Confessions of a Confused User

© 2000 Naomi Karten,

I was doing something dumb in using one of my software packages. Modesty prevents me from boring you with the details. Suffice it to say that although it didn’t keep me doing my work, it did slow me down. Plus, I just couldn’t seem to get the package to do several of the things it was supposed to do.

I knew I should ask for help, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit to anyone that I was having these ridiculous problems. It’s one thing to do something dumb; it’s something else altogether to admit it out loud. I figured that when I had some time, I’d take an introductory class for experienced but confused users (under an assumed name, of course), and I’d get the explanation without having to ask.

Another reason I couldn’t ask for help is that I didn’t quite know how to articulate what my problem was. I was sure I was doing everything right, yet strange things were happening. That’s about as precise as I could get, and tech support gurus claim that’s not a whole lot to go on. I knew I should try to find an explanation in the manual, but when I’m completely stumped, the manual might as well be written in linear algebra, because it makes about as much sense.

Then one day I went to a computer show at which the vendor had a large booth with a section devoted to technical support. Unfortunately, I was leery about this vendor’s support because of a negative experience at the same show the previous year. At that time, I was having a quirky printer problem with another package from the same vendor. I showed one of the tech reps an example of my problem. His response was, "Gee, that’s strange." He couldn’t explain it. But he said he’d forward my example to the person in charge of quirky printer problems. He said I should call him in a few days, which I did.

Or at least I tried to. The first few times I called, I was put on hold for what probably would have been the rest of my life if I hadn’t hung up. A week later, I finally got through and was told, "Oh, he left the company a week ago." I gave up.

Reluctantly, I decided to ask the vendor for help with my newest pesky problem. I explained to the tech rep that I’d been having a silly little problem and described what it was. She quickly set up a simulation on her computer and asked me a question: After I did A, did I then do B? The question told me she totally misunderstood what I was talking about. Of course I did B. That dumb, I’m not.

Needless to say, therein lay the solution. Because, of course, you weren’t supposed to do B, and when you do, strange things happen. In less time than it takes to pull the plug on a week of work, she solved my problem. Her solution not only explained the complications I was aware of; it also explained almost everything else about this software that had struck me as odd.

The thing is, I’m positive I’m not alone in having this type of experience. I’m convinced that many people have problems they can’t admit or explain, so they’ll never contact their help desk or tech support group. Instead, they’ll limp along, doing things in a muddleheaded manner, just barely managing to bungle their way through.

However, given the right circumstances, they may gain the courage to seek help. My experience suggests that it can be worthwhile to provide alternative types of support, such as occasionally dropping by a customer’s office and offering to answer technical questions, or calling this or that customer to say "Hi, anything I can help you with?", or running a quarterly Strangest Problem You Ever Had competition. Don’t assume that traditional methods of supporting customers will always work, because for some people, they won’t.

Give me a call and I’ll tell you exactly what my problem was. Who am I kidding? No, I won’t.

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