Being helpful isn't all that easy

I don't envy helpdesk workers their job. My occasional time in their role convinces me that it's not for me.

Helpdesk people earn every cent they make.

In the past week I have been called on to exercise my helpdesk abilities on two separate occasions. The first was with complete beginners who had never owned a PC before, let alone hook it up to the internet, while the other was with a more experienced user who was just coming to grips with downloading off the internet and the issues that can bring.

The first case was a family who are not IT-oriented, to put it mildly. The two kids have obviously come in contact with PCs at school — they were on to it straight away — but mum and dad were less than comfortable with the whole PC thing. I’d forgotten what it’s like as a true beginner — not even knowing how to hold the mouse, let alone coping with drag-and-drop, right-clicking or even directions such as “click on that there”. To them it was a screen full of text — some of it in blue, most in black, with the odd box left empty for no apparent reason.

Once we’d got them signed up and hooked up they were completely underwhelmed by the experience. It didn’t help that the company they’d bought the PC from had installed all kinds of interesting software, but hadn’t filled in any of the registration forms. No matter what we opened the very first thing you had to do over and over again was fill in the same damned form explaining who you were, what the licence number was, where you lived and so on. All the software wanted to connect to the internet to register online and gave various dire warnings about not doing so. As we hadn’t set that up yet, it meant having to repeat the process once we were online. Very frustrating for them and not a good introduction to the world of IT.

I’m not sure what they were expecting from the internet, but Microsoft’s home page wasn’t it. I showed them Google and tried to explain why it was so cool, but there were blank looks all round. Email was almost as difficult. They wanted to keep a paper copy of all the email addresses we’d organised for contacting family and friends, in case the computer “did something” with them.

Signing up with an ISP would have been impossible for them on their own — that’s why I was there. I at least wasn’t scared off by the terminology, but even I found it a tricky proposition. First there was the lengthy wait while someone answered the phone (finally we used option 1: "buying a service" which was answered almost immediately), then we got everything sorted for surfing, but when we tried email we had to fill out POP3 and SMTP information — which we didn’t have. Another call sorted that out, but it could have gone more smoothly.

The second helpdesk session was with my mother-in-law, who is practically beyond my ability to support these days. She is frustrated with the speed of her dial-up connection, so my wife told her about our super-fast JetStream connection. We get download speeds of 400Kbit/s to 600Kbit/s, which I thought is nothing to sneeze at. Well, she did. Not fast enough by far. Apparently she was expecting something like television and I’m not surprised. Telecom advertises JetStream as being up to 50 times faster than a dial-up, when for most users it’s nowhere near that.

Telecom isn’t alone in this — most companies talk about the theoretical top speed and from a marketing point of view that’s just daft. Under-promise and over-deliver is the name of the game — it doesn’t help the cause of Telecom and others to have users saying “is that it?” and wandering off to watch Shortland Street.

If relatively knowledgeable users - I humbly count myself among them - can have awful, patronising experiences with helpdesks, I can only imagine what absolute beginners to PCs and the internet face. Still, I don't envy helpdesk workers their job. My occasional time in their role convinces me that it's not for me. Pay them a few more cents, please.

Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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