How to tactfully respond to "Duh!!!" IT questions when I go out of my way to fix them?
January 5, 2011 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I work fixing computers for a living. Sometimes an end-user breaks something and when I answer the "What did I do?" question, I have a special ability to be rather condescending and make they feel stupid. I don't want this and want to be approachable. How can I learn to change my approach in answers?

For instance, last month, a user called me during on-call time, "Hey, I have this weird pop-up about having a virus. Do I have a virus?" Knowing he's on a Mac, I knew it wasn't a virus and figured it was one of those stupid malware websites that trick people in to downloading malware.
I specifically asked them if Firefox or Safari was open. "No."
When you click on the green button, what does the menu bar at the very top say? "Warning, you have a malware virus!!!"
Ok, on your dock, what programs have a light under them? "Just Excel and Word."
A few more questions and I finally give in and tell them I'll stop by the office tomorrow morning and see what's up. I stop by and well, it's like I originally suspected- a webpage open and all my questions were answered incorrectly. Rather annoyed, when asked, my answer boiled down to, "You had a webpage open that said it was a virus. It wasn't one, the web browser simply needed to be closed." The correct answer, maybe, but in hindsight, I could tell they felt like I was an asshole based on my response and hasn't called me since even though know they've had issues.

Another instance, I get a call about the inability to log in. Ok, I go through AD checking to see if the account's locked out and all that jazz. Everything looks OK, so I ask about caps lock, num lock, etc. Is the light on, etc. No luck over the phone, so I drive to their office and caps lock is indeed on. They somehow missed the light. Same result: When asked, I said in a rather deadpan voice, "Your caps lock was on."

I'm aware that in both scenarios, part of the issue is end-user training. That is not what I'm worried about here.

What I'm worried about is that I've never been one for tact or never really learned. I don't know how to verbally respond in situations like this without being condescending and making them feel like a dumbass- a stereotype I don't want to perpetuate.
Any suggestions on how I can better respond, not really to these scenarios in particular, but on a regular basis to those "Well, duh!!!" answers in the future?
posted by MeProxy to Work & Money (46 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This might sound ridiculous, but try to sound upbeat and/or laugh it off as you explain it to them. The general attitude should be "hey, no problem, happens to everyone sometimes!" Maybe you can even say that outright. If it feels cheesy or fake, you can kind of rationalize the approach by thinking, hey, it is much less of a problem if the user had a brainfart than if they legitimately had a virus or their account was hacked. Right?
posted by rkent at 6:48 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Getting annoyed/pissed and thinking someone is an asshole is a common, human response to being told you did something stupid. There's not much way (that I see) around that for things like this, especially with the caps lock problem.

I'm no super-computer genius, by any means, but when I fix something simple for someone and they ask how I did it, I screw up my face into one of extreme concentration and try to explain it in the most technical, big-word-using, bullshitty way I possibly can. Their eyes generally glaze over after a few seconds, and no one cares anymore.
posted by phunniemee at 6:49 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "One thing that can happen is" {the thing}.

"Something we see a lot is" {the thing}.

"I know that when this happens to me, it's usually because I've" {the thing}.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:54 PM on January 5, 2011 [15 favorites]

Imagine that the person is your mother, sister, dad, lover, whatever. Because here's the deal. Chances are that one of those descriptions applies to them for someone. Think about how you would want your boyfriend/girlfriend to be treated under these circumstances. Now that you have humanized them, smile. Seriously. Physically smile. It will make you feel better they will hear your cahnge in attitude over the phone. Take pride in helping people, its a difficult task. Be happy about what you're about to do. You're going to improve someones mother's life.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:56 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

I, too, work in tech support, and I've caught myself sounding condescending like this on occasion. Especially when it's things like asking very basic, simple, yes/no questions and getting 100% incorrect answers (like the caps lock key). You know what gets me out of this? Have you seen Toy Story 3?

Well, Toy Story 3 has a character named Lots-o-Huggin' Bear. I pretend I'm Lots-o-fucking-Huggin' Bear with the users.

"We-e-e-e-e-ll! Ha ha, looks like instead of going to, you went to a search engine and typed in, and, gosh, it seems like you just clicked on the first link that popped up. Well that's alright, lotsa people do it. How about we just try that again and see if we have some better luck this time."

The whole time I'm doing this, a small part of me is dying inside, but I sound totally genuine and the user feels at ease, and it makes them more willing to just keep plowing ahead with me. I just imagine myself as Lots-o-Huggin' Bear (before he turns evil). I'm just a happy, huggable bear who's here to help.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2011 [21 favorites]

You could treat it as another puzzle to solve. Assume a rational human (balancing a lot of different concerns, differently educated than you, not evil, no less intelligent than many people who do understand the caps lock light). What causes this behavior? Key point of departure: it's not "stupidity". Why are your users behaving this way?

Of course one answer is, as you mention, end-user training. But you have a little training moment right then; this person will encounter similar problems, will possibly call you or a colleague in the future and need to be able to identify things, might even be able to help their colleagues sometime. Is there a way you could have phrased your questions differently? What do the clueless have in common? Is this just an unavoidable phenomenon? If so, why?

If this is an unavoidable phenomenon, it means secure jobs for you and others. If not, and you can solve it, it could mean that you'll be in charge of the solution revolution :)

In any case, treating the whole thing as a puzzle, or problem-solving exercise, can get you out of the judgy/crabby mindset.
posted by amtho at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe spin it as that "aura" that IT techs seem to have - the problem fixes itself when you stand near the computer. (or the caps lock comes on when you get there?)

