Career Opportunities

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Users are people, too

© Douglas E. Welch 1999

April 2, 1999

Ten years into my computer career I found myself sitting in my cubicle after going out on 10 straight support calls. The phone would not stop ringing and my email continued to fill up as I watched. My frustration grew with every new call. How was I ever to keep up with the level of support my people wanted without driving myself crazy?
I came to a realization that day that seems obvious now. The only way to provide the level of support my users wished was to teach them to support themselves as much as possible. Unfortunately, if you look at the way support and service organizations are run today you will find that others have not found this realization so obvious. Companies are still throwing people and dollars at a problem that can easily swallow whatever manpower and budget you can throw at it. Like the creature from science fiction literature, the more you try to attack it, the larger it gets.

Changing yourself
The time to change your support strategy is now. The first large change you must undertake actually has nothing to do with your users but everything to do with you. You must insure that you are not treating your users like idiots. If you constantly treat users like idiots that is exactly what you will create. While users may do silly things usually these things are done out of ignorance, not stupidity. They don?t have the knowledge they need to use their computer effectively. Constantly holding users hands will only lead to more hand-holding in the future. You need to understand that everyone has the capability to learn about computers.
With this in mind, Stop talking down to your users. Stop showing an undisguised contempt for your users. Stop telling stupid user stories. In the long run you are only creating more work for yourself, more work of the most unsatisfying type.

Find the gems
The next step in digging out from under the support and service avalanche is to find those users who can help you evangelize in the company as a whole. While not everyone has the desire to be a "super user" there will be those people who will enjoy taking on more technical responsibility. Seek them out and cultivate them like fine orchids. Give them any and all information you can. Send them to training. Train them yourselves. Give them support materials or let them have library privileges in your IS library. (You do have an IS library, don?t you?) Send them the addresses of interesting web sites. Do anything in your power for every question they answer within their department is one less question that will end up on your desk.

Reach out and train someone
As you develop your base of super users you should also reach out to all the other users through some form of casual training program. It is my experience that people are starved for information about their computers. They want to use their computers better but are lacking the information they need.
Set up a series of before work/lunch time/after work training sessions on how to use your company?s basic software. You will be surprised at the number of people who show up. Too many support people have long ago assumed that users are idiots and wish to remain so. These training sessions will prove you wrong.
The more important aspect of these sessions is a casual environment. Make them seminars, not traditional hands-on training sessions. Show people neat tools that they can use in their everyday work. Give them the "killer app" that makes the computer indispensable for them. Always allow plenty of time for question and answer at the end. This will often be the most useful part as users get their most pressing questions answered. You will send them away happy, more likely to return to future sessions and in a much better position to help themselves.

I don?t have time
A common cry among support people who I talk to is "I don?t have time to do what I do now. How am I going to do more?" What they fail to realize is that they are spending their time in the wrong places. Instead of showing a user how to do something by rote, teach them the underlying principles as well. Instead of telling them how to do something, tell them why it is done that way. To paraphrase an old cliché, don?t give them a fish. Teach them to fish. While it may not happen right away, teaching people will reduce the number of calls you receive over time. The more time you spend training, the more time you will have for supporting those users who really need it. It may seem like a paradox but making users more self-dependent and knowledgeable is the only way out of the support trap.

We all need to open our minds and understand that users are not the enemy in the support/service war. Users are our allies. We can accomplish so much more by working together than by fighting against one another.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at