Providing the right kind of help

In the world of supporting end users, sometimes the solution is clear. Sometimes the best solution is to take a bit of time and teach the end user how to solve their own problems. You don't want them taking a screwdriver to the pc, but they can make small adjustments that result in improved user experience over all.

In the world of supporting end users, sometimes the solution is clear. Sometimes the best solution is to take a bit of time and teach the end user how to solve the problem. You don't want the end users taking a screwdriver to the PC, but they can make small adjustments that result in improved user experience over all.


We have all taken calls in which the end user's problem is less than clearly defined. A crashed hard drive is generally definitive, but “There is something funny on my screen” is not. My experience is that these less-defined calls are the ones where I will spend the lion's share of my time and effort.

Wherever possible, I make a trip to the PC and ask the user to show me the problem. I still recall the “something funny on my screen” issue. The poor end user had been targeted for a joke. Someone had flipped her desktop image and set the upside-down image as her wallpaper. The poor thing was terrified to do anything. I reset her wallpaper and deleted the image. Easy solution, right?

In this case, I thought some user education was really needed. I explained to my user what and how it had happened and showed her step by step how to fix it herself if it happened again. I took screen shots of each step and printed them for her. I had her go through the process by herself following the document I had just created for her. And we discussed at length how she could avoid someone playing the same kind of prank in the future. This was effective because the user walked away from the experience having learned something that she would be able to apply to her computing experience both at her job and on her home computer. I rarely heard from that user after that. In a check back with her, I asked if she was having any issues. “Oh, no!” she replied. “I don't have any problems anymore that I can't figure out.”

I walked away from that experience wondering if I had done the right thing by encouraging my user to learn something new about her computer. What if, given her newfound confidence, she decided to try to fix something on her own and screwed up her system?

For the rest of my time at that company, I heard from that user only when there was something that was really wrong. Perhaps my fears were unfounded.

In a recent and similar situation, I had a friend call with an issue. She wanted to uninstall her current firewall and replace it with the one recommended by her ISP. Anyone familiar with firewall software knows that this can be a difficult task. Even with the firewall shut off, it can balk at being completely removed by running the uninstall routine from the Add/Remove applet in Control Panel. There is generally something left behind. Since my friend is in California, it wasn't practical for me to get in front of her machine. So I got the system information from her and started talking her through the process.

The solution was to run the uninstall routine and reboot. Then I had her go to Program Files on the C: drive and delete the folder. Finally, she ran CCleaner to clear out registry entries that weren't needed any longer. Through the process, I had her take screen shots of every step we took and save them to a file on her desktop. Along the way, I discovered that not everyone takes the step of user education.

When I told my friend to delete the folder from her C: drive, she replied that she couldn't do that because she had been told to NEVER delete anything from her C: drive. She was actually quite astonished when I told her that it was not only safe but a necessary step. At that moment, I had visions of getting on a plane to California, just in case.

We were on the phone for about 45 minutes. I talked her through the steps and calmed her fears about doing something new and different on her computer. Later events proved that it was a useful 45 minutes.

About two hours after her initial call, I got a call back. She sounded very pleased with herself and told me why. Evidently, her ISP's firewall was bundled with anti-virus and anti-spyware software along with spam protection for her e-mail. Her ISP told her that she had to clear off all these things before she could download and install her new software. Using the steps that she had screen shots for, she was able to do this without any problem. In fact, she told me that the hardest part was getting her new software in place. But she did it, and she did it by herself.

This was a great reminder to me to take that little extra time to teach my end user, even if what I am teaching is stuff I can do in my sleep. While my taking that step was a bit more time consuming, it can virtually eliminate rote tasks from my work orders and results in a happier, more informed, and more confident end user.

Do you find that teaching end users some basic tasks is a good thing? Or do you think that there is too much power in knowledge and that there are things that they just don't need to know? Join the discussion!