Sunday, 16 December 2012

Reporting a problem

When the first retail computers were sold to the general public, they came with very thick technical handbooks on how to set them  up and run them. I remember my Sinclair ZX81 had a really thick book with lots of programming tips as well as clear instructions and diagrams on how to assemble it. But as computer use became more and more widespread, the instructions became more and more brief.

As the world took up personal computing, it became very clear that people were going to need help - hence the rise of the help desk.  Help desks are a modern fact of life. Where technical proficiency is required to solve problems, you will find a help desk.

Most people have horror stories about dealing with help desks. There is no doubt, some can be very frustrating to deal with. But take time to look at things from their point of view:

So when you are reporting a problem, here are my top tips for getting a result from your help desk. Before you pick up the phone, prepare the following information:

1.   Have all your contact information ready
Have any account numbers, user ID's, network addresses, authentication details etc. ready before you call. Scratching around for them during the call can cost you money and makes you more stressed before you have had chance to tell them what the problem is.

2.   Specify your problem
Collect as much information about the problem as you can. Where the failure is, what else is working Ok? Timescales (be precise as possible) - When did the problem first happen? When did things last work well? How many times has the problem occurred since the first occurrence? How often has it failed? Gauge the extent of the problem - who else has the same problem? How many other systems/machines have the same problem? Is there any pattern or trend to the problem? What internal and external changes might have affected your system?

Now you have your information, give them a call and follow these rules:

1.   Listen carefully to automated systems and make sure you select the right option
If the help desk has automated systems for routing the callers, be aware that they deal with high call volumes and they have specialist areas to deal with different technical problems. Don't be afraid to hang up and start again if you think you keyed the wrong option. Getting the right person first time can be key to your success.

2.   Be patient
If you are put on hold, use this time to prepare your information on the problem.

3.   Don't complain about authentication questions
When they answer the phone, they will want to know if you are who you claim to be (authentication). Be nice about this. They are only making sure you aren't an identity thief.

4.   Keep to the subject
When communicating the problem, state it clearly. Keep focused on asking how the problem can be fixed, rather than setting out on blaming someone. Many of the highest performing companies now see the rectification of problems as an opportunity to improve their service and prove competence. However, even the best operator will find it hard to give you good service if you are ranting at them.

5.   If it can't be fixed while on the phone, be firm about establishing deadlines
Get the operators name, then write down any dates or times for when things will be fixed. If no deadline is mentioned, ask for one. If they are vague or evasive, ask for a minimum and maximum timescale, then negotiate. If more than one thing has to happen, establish a timeline. Write this down slowly and clearly, so you can refer to it afterwards.

So now you have my recipe for dealing with help desks. Preparation before the call is key. Lastly - if you get good service, acknowledge it. Send an email to the head of the organisation. Good technical support is an art form.


  1. Very good in theory Rich. In practice, the last time I had to use a help desk I was abroad on a mobile phone with roaming fees counting. Hard to stay patient after 20 minutes of waiting, going thru endless robot choice menus and answering cascades of authentication questions :-)

  2. Hi Henrik,

    Uh oh! In my defense, I never said it was easy :-/

    And i'm rihht, though. Good tech support is an art form.

    All the best,