In addition to common folklore, I think this was an xkcd comic, but I can't find it.
posted by CathyG at 7:00 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Um, spikeleemajor..., be careful with that "a small part of me is dying inside" thing. How do you think the bear became evil instead of just unhappy?
posted by amtho at 7:01 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you being aware of what you're doing will go a long way to making you better at this. (And maybe you're setting yourself very high standards -- it's going to be very difficult to, after asking someone in 10 different ways if their caps lock was on, and them denying it, you driving there and seeing that it was, for them to save face. Unless you lie to them. So while my next paragraph is might sound a bit harsh it isn't meant to be.)

The problem is that you've asked them a question they didn't understand -- they prove to you they don't understand it -- and then you waltz up and say to them, oh, hey, you answered the question you didn't understand wrongly. Even if you say that nicely it's a bit bewildering and hurtful.

What you can do to avoid this kind of tone is go back more to basics. And maybe doing so would get you better answers. You ask them about the dock; do they know what the dock is? Do they know what the different programs are called? Do they know the difference between caps lock and num lock, or what these things are at all? Their responses suggest that they don't. Maybe you have to risk being patronising rather than rude: something like "hey, your computer has some different programs on it, and shows they're open like so " -- opening and closing while saying this -- "and this is what it shows when Firefox is open. Firefox you use for browsing the web, and, you know, there's a lot of trash on the web, and so sometimes you'll get to a webpage that tells you something that isn't true. There's lots of stuff like that, and what happened here is that a website tried to trick you by saying you had a virus, when there wasn't anything on your computer, and your computer is safe because of X,Y, and Z".

A good teacher finds the level of their student and works from there.
posted by squishles at 7:02 PM on January 5, 2011 [15 favorites]

I find smiling and saying it matter of factly like, "Oh, your caps lock key's just on." helps a lot.

I'm a student computer tech at my university (fix computers for grad students, professors and the like) and they do some pretty embarrassing computer things for people with or who are pursuing advanced degrees.

Sometimes scaring people a bit doesn't hurt either. If they do have a virus or think they have one, ask them if their stuff is backed up because you may have to reformat the drive or do stuff that would otherwise make them lose data. That usually gets people to think twice about what they click or download.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:03 PM on January 5, 2011

Instead of emphasizing that what they told you was *wrong*, try to spin it as "well, that was an easy fix, glad to help!" or "Yeah, that's really easy to overlook." And then get out of there. Try to think back to the last time you made a rookie mistake, you didn't want someone to loiter around and judge you, you're quite capable of doing that yourself.
posted by meowzilla at 7:04 PM on January 5, 2011

Tone is important, one must sound sympathetic even though the issue may seem pedestrian. Customers thrive on stupid questions, by treating each question as not the act of a complete ignoramus (and I've often had that feeling) but as the sincere voice wanting to learn but lacking a sympathetic teacher you can earn their trust.

Also, if you can relay the customer's problem to one you've had (even if you are stretching the truth), it allows customers to sympathize with you more and feel as though they aren't alone in their lack of understanding.
posted by banal evil at 7:05 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This isn't quite what you're asking, but if you give more instructions on the phone instead of asking questions, you might be able to avoid the infuriating site visits in the first place? For example, instead of asking the user if capslock is on, you could say "Please press the capslock button and then try to log in again." If they protest the light isn't on, you could say "I just want to try this, since it's a common problem, and sometimes it's hard to see the light depending on your office lighting." The user will probably also have a better learning experience if they fix the problem for themselves.

But otherwise, or if you already do that, a "Don't worry, it happens all the time" or "No worries, I do that too sometimes" goes a long way.
posted by equivocator at 7:08 PM on January 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As one of the dummies who calls you guys, I really understand. I think you have no idea how scared we are of you and how dumb we feel when you find out what dumb thing we've done.

I'd make two suggestions. 1) rewrite your first sentence. You don't work fixing computers for a living; you work fixing people's problems with their computers for a living. And 2) tell yourself that nearly everyone of us who is too spooked to even know if we have the caps lock on can do something else in this world that you maybe can't do. Cook or sing or tap dance or soothe savage beasts. And if you came into our spheres of expertise, we could choose to be kind or we could give you scorn.

Most of the call desk stuff is going to be from us dummies. We're your bread and butter. Just try to imagine that we feel like you'd feel if you were hungry and trying to get a hot meal from the only cook in town. Treat us the way you'd hope to be treated. Give an extra slice of bread and a smile.
posted by Anitanola at 7:09 PM on January 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: i've worked technical support for years and years and years, and can talk a bit about what kinds of changes you'll need to make and how you can change your point of view and hopefully see the changes you'd like to see, but long story short : stop being a jerk.

you have information these people don't have. you use jargon, they don't. even basic, shit-simple stuff is out of their comfort zone. that person with the open browser window didn't LIE TO YOU, they answered your question incorrectly. since they don't have the specific knowledge necessary to have answered that question correctly, the failure to recieve the correct answer is entirely yours.

"web browser" is more than a good portion of end users will understand, and the moment you disabuse yourself of the delusion that what you have is common knowledge, the easier and more fulfilling your job will be.

i don't know shit about cars. nothing. zero. i couldn't point to things on the engine and tell you what they were, i couldn't point to things on the engine if you asked me to point out specific components. i have heard the word "carberator" before, and may well have just spelled it incorrectly.

the fact that you can't imagine not knowing the vocabulary necessary to describe and troubleshoot computer problems is what's causing you this consternation. you think, "these people use computers every day of their lives. they must know this stuff! it's absurd to think otherwise!", and to that i'll say i drive my car to work every day and still don't know a damned thing about it.

they don't care, they don't need to care, and they aren't interested enough nor inclined to learn. when they ask "so what's wrong? what happened?" they're really asking "how can i avoid having to call you about this again in the future?". it's half making conversation and half hoping they'll glean a clue of some kind to what just happened in the mysterious workings of the magical box on their desk that seems to hate them.

you shaming them will only ensure they never ever learn anything.

don't remind them of the questions you asked, don't rub their noses in the failed answers they provided. just answer, as plainly as you can, what was going on. in your web browser/virus issue from your example, you could've just said "oh, that was actually just a webpage that was open. it wasn't a real message, just a webpage trying to make you think something was wrong. no problems here, though, enjoy your day!".

some people are going to be angry/frustrated just because they hate not knowing the answers, and in particular not knowing the answers to questions that someone else clearly considers elementary. your tone of voice is clear as day even in your written description, so it must be abundantly clear to those you're condescending to in person.

don't judge them based on what they do or do not know. just provide them with the information they requested (when you can) and let them draw their own conclusions. fix their problem, make some small talk, get out. and recognize as you're going through this process that "small talk" = "what happened? how did you fix it?" and that with all small talk the overwhelming majority of people couldn't possibly care less what you say in those instances. that being the case, just smile and tell 'em what's up.

