'How may I help you?'

A technical trainer learns how to provide inspired support.

People who know how computers and softwere work are often asked to help those who are new to such things. This can be fun—the one in the know visits the computer of the one having trouble, and with a few clicks and keystrokes, everything is fixed. The helper feels like a superhero and the "helped" feels he or she has witnessed a miracle. But what if caller and computer are in another state or country from the would-be superhero? A friendly hands-on visit is probably not an option.

For several years, being the superhero has been part of my job. It's often rewarding, but always challenging. I've found I need to listen with more than mere ears to catch what the difficulty is, because the caller may not use technical terms for technical things or may use the wrong technical term. To make matters worse, the caller may be frustrated to near breaking-point when he or she finally picks up the phone to make that first call. A calm, polite tone on my part helps, but that alone won't do it—the person needs help and now.

When I first began this kind of work, I would answer the phone as politely as I could and listen to the caller carefully, hoping to catch a word or phrase that would allow me to reply with a stock answer and get off the phone as fast as I could. But I soon found that unless the caller was fairly computer literate, my approach was a recipe for disaster. I couldn't understand it—I was answering the question, wasn't I? Why wasn't it enough?

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September 8, 2003

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