Archive: When you Can’t Help — From the Career Opportunities Podcast

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As the world of technology becomes more complex, you as a high-tech worker or consultant will start to feel the effects of this complexity. In the past we may have prided ourselves on our ability to provide a solution to every client, but today the world is simply too complicated to allow that. Too frequently these days we find ourselves standing between two, finger-pointing corporations who insist to the end that the problem is not their fault. Despite your best effort, you will have to admit, sometimes, that you can’t help the client any further.

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This week I visited a new client to set up their DSL. Yes, even today there are still many people using a dialup modem to connect to the Internet. Normally, these broadband installations are simple and straightforward, as long as the telephone or cable company has activated the line. There are times I have to contact tech support to solve a small problem, but even these questions are usually handled quickly. In this case, though, while the connection was somewhat active, it was not stable. I had it working at one moment, only to lose it the next. After contacting tech support, they ordered an on-site visit to check the line and insure there were no problems.

Of course, the telephone company checked the line, only to say that the line was ok, but the modem that had been delivered by the ISP was faulty. Subsequent calls to the ISP resulted in a stonewall and a refusal to deliver a new modem. There we were, stuck between two companies. As of the writing of this column, we have not come to an agreement yet. I am sure it will take several more phone calls and hours of wasted time. In the end, though, there is little I can do for the client except act as an advisor and technology translator and help them navigate through the problem.

When faced with a problem such as this, you have to insure that you don’t become the focus of the client’s anger and frustration. I am very careful to insure that the client knows I am doing all I can. I will assist them with phone calls to vendors, even to the point of having them create a conference call if I cannot be on-site. I explain very clearly to them the responsibility of all the players and what we, together, can do to resolve the issue. You must be on their side or the vendor’s problem will quickly become yours.

Do everything you can to provide alternatives. In cases where DSL is unavailable or unreliable, I will help the client to investigate cable modem or wireless broadband…whatever might provide a solution. This can sometimes lead to several hours of unpaid work, but I believe that the potential earnings from a client often make up for these initial problems. That said, there comes a time when you simply have to throw up your hands and give in.

It can be very frustrating and disheartening for you when you realize that no adequate solution exists to a client’s problem. I am always reluctant to suggest the purchase of a new computer or a return to older technology, such as dial-up, but sometimes you have no choice. Circumstances such as the environment, utility infrastructure, uncooperative vendors and more can eventually put enough roadblocks in your way that a project is no longer feasible.

It can be difficult, so you must clearly explain to the client the realities of the situation. Carefully go over each step of the process and detail each problem. Next, do everything in your power to return their system to the basic functionality they had before. Make sure their dial-up networking is functioning or their older software continues to work. I do my best to fulfill the ancient Hippocratic oath in my own way and “do no harm.” I think this is the best standard possible to guide your work. Finally, let them know if there might be a time to re-visit the issue in the future. Perhaps they will be buying a new computer or moving to a new location. Let them know that you are still available for any other problems or questions they might have in the future.

There comes a time when circumstances, corporations and technology will conspire against your best efforts. Do the best for your clients and yourself by understanding when you simply can’t help them any further. Do all you can and then move on — and hopefully they will, too, once they understand the road blocks. If you do this correctly, you will retain your client and develop a good working relationship, even if you can’t solve this particular problem. If you handle the situation poorly, you will be lumped in with the creator of the problem and seen as part of the problem, not someone who is working in the client’s best interest. When this occurs, the damage to your reputation and your career will be dramatic.


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