"you had an internet explorer window open, and that message was just some scam trying to get you to buy their stuff." done and done. they know what was wrong, how to fix it, and you didn't speak to them like they'd been dropped as a child.

the basic, fundamental change you'll need to make is to not fucking pain yourself with what they don't know. you're not better than them for knowing it, you're not better than them for fixing it. you're just a fucking IT guy like a million other IT guys supporting countless untold millions of NON-IT GUYS. do your job, be professional, get the hell out. and smile along the way.

if that's sincerely too hard for you, you're utterly unsuited for the field you work in. your specific job is NOT BASED ON WHAT YOU KNOW, it's based on HOW WELL YOU CAN COMMUNICATE THAT TO OTHERS. you are not paid for knowing, you are paid for helping.
posted by radiosilents at 7:09 PM on January 5, 2011 [35 favorites]

Have you ever done anything stupid? I mean totally dumb, like wondering why your hair dryer wasn't working when it wasn't even plugged in? Or brushing your teeth with Ben Gay? (I did that once. I don't want to talk about it.) Or going to work in your pajama top? Or forgetting you weren't talking to your significant other on the phone and saying "I love you" to a stranger? Or typed sex instead of six?

If you've never done anything like this, I'm scared of you. The you're a robot. I'm going to assume you're not. I'll assume you're a normal, fallible human. So when you talk to someone else who has done something stupid, do so as one dumb human talking to another dumb human -- and make a joke out of it.

"Okay, you're going to feel really dumb when I tell you what's wrong. But don't worry. I did something just like this last week, so I totally know how you feel. You ready for it? Okay, you know how you told me you didn't have the caps lock on? Well... you had the cap locks on!"

"I did? Seriously??? God, I'm such an idiot!"

"That's nothing. Last week I forgot it was Sunday and went to work. I couldn't understand why I was the only one there. It took me like four hours to figure it out."

Also, remember that while people definitely make stupid mistakes, not ALL mistakes are stupid. A "stupid mistake" is when you do something wrong even when you know how to do it right. If you don't know that CTRL+P is the shortcut for print, you're not stupid for not using it. You're just lacking knowledge. You should also be able to relate to that. Do you know how to play the organ? How do pilot the space shuttle? How to speak Etruscan? Some people are computer illiterate, just like you are probably American-Sign-Language illiterate. How stupid of you!

Whenever I help anyone with a computer issue, I try to go just a little beyond the call of duty when answering questions. I don't go way beyond, because that can try people's patience. But I make it clear that it's really important to me that the other person understands, and that I'm very happy to help him understand -- AND that I don't think he's stupid for not understanding.

"I can't find my Word Doc!"

"Where did you save it?"


"Um. Where Word files go."

"Hmm. Well, they can actually go lots of different places. When you choose Save, you can pick where you want them to go. A lot of people don't notice that, though."

"Yeah. I just pick a file name and click OK."

"Okay. Let's look for you file. But do you have five minutes? Good. Because I want to show you what to do if this ever happens again. I'm not trying to brush you off. I'll always help if you need me, but in case I'm out sick or something... Okay. So, you see all these folders? ..."

But the best way to not be rude is to take pride in not being rude. Make that part of your job. Chastise yourself when you fail to carry it out. APOLOGIZE when you're rude. Pat yourself on the back when you're polite and helpful. Work to get a reputation as "that guy who is always patient and helpful." Fake it until you make it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Instead of answering the "What did I do" question, try hearing it as a "what happened" question. Your answer will then deal with what went wrong, and avoid assigning blame (which, by the way, may not belong to this particular user anyway - people share computers even when told not to.)

E.g.: You've just cleared the latest bunch of crapware off of their system, since it was slowing everything down. They ask "What did I do?" and you reply "What happened was that some rogue antivirus software was downloaded and it took over a lot of system resources. Those kind of programs often cause a lot of problems. It's gone now."

Focusing on 'what happened' depersonalizes your response; the user most likely knows already that something they did caused it. No need to tell them about policy, remind them not to do it again - those messages are implicit when you say "Those kind of programs often cause a lot of problems." Focusing on the mechanics of what went wrong avoids any perception of blaming, even if unintended.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sidhedevil speaks the truth. But you have to mean it. If they knew how to fix computers, you wouldn't have a job. So approach it like you and the user are going on an adventure together.

I would shy away from the "baffle them with bullshit until their eyes glaze over" approach. Fewer people will see this as rude, but it is fundamentally rude to use words and language you know the other person doesn't understand. IMHO, anyway. You never want to try and big-time someone.

Understand that computer-machines have a special place in the minds of many people- they are afraid of them, they don't want to screw them up, and they don't know how they work. Sometimes people will even willfully not understand things, because that's just who they are. They don't care, just fix it for them. So remember that all of that is going on, and they are stressed out. If they are missing something as simple as the caps lock button, they are already somehow frazzled.

So don't look down on them. That is where most of the troublesome tones come from.

