Editorial

Friday Fun: Tales from an IT Service Desk

Call it what you like--Service Desk, Helpdesk, IT, etc.--we have all had interactions with some poor operator, on the phone or in person, who has helped you resolve whatever computer problem(s) you’ve experienced.

In my day job, I am such an operator. To be fair, my job title is fancier than that, but ultimately I help my employer’s customers with their IT issues. There are a number of things I love about my job, and very few I hate. I love the technologies I deal with and the people I work with.  I have it good.

But I want to talk about some of the questions I get asked when I answer the phone, or pick up a call logged with the helpdesk. If given the opportunity, I’d like to make it a regular thing, reporting on the good, the bad and the stupid! I stress this is all good-natured, and I am sure the IT helpdesk operator in all of us can have a little chuckle at the issues we respond to on a regular basis.

Is there a problem?
One of the best questions that I regularly get asked is one that remains to this day so vague, you could answer “no” and the user have to accept your answer. That question is:

Is there a problem with the server?

I know, from experience, what is wrong with that question. The best way I can describe it, is in my response to the user(s) who ask me.

[User] Is there a problem with the server?
[Me] Not that I’m aware of. Can you be more specific?

Now, this has the potential to open up a can of worms. At the moment, only one person is having an issue, so could it be a PICNIC error (Problem In Chair Not In Computer)? Well at this point who knows, and do you know why? I don’t even know what “server” they think might be causing their problems! Bear in mind that as I support multiple customers, so they are going to be talking about their environment. I could be a real tool when I answer, but no matter who asks, the response can be altered accordingly.

[User] Is there a problem with the server?
[Me] I am not sure, let me think….. you have a total of 30 servers on site, all of which provide you, the end user with services such as email and fax, file and print, database, internet connectivity, antivirus and collaboration tools. Beyond your walls, you use online services, with servers that send and receive email and data between yourselves and your customers. So tell me end user, what exactly do you think is the problem?!

If I’m honest, this question amuses me, simply because I know I could be a tool, or I could go into a technical rant about the number of servers in the company; but I don’t. However, it does beg the question, does the user calling think I sit and watch the servers, waiting for a little green LED to turn red, leaping into action to resolve the problem behind the red LED? Maybe they do. I’ve never asked them why they think I would know. I know the reason they ask though; they think that as soon as there is a problem, it’s them or “the server”, and if it is the server, I could be aware of it as other users could have called and reported the issue.

My email has been blocked!
Now that it’s been firmly established that I sit and watch a panel of blinking green and red LEDs, the next gem revolves around email.

It’s common practice for businesses and organisations to filter their incoming emails. It cuts down on spam, viruses and malware and allows the mail servers to process only the necessary mail that the users need. There are many different solutions out there, some free that aren’t worth the code in which it’s been written, online services that act as a stop gap between your environment and the sender and premium solutions that block legitimate email. This is exactly what happened in a position I was in working for one of the public services about six years ago.

Once a week, usually a Wednesday or a Thursday, a decent user - let’s call them A - used to frequent our office requesting that a blocked email be released. After a few weeks she politely asked could this particular email address be made exempt from the filters as it was information both A and the sender were relying on to complete certain reports. Our response? “No problem!

What followed was a four day ordeal going from A, to us in the IT department, to the third party IT support contractor who provided the software, to the software vendor itself, trying to figure out why this email address was being blocked. The reason? Bad language.

Now this wasn’t the case, but I’ll never forget the conversation between us and the software vendor when it finally came to light what was wrong. I will be as accurate as I can when telling you what was wrong. At this point we were in a teleconference with the vendor, with them having remote access to our onsite email filters.

[Us] Seriously, there’s no bad language in any of the mails A is sending to them [the recipient in question]. We’ve even tested it, sending from our mailboxes and it’s being blocked.
[Vendor] Can you try it again while we’re on the phone, we have one other thing we can try. We’ve got a script we want to run that will flag up the words that are triggering the filter, but we want to see it live if possible.
[Us] Yeah, tell me when you want to send it, we’re ready to hit send.
[Vendor] Do it now.
[Us] That’s it sent.
[Vendor] ….. Yep, we’ve got it.
[Us] So, what is it?
[Vendor] …..
[Us] Hello?!
[Vendor] Sorry. *cough* we just needed a second.

Without going into too much more, we could hear the childish sniggering down the phone. We didn’t mind, as it was more relief that the issue looked like it was going to be resolved, but it was only when we were informed why any mails to or from this person would be flagged did we laugh as well. You’ll also not be able to visit the place, or see it on a map or road signs without thinking it’s the most offensive place in the world. And what was the domain we were sending emails to?

