Computers & Geosciences, Volume 24, Number 2, 1998

Diane Trippel
Administrator, UH Web Services
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Diane Trippel has a tough job. As the administrator for the University of Houston web services she has lots of bosses. I thought the readers would like to see things from another perspective.

Bridging the communications gaps between the user and the information technology support staff

Like many people in information technology departments, I have spent time on both sides of the support fence. As a student and a staff member, I have experienced the difficulties of dealing with a support center which can seem unresponsive, slow to answer and even sometimes condescending. As an IT staff member, I have experienced crushing queues of users all of whom expect immediate service, some of whom want unreasonable things and many of whom don't even know what they need. The simplest and easiest description of the inherent problems in the user/supporter relationship is one which both parties are under pressure, preventing a sympathetic understanding of the other's role and issues. When both parties are anonymous or new to each other the support relationship is at its most tenuous. Predictably, as the user becomes more conscious of the issues preventing the support staff from delivering service and as the support staff gets to know the pressures on the user, the relationship is more mature and both parties are more likely to be satisfied with the results.

As an end-user, the key issues are to be focused on the actual problem, to do some preliminary research and to understand the situation of the support person. While support staff do exist to assist their customers, in a University environment they are almost always critically understaffed. Users need to understand that they are not the only person needing immediate support.

Further, the clearer they can phrase the question, the more likely they will get a coherent answer. There is an old joke in the record industry about a customer who comes in and wants help finding "that song with 'love' in it." Of course, probably half the songs recorded have something to do with love. If that customer knows the name of the artist, or can at least describe more of the lyrics, the odds of them getting the recording they want greatly increase. Likewise, as a caller to a help desk, if you can describe the problem with details like what computer and operating system you are using, what application was open when the crash occurred, when the problem began occurring, etc. it makes it easier to diagnose the problem.

Finally, some attention to basic support resources will likely lead to a more educated end user. Many support centers maintain FAQs or Frequently Asked Questions. Some have phone systems which will help the users guide themselves through some self-diagnostic questions or direct them to some support resources which might provide answers to common problems.

That said, there are some inherent friction points in the relationship. Often a user is not equipped to solve their own computer problems. For many people, the computer is still a device they don't really understand. They know the process-based steps to take to make the things they need to have happen occur, but they do not really have any kind of comfort level with the computer. No one likes to admit they don't know what they are doing. This causes the user to be alternatively defensive about their level of understanding and frustrated because they don't feel the support person is sufficiently prepared to answer the question which they are asking.

Similarly, many people misunderstand the support responsibilities in the organization. Support center staff often have a very clear understanding of how much support they are supposed to deliver. Callers to the help desk often expect the support center to deliver whatever support they need. Combined with the resource constraints of both the support center and the end-user's department, there is often a fundamental gap between expectations and ability to deliver, between what the user needs and what the support staff feels falls within their purview. Another friction point occurs when the user does not understand that the support staff are part of a large organization that has expertise spread throughout. This distribution often means that the support staff is not aware of who the experts are, yet alone know about the expertise resident in the organization. This can be tremendously frustrating to the user who is bounced around from one expert to the next, perceiving that nobody knows what they are doing, because nobody knows all the answers they are looking for. It can be equally frustrating to the support staff because the question exceeds their job responsibilities and expertise. So, what should the support center staff be better aware of? Primarily the almost complete lack of alternate sources of support for the end-user. Also, the needs of the person who is not interested in knowing about their computer - who just wants it to work. Many staff members aren't interested in the intricacies of what is involved in a DNS lookup, they just want Netscape to work. For the support center person who works with computers every day...and who invariably actually likes to know about the intricacies of computers, encountering a user uninterested in what the technical answer is can be frustrating.

Another key issue for support center staff is to be able to communicate their needs to the user. Most users expect answers when they speak to the help desk. It is critically important to be able to explain where the user fits into the queue, to determine the criticality of their problem, to give them a realistic expectation of when they can expect service and to maintain contact while the problem is being resolved. Most users are sophisticated enough to understand the workload of the support center, but putting them off does no good.

Finally, one of the biggest keys is the followup call. The support staff need to be contacting the end user a few days after the problem is resolved to make sure the problem is really resolved. The end user needs to be contacting the support center as the situation changes, as more details become available or if the problem actually is resolved. Ultimately, the entirety of the relationship comes in recognizing that it is a relationship. If both people realize they are dealing with people with issues and problems both want resolved, rather than thinking in adversarial terms, the odds of each being satisfied when the call ends greatly increases.

Since September 7, 1998

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