When it IS something stupid, fake it to make them look good. Reboot the computer, unplug the keyboard, blow it out with air, plug it back in, fire it back up and have them sit down and try to log in again. They will probably be successful. If not, just ask them to hit the caps lock button and try it that way. 9 out of 10 times, they will say "aww crap, that IS how it normally is, sorry dude!"

With the website one, I would have had them save their work and reboot the computer and the problem would be solved, no? But it is really difficult to do phone support, I understand. Make sure to get confirmation that they know what you are talking about. Maybe they don't know what a dock is, or what a light means. Be methodical. "OK, down at the bottom in the dock, where the icons are, which ones are there? Firefox? Click on that for me. What happens? It stayed the same? OK, up near the top, where the red dot is? Click that for me. What happens? It's gone now? Cool, it was just a website." Keep them engaged. And when they report something that doesn't make sense, bail out.
posted by gjc at 7:22 PM on January 5, 2011

I don't work in tech support now, but I used to, and the IT group at work says I'm an honorary member because I always end out fixing things for people who don't want to call the help desk. It's to the point now where random department members call me.

It helps a lot to have them describe things (tell me which lights on your keyboard are on, read all the words you can see on your screen, etc.), to share stories of how you've done that exact same thing, to emphasize how evil computer programmers are and how difficult Microsoft makes things and how much easier it was when we had Lotus. Oh, and being cute and giggly and friendly and 5'4" and female helps a bit, too.

Be nice. Channel Mickey and Sheriff Woody and Lumiere and every other happy, cheerful, reassuring cartoon character you can think of. And bring chocolates. People love candy.
posted by SMPA at 7:23 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Criticize the software while praising it, and holding out patient hope for the future.

"Windows could have automatically brought up User Help for this error condition of having your CapsLock key locked on, and it actually does on local account log in, but Microsoft didn't include the code to test for that situation on network account logins. That's probably because the network client doesn't trap all the possible local hardware errors, in the interests of maintaining a speedy network log on process, because most users want the quickest network login process they can have, and Windows 7 has been significantly optimized to meet that goal of quick logon response. Maybe the logon process will be further improved in Windows 8 to catch this kind of issue, but in the meantime, it pays to yada yada yada..."

Everybody understands that software isn't ever perfect, and most people are just happy to learn "workarounds" for common problems.
posted by paulsc at 7:34 PM on January 5, 2011

I'm in the same boat. One thing I found out over time is that no matter how charming and helpful you are, people are going to feel dumb when they find out it was something they did. That's just how things go; you would feel the same if your mechanic was to point out that you car's loss of pickup speed and weird engine noises were due to the fact that you'd been driving with the parking brake on for the last few days. It's just the human 'Duh' response.

The big problem, especially when you a) do this for a living and b) don't want people to hide a problem that could turn into a big deal is that if/when people start associating that negative feeling with contacting you. At a certain level it doesn't matter whether you 'make' them feel dumb or not. If they get that negative dumb feeling subconsciously whenever they call you, they're not going to want to call you, and they're going to tell everyone else that they don't like / are afraid of the IT guy. And a lot of people have fears and negative feelings (consious or not) about technology and computers to begin with, so you're already working with a strike against you.

Now maybe you ARE nasty and judgemental, and if so you should work on that. You can get advice about being charming and friendly and likeable elsewhere. If not, or in either case, you've still got that association problem to deal with, and luckily it can be socailly engineered.

1) Deflect by personifying the equipment and software and put the blame on it instead of the person. Instead of saying 'you did this and that broke it', apologize for the poor delicate computer and explain that 'it doesn't like when you do that' or 'that makes sense to you and me, but computers are dumb and doing it that way confuses it and it blows up like it did'. Putting the blame on the stupid computer and you being a partner in the person's frustration with it can help many people feel superior instead of intimidated by the tech, and that you're on their side instead of the computer's side.
1a) You can do much the same about malware and viruses. Make it clear to the person whose computer is unusable because they just installed some "Antivirus XP" trojan, that the bad guy get trickier and trickier every day, and there's a multimillion dollar industray that does nothing but keep up with trying to outsmart the trick that just did a Gotcha on them. Lets them know they got fooled, but that they're not necessarily an idiot.

2) Always always try to teach them (patiently and kindly, without condescension) how to prevent whatever it is you're fixing. Don't get technical unless they actively express interest - most people's eyes just glaze over when you start explaining the back end. But if they've been struggling with something for weeks just because they've been doing it the wrong way, if calling you results in it not only getting fixed but with them now able to prevent it from happening again, you end up with positive associations instead of negative ones.

Here's another thing that will both make your life easier and make the people you help feel better about working with you. You (if it's just you) or your employer should make a small but worthwhile investment in remote support software. Part of the 'I don't wanna call the IT guy, he's scary' syndrome comes from your natural body language and tone when you have to drive all the way across town to plug something in or walk across the whole office to come over and push CAPS LOCK.

One of the best things I ever did was spend the price of a good laptop on a lifetime license for TeamViewer so that when someone called me for help I could just take over their computer remotely and see what they're seeing, and they can watch me fix it. People find it pretty cool (and effective!) if they can call you and you just magically fix it right then instead of having to wait for you to come over and get in their space and ask them a bunch of questions they don't know the answers to. And it saves me a ton of time schlepping around or trying to guess at things that I can answer for myself by just looking at it myself from my own desk. There are lots of competitors such as LogMeIn Rescue (and free options but trickier technical options like VNC), so check those out, but TeamViewer worked for me.

In almost a decade of doing computer (user) support, nothing made as big a difference to both me and the people I was supporting as the positive effect from investing in remote control support software.
posted by bartleby at 7:37 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

I used to teach kayaking, and I learned from a couple of amazing instructors that you can say just about anything as long as you smile when you say it.

Also, try asking fewer yes or no questions. Maybe you are already doing it, but instead of saying, "Is your caps lock on?" try something like, "Look at the light above the such and such key. What color is it?"