@scunthorpeambulanceservice.com

Without being offensive for the sake of it, letters two to five of Scunthorpe should explain everything.

The next step was explaining to the higher ups in our organisation what the outcome was and why it had occurred. Queue lots of circling the hidden rude word and pointing it out, with reactions ranging from an embarrassed “oh, okay then” to a hearty “Ha!” Although like A, they were delighted. Amused at first, but ultimately delighted that we’d got to the bottom of their issue.

I think the best thing you can take away from this is that no matter how innocent you think something is, it may not be! I still look at email address domains now searching for rude words.

What I actually do
I like the users I deal with; most of them are savvy enough to let me work away and provide them with a solution, but what do I actually do?

It’s pretty amazing that as soon as there is an issue with a system, unless we’ve seen or dealt with the same issue previously, we consult knowledge bases for possible solutions and answers. Thankfully, my work has a great helpdesk system that we can search for keywords and see if the same, or other, customer(s) had the same issue. But if not, we do what has been ingrained into society; we Google it.

What’s frightening, to me at least, is the level of knowledge that people in IT had to have 20 years ago, when computers started to become part of the mainstream. They didn’t have Google. Hell, they might not have even had any form of knowledge base to record problems and resolutions. They kept it all up here (I’m pointing to my head now). Okay yeah, systems were simpler, but the processes behind them were just as complex as they are today.

I guess it’s good to know that any IT issue will have been seen by at least one other person and that person will probably have Googled it, and asked for help, in the hope of finding a solution as well.

Until next time!

Images courtesy of and Shutterstock, Express Arab and What People Think I Do!

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I used to work for Insight Tech Support. One of my favorite calls came from Lexington, a business specializing in printing and sending photos. The complaint was it was taking way too long for their servers to send out the data they needed. Turns out the issue was with the tier they were paying for; they were on the lowest package (10/1), and they had 8 servers connected to a 1Gbps switch, all trying to send out data at the same time. I attempted to explain this to the customer that the problem was his 8 servers connected to a gigabit switch all trying to send out data simultaneously through a 1Mbit pipe, but was having no luck getting him to understand. Finally I asked to speak to the IT guy.

His response: "I am the IT guy."

My thought: "I should have your job." I finally got him to understand by telling him that what he was attempting to do was like trying to stuff me through a 3 inch pipe.

I personally like End User Fatal Error...

And LOVE /s when users call asking for their hotmail/gmail personal passwords.

The question we hate at my workplace is : Are the systems working? Its so vague, its a hoot. Hearing them try to explain which particular service isn't working, it's hilarious, but sometimes frustrating.

Mr.Ed

Never heard of PICNIC, but I regularly use PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair) and H2IK (Hell If I Know)

I'd like to add to this my kind of problem - people who don't know what a phone call is! Now, usually it's about 30 seconds to tell them:

- Hello, this is Name from Company, we're calling to inform that we're expecting to have the replacement for your dead stuff next Wednesday. We'll call you as soon as it's in.
- Ok, thanks.

And then there's about ten minutes of my life wasted, because they wanted to tell me their damn life story:

- I got the disk as a Christmas present from their sister who didn't use it, and is now abroad. And is it actually good brand, you know, because it broke and we'd lost some of our photos? Oh, yes, you said you got them back, how did you do it? Is it really broke then? Ok, so it's a good brand that it didn't break completely. But you didn't look at the photos, right? Because they're kind of private, you know? <at this point it's imperative that I do look at them> Can't it be done on Tuesday, because I'm in town that day - do I pick it up where I left it off and how will I know that it's ready? Can't you send it to me, because it's under warranty <yes, Sir, courier service costs this and that> Ok, I guess I'll wait. It's probably not a good brand, they can't exchange it quickly and it's supposed to be free of charge. I mean, it's a present, so it's not a biggie, but I'd still like it to use it from time to time... yada yada yada

It happens more often that you'd think >_<

Yeah I started doing computer support almost 20 years ago I guess. Wow hard to believe. Back in those guys, you learned how to be systematic and troubleshoot a problem. And if that didn't work, you picked up the phone and actually talked to other folks you knew that were in IT. We would have groups and what not, that would meet on a regular basis. It's fairly uncommon now because people are online instead with forums, etc.

