements. In the auto-service industry, this takes the form of the courtesy car. Consider keeping a couple of serviceable machines on hand as cold spares that you can loan to users whose regular workstations may need significant repair. With a “courtesy computer,” at least the client can continue his or her work.
  • Update the customer. Mechanics revise their estimates; sometimes it’s necessary because the work required is more extensive. This can happen when a machine is on the repair bench, too. If the situation has changed — for the worse or for the better — make sure that the customer is informed.
  • Explain things clearly. Think of it this way: your customers won’t appreciate your work if they don’t understand your description of it. Avoid jargon as much as possible. Put the situation in terms that are easily understood, and contextualize things for the users. If they have an understanding of how you’ve helped, they’ll feel better about the experience.
  • Suggest future maintenance. Lots of car trouble can be avoided if the owner takes care of the vehicle. The same holds true for computers. If there’s a way that the user can avoid the inconvenience of future problems, share that knowledge with them.

I recommend my mechanic to anyone I overhear complaining about the last time their car had to be serviced. There may be a guy out there with more qualifications than Jim, but his work is solid, and his customer service is second-to-none. When I’m in a situation where I’m out of my depth, I appreciate working with a professional who is concerned about the quality of my experience. Your users will, too.