Finally, surely there are things in life you are terrible at. Maybe you should go do something like that and reflect on what it means to be the person who doesn't know.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:40 PM on January 5, 2011

While I'm at it, you should totally check out Spiceworks. Even if you never install and set up the (FREE) network monitoring and management software that'll help you do everything (I swear, it's like having a no-cost robot intern) you do for small to midisze business IT, the Community will be a big benefit to you.

It's like a million-person AskMetafilter community where every member works in IT. Just tell 'em that Bartleby sent you when you download and sign up for free; I could always use the extra referral points.
posted by bartleby at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not an IT person, but for a while, I was, like SMPA, the non-IT person that people would ask, often by phone or IM, before they called the IT person. I'm not 5'4" or cute or particularly sweet, so I found it very easy to treat people like idiots when they did something I thought was obvious. In other words, I had your problem.

I did two things that made my life a lot easier. The first was preventative. I made a point of trying to never ask anyone a yes or no question. So instead of "is your caps lock on?" the question is (as bluedaisy suggests) "what color is the light above the F2 key?" or "how many lights are on in the top right corner of your keyboard?" Instead of "Do you have a web browser open?" it's "Can you read me the titles of all of the windows listed at the bottom of your screen?" In other words, don't ask them for the answer to your question. They don't know what your question means or why the answer is important. Instead, ask them to supply you with the information you'd look for to find the answer to your question. Which windows are open, What does the pop-up say, What colors are the blinky lights on the front of the box, that sort of thing.

The second thing I did was to cultivate a reputation as someone who thinks computers are stupid. You may have a higher hurdle to clear to get such a reputation, since you're an IT guy, but bear with me. When someone can't get their documents to print, it's not "oh, you had the wrong printer selected," it's "those idiots at Microsoft set up their program to send all your documents to the F'ing marketing department instead of to the printer down the hall." When someone complains that their internet is down and it turns out that they unplugged the network cable, it's not "you unplugged the network cable," it's "I don't know why the computer can't give you a simple warning when a cable comes loose. It's not that hard!" In other words, instead of blaming the user who is sitting in front of you, blame a faceless, souless corporation or blame the computer itself. Makes people feel a lot better, and it makes you allies against the man, which people seem to enjoy.

Good luck!
posted by decathecting at 8:26 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nthing the upthread posters who have said use patience, tact, etc, when dealing with the people you're supporting.

I'm an IT guy also, and whenever I'm helping someone out (in person, over phone, email guidance, etc.) I try to guide them in the same manner that I would for my Mom. She is a wonderful, intelligent, and loving person, but she is more computer & technology phobic than just about anyone else I know. I strive to have the same patience with each user that I do when I'm helping my Mom out with computer questions (e.g., last night I spent about 15 minutes on the phone with her walking her through accessing a wifi hotspot, opening a browser, and checking her email.)

Be tactful and informative. As described upthread, it's a good idea to use passive voice when describing the cause of a problem. For example, instead of "You did XYZ" say "XYZ happened," etc. Critique the situation (politely & constructively), not the individual who is in that situation.

I also keep in mind that many of the users I support have the formal or informal ability to make my life hell if I piss them off. Production managers, plant managers, and Sales personnel carry an enormous amount of weight in my company, and so I make sure to be on my best behavior.

I like bartleby's comment about remote control software. We use a commerically available enterprise product, and it is an enormous timesaver being able to remote into someone's PC while I have them on the phone, and talk them through what I'm doing so they can (maybe) understand what's going on.
posted by AMSBoethius at 8:39 PM on January 5, 2011

Use tricks such as the ones Raymond Chen suggests:
Don't ask "Are you sure it's plugged in correctly?"

If you do this, they will get all insulted and say indignantly, "Of course it is! Do I look like an idiot?" without actually checking.

Instead, say "Okay, sometimes the connection gets a little dusty and the connection gets weak. Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?"

They will then crawl under the desk, find that they forgot to plug it in (or plugged it into the wrong port), blow out the dust, plug it in, and reply, "Um, yeah, that fixed it, thanks."
As a power user, I used to hate getting this crap when I call tech support, but I can't remember the last time I had to do to that.
posted by grouse at 8:48 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Maybe spin it as that "aura" that IT techs seem to have - the problem fixes itself when you stand near the computer. (or the caps lock comes on when you get there?)

I wouldn't do this, because in my experience it goes from 'you fixed it just by being here!' to 'you broke it, I don't know how but you broke it because you're the computer person!' really, really quickly.

I try to be as chirpy and understanding and 'yeah, I totally always forget that you can't do that' even when I'm pretty sure llamas from deepest Peru would never make that mistake. That has its own issues (see my first example), but for most people it is really great. People are so anxious about being wrong that they're absurdly grateful when you try to de-escalate the level of their wrongitude.

Smile when you talk to them, too, even on the phone. A smile comes through in tone. Do a tiny bit of chit-chat at first, just to make them see you as a person rather than a COMPUTER MYSTERIAN.

I also do not bother explaining in great detail. I tell them how and why, but I avoid any sort of jargon. I'm sure you've seen the IT Crowd?

"Moss's phone rings. He answers it.

Moss: Hello IT. Yuhuh. Have you tried forcing an unexpected reboot? You see the drive hooks a function by patching the system core table so it's not safe to unload it unless another thread is about to jump in there and do its stuff. And you don't want to end up in the middle of invalid memory. (laughs) Hello?"

Don't be Moss. As people have said, make them describe it to you. Make them give you screenshots. Best of all, if you have some sort of webconference software, make them get on it if applicable. Don't do things for them with it, though. Make them go through the motions of doing themselves. That can be maddening, what with 'No, it's a little bit higher on the screen - see the blue dot? it's across from the blue dot', but that helps it sink in more.

If you get questions often, make a little powerpoint guide with screenshots for the users. That way if they get stuck they can look at what the screen should look like and maybe prevent smaller problems from escalating.

