Support: Not just for Fixin’

As the sole IT person for the company I work for, my responsibilities are to make sure the nine employees have working computers, back up solutions, and can come to me for any questions or problems that may arise.

We have a humble back up solution.  It involves a server and an external drive which gets switched out every week.  While it’s not perfect, it has worked great for years… until that faithful afternoon, December 31st 2009.

Because my schooling is not in server administration or networking and quite frankly, I have no time to research the problem, I called Dell.  After two separate calls (the problem was intermittent, so it was hard to nail down and test), Dell decided the motherboard was fried on our server.  Ouch.

Then came one of Dell’s consultants the following day to our humble set up.  He determined that it was my backup drive which was causing all the issues! What was worse was that the drive was not purchased from Dell, so it wasn’t under warranty.  Even bigger ouch!

What happened next was the unbelievable.  He could have left.  He could have reported back the problem and perhaps, made my life a little harder with Dell.  Instead, he took a look at the backup solution and advised me on how to strengthen it.  He told me about how inexpensively I could configure redundancy, and which particular hard drives I should look to purchase.  While this was all stuff I’ve dabbled in on a personal level, it was very educational to learn on a professional one.

If he just replaced the motherboard as Dell sent him out to do and left, without checking how everything was working?  I would be calling Dell back, 3 weeks later, with the same problem.

The Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Comes to mind.  It’s absolutely true in this case.  I am glad to have my server back and set up with redundancy (as it should have been in the first place).  However Dell was the true winner in this case:

  • I personally have further trust in Dell and am more likely to pick them for buying new equipment in the future. (more profit)
  • They’ve avoided another support request from a disgruntled customer (doesn’t matter whose fault it is!) (less cost)
  • I’ve told multiple people of my story, thus giving more positive awareness to Dell. (more positive exposure)

What can be learned from this experience?  Focus on what the client/co-worker/customer is looking for before fixing the problem.  Sometimes, the problem is over the user’s head, and you cannot explain the fix.  That doesn’t mean you cannot help them change their usage and perhaps curb them from getting themselves into the problem again!  This empowers the user to accomplish their goals, while lessening your support requests.


Sad dogIf you are an IT professional interacting with another department, you’ve probably been in a situation where they just weren’t getting your pitch.  “Why can’t they just understand the problem!” you probably say to yourself.   “They just don’t understand the benefits of the solution!”

How do you make your point and keep cool in the process? I’ve come up with two lists: one to facilitate why we get these responses and one to better facilitate the discussion.

What is going on:

It’s not about how smart you are.  You both have different expertise. Do you always trust your mechanic’s opinion? Have you ever second guessed your doctor?  Ignorance can invoke different reactions.  Some people will not trust an opinion until it has been explained in a way they understand. Let’s say you were buying a house for the first time.  You go and try to understand the process.  There’s so much information that it’s natural to get frustrated and question the process.

Don’t take it personally. We as human beings take things to heart more often than we should and we tend to read into criticisms as a personal attack.  According to You Can Be Happy no Matter What by Richard Carlson, we tend to interpret criticisms based on our thought systems, which is generally not the reality.  Accepting the actual reality of the opposition rather than interpreting its intent will allow the conversation to be more subjective and thus, more productive.  This not only works for IT professionals, but for any professional in a similar situation.

They may be insecure. Someone comes into your workspace, starts discussing a project and you just don’t know where they are coming from.  It makes you feel anxious, nervous, and sometimes, combative.  When you are on the giving end of these conversations, you tend to misread the confusion as either disinterest or anger.  Being IT professionals, it’s easy to be on the giving end of this exchange–  not because we are smarter, but because we have a more specialized position.

You may be insecure. Perhaps you are not 100% sure your solution is the best one for the problem, but it’s certainly the best for you.  You pray that you have an easy sell so that you can do it.  If you are that unsure of your solution, perhaps you should rethink it.

Just like you, they are trying to get their jobs done. This is especially important when everyone is under time constraints.  IT has a nasty stereotype of being that jerk IT guy from SNL or the policy police.  They don’t want an explanation of the reasons why you cannot do it, they want a solution.

What to do about it:

Prepare in advance for the conversation. Do anything to help prove your point.  Remember, you are trying to sell a car to someone who knows nothing about cars!  My suggestion is to quickly bullet out the points you believe would help you explain your point better.  Simplified diagrams and analogies also work, but be VERY careful to not insult their intelligence.  Remember it is a two-way street– picture yourself getting an oversimplified explanation about something you need to know about.  You’d feel insulted and silly.

Try to fully understand what their issue is first. Sometimes you can avoid having the “technical conversation” altogether if you can come up with a different and simpler solution to their issue.  It may not even be IT related.

Accept the fact that they may be right.  Perhaps it is you who have over-analyzed and over-complicated the problem.  Sometimes the “why don’t you just do x” is the answer.  Opening yourself to this possibility early on in discussion can prevent unnecessary arguments and wasted time later.

Only discuss alternatives if they are viable solutions. Keep in mind these discussions’ purpose are to move a project forward; not to prove to the other person you’ve done your homework.  Unless they’ve specifically asked you to look into a situation, don’t bring up solutions you think are not going to work.

Keeping these thoughts and tricks for you will yield a happier you, a happier them, and ultimately, a stronger work relationship and environment.