Jun 28, 2010

Teach users to fish without making them feel stupid

(The following article is one in a series that I wrote for a distance learning-related blog I used to run. For posterity's sake, I am reposting it -and others- here)

The old adage goes something like: "Bring a man a fish, and you feed him for a meal. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." As true as this is, there should be an addendum: "Teach a man to fish (without making him feel stupid)…"

Anyone who works in IT can tell you humorous stories about "simple" issues that were caused by the user, either directly or indirectly. Or, the IT professional can relay stories of users who are/were technologically challenged. How we handle those situations, and more importantly how we handle the users, can mean the difference between securing repeat business or getting a bad reputation as a customer service professional. And, the reality of life is that any IT professional is really a service professional.

Before I get to my main point, let me give an example. Several years ago, I had a user call me to let me know her CD drive was not working. The conversation went something similar to this:

Me: "When you say 'it is not working, what do you mean?'"
Her: "Well, I can put CD's in, but the computer doesn't do anything."
Me: "Okay. Just to be sure we're on the same page, are you putting the CD's in with the label side facing upward so you can read it?"
Her: "Yes. And, after they go in, I cannot get them to come back out again."
Me: "How many CD's have you put into your drive?"
Her: "Well, I have about three in there now, but it won't let me put any more in."
About now, I am thinking that she has a 5.25" drive in her computer and she has been jamming CD's into it. Turns out that was not the case, as you will see.
Me: "Hmm… I'll be right over as soon as I can to look at it."
(I hop in my car and drive to the school)
Me: "Hey there! Let's see if we can figure out what's going on."
(She gets out of her chair so I can sit at her desk)
I push the button on the CD drive, and it is empty. Now, I am thinking her drive is actually 'eating' the discs… This thought is interrupted by:
Her: "Hey! What is that!?" (Pointing to the now-open and visible CD tray)
Me: "The CD tray where you put your discs, right?" (I ask, expecting her to say yes)
Her: "Oh, no, that's not where I'm putting them." (Her computer does not have a 5.25" drive)
Me: "Oh. Okay, can you show me where you've been putting them?"
She takes a CD and attempts to insert it between the top of the drive and the computer case.
Her: "See? I used to be able to put them in here."
Me: "Oh, okay. Well, I'll see if I can get the other CD's out, but instead of trying to put them there, you can push this little button (I show her the button next to the tray) and put the CD in there."
Her: "Oh, my gosh! I feel so stupid! I can't believe I didn't know where to put the CD!"
Me: "Don't feel bad. You just didn't know. Now, you do. (I smile)"
I remove the side panel from her case and find the CDs resting on top of her CD drive. There are four of them, and they are scratched beyond use from being squeezed through such a tight slot.
Me: "Well, here are your CD's, but I'm afraid they won't work anymore. They're pretty scratched up."
Her: "(Looking embarrassed still) Oh, that's okay. I'm just glad you figured it out without making me feel like an idiot."

The situation was diffused without turning the user into an angry or bawling mess. I also showed her (and that district) that I could be trusted to get the job done without belittling the user for simply not knowing what to do (which brings me to a discussion on assuming things about our users, but I will save that for another day).

How does this tie in to today's post? Please consider the following email exchange (names have been removed) that took place the other day:
From User:
Hi David,
I tried to log in and it won't let me.
I used: thepassword
Password: theuserid
Am I doing something wrong?
Please let me know. THANKS!

My Response:
You have the right username and password, but you have them flipped… your username is theuserid, and the password is thepassword. Also, we just got done re-booting the server, so it could be possible that it was still coming back up, if you just tried it a few minutes ago. Trying again now should let you in. If not, let me know and I'll shoot, er, troubleshoot it.
(I received a "Thank You" and then the following email)

From User:
I tried again (with them in the correct order) to no avail. Please shoot the computer…oh yeah, I meant troubleshoot

My Response:
Hmm.. I tried it and was able to log in as you. See if you can get in by copying and pasting your username and password from our previous email. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else on this end. If that DOES work, then it usually just means there was something mistyped – usually it is a capitalization issue.
Keep me posted!
(A few minutes later, I received the following email)

From User:
Got it! It seems that my computer had an operator error.

My Response:
No worries! Mine has the same problem more often than I care to admit!
Glad you got in!

Do you see what happened there? First, I helped the user get the correct order of things for logging in. This was done without making the user feel stupid. I also added a bit of information that may or may not have been related to her problem. This lets the user know that she is not being "blamed" for the inability to log in (that is, it might be related to a server rebooting – which was true based on the time of the reboot and the time of her email). Third, I encouraged the user to try again, and threw in a bit of 'dumb tech humor' to alleviate any negative feelings the user may be having (possible due to her realization that she had switched her username and password).

When she responded that it still did not work, I logged in with her credentials so that I could see if something had gone wrong with her account. I was able to log in. I let her know that I could get in, and offered a non-combative suggestion (copy/paste). I also explained what to do whether my suggestion worked or not. I also offered an explanation that helped (I hope) her see that she was not the only one this happens to and something (capitalization) she may have overlooked as she typed her password.
Her response lets me know that she was able to get in, and she used "tech humor" back at me, which let me know she was taking things pretty light-heartedly. I followed her response up with some of my own self-deprecating humor, letting her know that I make the same kinds of mistakes, too.

I give you this "play-by-play" in order to demonstrate and explain the process (or at least one possible one) through which IT professionals can help users solve problems without making them feel stupid or inadequate. I could have responded with a simple, "You have your username and password backwards, and make sure you check the punctuation and capitalization of your username and password." Perhaps some users would appreciate such a direct, terse response. But, in my experience, taking the direct blame away from the user keeps whatever "us vs. them" issues out of the conversation. In fact, she threw in her OWN "operator error" comment about herself.

If you want to keep your customers coming back to you, treat them with respect and TEACH them what they need to know. One of the things I will often ask a customer when I am trying to help them solve a problem is, "Would you like me to teach you to fish, or would you rather I fish for you?" Usually, the first time I work with a user, they tell me to fish for them (that is, get the problem fixed and get out of the way), but the next time, they will ask me to teach them to fish (that is, show them how to fix it themselves). But, even when I am doing the fishing, I am always trying to at least do a little teaching at the same time. Feed your users/customers for a lifetime without making them feel stupid for not knowing how (or for tangling the line, breaking the hook, etc) in the first place.

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