Once in a while I get my users together and do a little group tutorial. For the people who are really confused, I set up separate meetings for them. I know that sounds like a lot of work, and depending on how big your group is it may not always be feasible, but in my experience with my ~300 users if someone is confused enough it will actually be quicker to schedule a little thirty minute meeting for them to go over anything that confuses them. They feel all snuggly that you really care about them and their comfort level with the systems, and you get users who trust you.

Getting the trust of the users is, in my experience, one of the most important things in supporting applications or systems. If they trust you, they'll tell you what is happening without fudging to make themselves look less bad and they'll CALL if they're confused about something instead of bumbling along trying to figure it out from a sketchy webpage and their brother's cousin's sister's kid brother. The really big calamities come from people who are scared to ask so they just do what they think is right.

So - be upbeat, be approachable, provide documentation, and encourage them to contact you to build and sustain a trusting relationship. Candy doesn't hurt, either. I had to support a really nightmarish process a couple of years ago and I gave each of my user groups a card and a big bag of candy on random holidays in the year. Bribery works when other methods fail.
posted by winna at 8:59 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work as the admin support person in a computer repair company, and I would urge you to read and re-read what radiosilents wrote. This stuff is easy for you because you know it and have a knack for it. Spend some time thinking about all the things that are super easy for other people and not for you. Imagine what it would be like to have someone tell you on the phone that cooking is SO easy, all you have to do is start with a mise en place. (I'm assuming you're not a gourmet cook, but even if you are, I trust you'll get my point.) Ordinary users don't think in terms of "web browsers," they think in terms of getting on the internet. That is, you speak a different language that they don't know. But if you got them talking about whatever it is they know, you wouldn't speak that language, and you'd get a turn at feeling like an idiot.

Also, somebody above said that you can say anything you like as long as it's accompanied by a smile. PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. The owner of the company I work for does this all the time and it's obvious to everyone that he is a gigantic fucking asshole.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing. A cardiologist called me the other day wanting a quote for an office computer and I had a hell of a time trying to get him to tell me what he needs, what he uses the computer for, etc. This is a brilliant guy, one who saves lives every day, and he has no idea what operating system he wants--because HE DOESN'T CARE. It's our business to figure that out, because he's got his work to do and we have ours.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:28 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get them to send you a screenshot! This would be so helpful for the caps lock problem, but might have helped with the "virus" one. (Also, you'll have to hold their hand through the process.)

I worked on a team that built and supported an internal web application, and getting some of our users to describe a problem in any useful way, or (worse yet!) send us the actual text of an error message, was almost impossible. But if we told them how to take a screen shot of the problem, they would happily do so, and we could read the error message ourselves, or see the odd display behavior, or explain (tactfully) that everything was actually working correctly and that they were actually looking at the wrong report or something.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:46 PM on January 5, 2011

My first "computer" job was tech support for EA. I dealt with issues like this a lot and found that what frequently helped was diagnosing the "user problem" instead of the computer problem. The phrase "I just want to try x to make sure its not the problem" helps.

Take your two examples. You know the answer to the computer problem, its the user problem you need to solve for.

1. The web browser. Tell them to reboot the computer and ask them when its done, tell them "I just want to make sure the browser isn't open somewhere in the background". Then ask if they still see the popup. Then try to recreate the steps to where they get the problem. Usually this will involve them. Don't be afraid to tell them that you are just trying to make sure the "Browser isn't open in the background"

2. Caps lock, have them open notepad and type something and see if its all caps (or have them write out the password and cut and paste it into the password field). In this case tell them "I just want to try something to make sure your not typing in caps, sometimes the button can get stuck."

Finally the phrase "No worries, it happens to people all the time" goes a long way.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:56 PM on January 5, 2011

* A cheerful/friendly tone of voice is everything in this job. If you let you frustration through into your voice, you'll make them more tense, increasing the odds that they'll get frustrated, make mistakes, and miss obvious things, and it'll be less pleasant for everyone.
* Passive voice--"Looks like the capslock got turned on!" instead of "You had the capslock turned on." De-emphasize the user's fault; he knows that he's the one who turned on the capslock, no need to underline it.
* Sympathy: Re-using an analogy from a commenter up above, I know bugger-all about cars. When a light comes on or it starts making a funny noise, I get this panicky feeling, because it means that Something is Wrong and I don't know what it is or how much it will cost to fix. Computers are like that for most people.
* Seconding the recommendation for TeamViewer. My life as a remote support tech would be hell without it. If they can get to a website and run this TeamViewer program, you can connect, see their desktop, and remote control their computer. It is worth whatever it costs.
posted by JDHarper at 9:58 PM on January 5, 2011

A little humor goes a long way.
posted by rmmcclay at 10:04 PM on January 5, 2011

Remove agency and use passive voice.

People don't want to feel stupid. People want to feel like the mistake they made could have happened to anyone. Remove agency from your explanation and use as much passive voice as possible.

Instead of saying "you had the cap locks on," say "what happened was the cap locks was on. It happens a lot and it's tough to tell if it hasn't happened to you before."

-notice how the agency is completely removed from the end user.

Instead of saying "your browser was open and the webpage said that you had malware," say "There are a lot of webpages that say you have malware. They keep the browser open, even if it looks closed. It's really tough to know what to look for unless you see it as much as I do. Those sites really try to get you to panic and do something stupid, but I am glad you called me instead. That would have definitely been much more or a problem."

-again removing the agency and in this reply it even makes them feel like they helped solve the problem.
posted by poyorick at 10:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Radiosilents is so amazingly right that you should print out his response and read it every day before you go into work.

Squishles' comment was also really helpful:

What you can do to avoid this kind of tone is go back more to basics. And maybe doing so would get you better answers. You ask them about the dock; do they know what the dock is? Do they know what the different programs are called? Do they know the difference between caps lock and num lock, or what these things are at all? Their responses suggest that they don't. Maybe you have to risk being patronising rather than rude

This a thousand times--at least in my work situation. Do not use jargon, except when you have to, and then immediately define that jargon in simple, ordinary ways. Every time. No matter how clear you think you're being.

Example: When I need to tell someone to right click over the phone, I ask them to look at the mouse and see the two buttons on the mouse. Then I tell them to click the button that's on the right, which is on the opposite side of the button they normally click. No, the other button. Did a menu pop up? No? Are you sure you didn't click the button on the left side of the mouse? Ok, try the other one. It worked? Good. Now...

When I tell them to click the start button, I tell them to look at the bottom of the screen. Do you see the long bar that runs all the way across? And in the left-hand corner there's a circle? Click on circle. In the left hand corner. With the left mouse button. The one you normally click with, not the other one. Does a menu pop up? Good. Do you see where it says "Devices and Printers" on the menu? Can you click on that?

And so on.

They're not lying to you. They're frustrated, and they don't understand your questions. It is often a mark of politeness to smile and nod when you don't understand something. That's fatal in a tech support situation, but it's not their fault. It's a survival trait in many, many other situations, and it is too important for them to just give up on a whim. Change the way you communicate, and you'll get better results.

I also try to teach a little bit with every problem, so they have more confidence once they're on their own again. Like with the right click -- I take a few minutes and try to explain to them in simple terms how awesome it is that they can just right click anywhere and get a set of options that are helpful for the thing they clicked on.
posted by jsturgill at 10:16 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This just clicked for me while reading through the responses to this question, but is how I'm going to think about it from now on:

Imagine how you'd want your mechanic to talk to you if they were asking you to open the hood of your car and help them troubleshoot it over the phone (or if you're a car enthusiast, your furnace or your fridge or whatever box you own that you've never looked inside of.) Talk to your customers like that, up to and including the part where you don't make them feel stupid and waste everybody's time by trying to get them to do things for you that they're just not qualified to do. If it gets to the point where you're clearly not making progress because it takes 10 minutes to figure out what OS they're running, tell them that their problem is too complicated to solve over the phone and you'll have to do it in person or with the screen sharing software you're going to send them along with dead simple installation instructions, if you think they're up to that.

When you call a mechanic, they don't ask you to open the hood and poke around while they give you instructions over the phone. They schedule you for an appointment and you bring the car in, even if it means hiring a tow truck to get it there, because asking a non-expert to dive into the works of a malfunctioning system they don't understand is frustrating, unproductive, and potentially dangerous.
posted by contraption at 10:54 PM on January 5, 2011

Radiosilents, Sidhedevil and squishies really captured the essence of the problem and others posted some great training methods. Remember, these people often don't even have a mental model of how computers work, so when the simplest thing goes wrong, they're flustered. Always find ways to educate them as you go along.

Do not do this:
Sometimes scaring people a bit doesn't hurt either. If they do have a virus or think they have one, ask them if their stuff is backed up because you may have to reformat the drive or do stuff that would otherwise make them lose data. That usually gets people to think twice about what they click or download.

Never alarm anyone unless there is justifiable reason to be alarmed (ie they have a virus that can't be eradicated by their virus software and you need to know what documents they need to save). They're already scared enough knowing that something is wrong and OMG did they break something and s/he must think I'm so stupid. Scare tactics have no place in good tech support. If you can educate them about warning signs of Things Not to Click, even better.

Just stay calm and matter of fact. "Hmm. Looks like your computer has a virus. We can try X,Y, and Z to get rid of it, but we may need to copy your important files off in case we can't get rid of it on the first try."
posted by canine epigram at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

While it is good to give the users the benefit of the doubt, please don't go around blaming Microsoft or whoever for things they don't have control over. We need LESS ignorance in the world, not more. Microsoft did not select the printer in marketing.
posted by gjc at 7:45 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Phil Agre wrote a great essay in 1996 called "How To Help Someone Use A Computer." It's still worth reading.

An excerpt:
"Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer. Then keep on blaming the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize bad design. When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable."

For what it's worth, that's more or less how I learned to use a computer - I was taught by a geek who drilled into us that the reason computers were confusing was that they weren't designed to be used by non-computer-geeks. (Still sadly too true, 20-odd years later). It's a ridiculously helpful attitude to have when confronted with confusing new tech, and probably part of why I ended up going into user experience work!
posted by mishaps at 10:06 AM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

In general, we humans are trained that making mistakes are bad (it seems the entire American education system is designed to reinforce this). Part of why a certain personality works in IT and are good at it is the understanding making mistakes is part of the process - we learn from it.
The rest of population, the support base, does not view a mistake that way. Something happened and they don't want to have this viewed as a mistake (and be judged for it.)

I have certainly had my exasperating situations, but in each case I try to get them to see it was only a goof and here's why it happened and how to fix it moving forward. You need them to keep calling you otherwise tiny problems become big ones. Work with each user to raise their knowledge a little bit - with some it will stick, some not so much. It takes time and there is never enough to go around. My belief is the more you can get them to just see it as a problem to be worked through rather than a mistake, they are more likely to work with you and potentially learn.

The attitude you are giving off I believe is only reinforcing the pressure of feeling it is a mistake (and they are to blame), so any communication is going to be skewed or not effective. It is a lose -lose situation and up to you to turn it around.
posted by fluffycreature at 10:21 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thirding (or fourthing) Team Viewer. It's extremely frustrating for both the tech and the client to try to diagnose stuff over the phone.
posted by omnidrew at 1:45 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What kind of work does your company do? No matter how great you are with technology, you are only there to support some other product. Keep in mind that you are there to help that nurse get a patient's file saved, or to help a faculty member record grades, or to help an Administrative Assistant learn that downloading games may make her pc a spam-sending security risk, even though she is bored senseless and needs distraction. You have an area of expertise, but so does your caller.

Make the computer your shared enemy. I love technology, but it's still incredibly imperfect and often user-hostile. Be on the user's side. Be sincere about this. Users are almost always nicer, more interesting and more fun than computers. Get to know them and learn to respect them.

Caps Lock. "Let's check capslock, sometimes it gets stuck. Hit the casplock key a couple times to be sure it's off. Isn't it annoying that we still have a capslock key?"

Reboot. "yeah, I know it's annoying, but rebooting still solves a lot of problems. I'm going to put you on hold for the 4 minutes it will take. I've got an urgent email to send and will pick up again." Go read email or, and pick back up. '

Customer service is all attitude. Remember that technology is not the goal. Helping the customer is the goal. Try to find opportunities to do a little bit of training in every call. Make the customer your ally. Try to learn a little something from customers; it will make you smarter and better at your job.
posted by theora55 at 8:10 AM on January 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, MetaFilter once again gives me a lot to think about. Skimmed over them, but I will be reading the answers in detail in time and applying it to work. You all are awesome.
posted by MeProxy at 8:29 PM on January 7, 2011

As someone mentioned up thread, folks are usually upset and sheepish by the time they call tech support, so calming them helped them to feel better about their own competency, and by extension, my help. The thing that helped me most was to ask them a few questions off the bat (what's your cube number, what branch do you work at). This almost invariable calmed the caller down - they had answers, too! And it gave me control over the call so that I could set the tone and drive the conversation.

Me: Good morning, tech support.
Them: Good morning I really need your help, see my password is wrong and I need a report on here and there's a line waiting and---
Me: Ok, hang on a sec, I am ready to help you, I just need to ask you a couple of tracking questions first. What's your location number?

When people had made DUM mistakes, I'd just say I really appreciated that it wasn't something more complicated/that we'd solved it so quickly/that we could fix it. Sometimes I'd even point out that questions like that were the reason I had a job, so I appreciated them.

Oh, man - this makes me miss the gratification of tech support, having people be grateful all day for fixing their problems.
posted by ldthomps at 3:05 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do tech support, too. There has been lots of good advice here. I think sometimes I do more hand-holding than actual computer work. Mostly because you have to have the client working with you, rather than against you, or you won't succeed at all. I often tell folks that technology is fallible, because it is. It also takes the pressure (and what they might feel is potential blame) off of them.

Because of our tracking software, I also use a method outlined by Idthomps above. "For our job tracking, I need your username and [insert whatever other info; for me it's basically computer ID info]." The first part is something they should automatically know. If they don't, well that's a whole different problem. The second part makes them stop and actually look at their computer, which has generally been hidden under their desk gathering dust for who knows how long.

I often say things like, "I'm sorry to hear your day isn't going very well. Let me see if I can help make it better for you." I'm not being fake here, either. Part of my job satisfaction is turning someone's day around. I WANT to fix it. I love the puzzle-solving parts of the job and it makes me smile when I win, regardless of whether the problem is machine- or human-based.

Currently, I work with a lot of PhDs and grad students and other university staff, all of whom know a LOT more about their specialty than I could ever hope to. Hopefully, I know how to fix the box they have to use to do their jobs.

When they ask what went wrong, I tend to not toss jargon (tends to infuriate folks when they feel ridiculed). If I can fix a thing, and lets face it, sometimes we can fix things without being positive why this one thing worked this one time, but hey it worked... well, that's what I tell them. It's fixed now; call me back if it acts up again because that might mean it's something else.

If it's something like your browser issue, I tell them I'm sure they were distracted by the work they're actually trying to do, which is generally the case. Admins under the gun to get payroll out on time, teachers and grades, grad students and research. We all have our crunch deadlines, and we all know they suck. It puts people on edge. "Happens all the time, glad it wasn't something worse, happy to help," seems to work just fine for most folks.

In the time I've been doing this job, where I used to work with students and now I work with adults, the only thing that aggravates me at all lately is when someone has something fairly catastrophic happen, I find them a reasonable workaround for in the meantime, and then that isn't good enough. "I want it just like I had it!" they say. My reply is something like, "Well, I'm sorry, but this is as good as we can do and it gets your work done." (This is my one passive-aggressive thing for folks who outright surfed whatever and got a virus or who are responding to mandatory upgrades to Office or Windows or who are just... I dunno. I even have my limits. We all do.)

The best rule for any service industry and life in general... Be kind. (RIP Bill and thanks to MaryDellamorte for the reminder.)
posted by lilywing13 at 1:22 AM on January 11, 2011

Lots of great responses. I'll just add this...

If people routinely give you the "wrong answer" to your question, don't look at that as a problem with them, consider that a problem with your question. Look at what it is that you don't know about users, and why the question you asked was not the right thing to ask.

For example, if you ask people "Is the web browser open?" and they answer "No" when it actually was, well ask yourself what you didn't know that led to that happening. Maybe you didn't know that a lot of users don't even know what a web browser is, and don't even use the words.

Now who is really being clueless here... the end user who doesn't know the difference between "the internet" and "a browser", or the person who's job is to help users with tech problems who doesn't realize that users don't know that stuff?

Btw the point of this is not that you've done anything wrong, the point is to look at this from a constructive angle that will get you better results.

It's pretty hard for the likes of me and you to imagine how something like "Is the cap lock on?" can be misunderstood. But clearly it can, and you have to figure out how, and find better questions to ask. Maybe people don't realize there's actually a caps lock light somewhere, and they're just telling you that they didn't knowingly press caps lock. Then the suggestions that other people have made will work... e.g. don't ask them "Is caps lock on?", ask them to describe the lights that are on on the keyboard.

Btw, don't forget that not all users are the same, and what would be befuddling to many will also be patronizing to quite a few as well.
posted by philipy at 9:58 AM on January 12, 2011

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