Intrinsica said,

And thanks for that as well. I hadn't seen that before, and I can relate to those tickets incredibly well seeing as my end users are all around the world. They can chat without a problem, but some of the terminology they use can be hilarious.

We had a guy who you could tell was burnt out of help desk work. He sat across the cubicle from me and would often put people on mute, and then scream into the headset claiming they were f'ing morons and chuck our team pager across the office so it smashed into the wall. I always wondered what would happen if his mute button failed to work. lol

I've been chuckling over this editorial on the train for the past 10 minutes. It's all very true. I've got some good anecdotes if you decide to do this again and need some input.

Some of the amazing problems nowadays lay on the helpdesk side.

I did work a while back for Cisco Systems, and them being a network equip. giant you would think they would employ some Network savvy employees, at least for their internal network support and engineering.
Let me tell you in the four years I was there I dealt with some people that lacked a basic knowledge and common sense of how things work... and their attitude was the best part of their ignorance.
Cheers

I've done help desk for a total of 7 years and actually taught college classes on it. I have a lot of stories but one of my favorites happened in regards to an Executive calling regarding email being down.

(Me) thanks for calling the CIC. How can I help you?
(Exec) email is down
(Me) yes sir. We are aware of t and the system admins are working on it.
(Exec) any idea when it will be back up?
(Me) no sir. We do not have a timeframe on when the issue will be resolved.
(Exec) oh. Well is it possible that you guys can send an email out to the company before it goes down again?
(Me) (this caught me off guard but rather than try to explain it to him, I decided to get him off the phone quickly) ill relay your request to the Admins. Thanks for calling.

Even though it is stressful, help desk work makes for some enjoyable happy hours.

briangw said,
I've done help desk for a total of 7 years and actually taught college classes on it. I have a lot of stories but one of my favorites happened in regards to an Executive calling regarding email being down.

(Me) thanks for calling the CIC. How can I help you?
(Exec) email is down
(Me) yes sir. We are aware of t and the system admins are working on it.
(Exec) any idea when it will be back up?
(Me) no sir. We do not have a timeframe on when the issue will be resolved.
(Exec) oh. Well is it possible that you guys can send an email out to the company before it goes down again?
(Me) (this caught me off guard but rather than try to explain it to him, I decided to get him off the phone quickly) ill relay your request to the Admins. Thanks for calling.

Even though it is stressful, help desk work makes for some enjoyable happy hours.

I love these. Like we were planning to take down the e-mail server at the busiest time of the day. Or the people that call saying "hey you guys removed x program from my computer, I need that for my classes"

Right, because I'm so effing bored that I'm uninstalling stuff from your computer because I don't have enough to do.

briangw said,
I've done help desk for a total of 7 years and actually taught college classes on it. I have a lot of stories but one of my favorites happened in regards to an Executive calling regarding email being down.

(Me) thanks for calling the CIC. How can I help you?
(Exec) email is down
(Me) yes sir. We are aware of t and the system admins are working on it.
(Exec) any idea when it will be back up?
(Me) no sir. We do not have a timeframe on when the issue will be resolved.
(Exec) oh. Well is it possible that you guys can send an email out to the company before it goes down again?
(Me) (this caught me off guard but rather than try to explain it to him, I decided to get him off the phone quickly) ill relay your request to the Admins. Thanks for calling.

Even though it is stressful, help desk work makes for some enjoyable happy hours.

Well, sometimes Support crew can be as idiotic as some end users. More than once, have I called my ISP and told them I was having internet connection issues and even after telling themthem I had tracert'ed the link up to their servers and from there on I would not get routed to outside their network, they kept asking me if the cable modem was on...

sviola said,

Well, sometimes Support crew can be as idiotic as some end users. More than once, have I called my ISP and told them I was having internet connection issues and even after telling themthem I had tracert'ed the link up to their servers and from there on I would not get routed to outside their network, they kept asking me if the cable modem was on...

Yeah, and they are most likely reading from a script. I used to have issues with Qwest and their DSL modem causing my connection to hang on their end which would be dropped after about three hours. I once called their tech support to ask them to release my connection while the person kept telling me no, I needed to reflash my modem. The thing is, I pointed out that my friend, who also had an account, said he had similar issues and that's what they did for him. This person would not honor my request, so I asked to speak to the Sup who also would not, claiming that we needed to reflash. I hung up and sure enough, three hours later, my connection reset and I was able to get back on.

Some of these tech support guys feel too empowered and believe you're underneath of them.

sviola said,

Well, sometimes Support crew can be as idiotic as some end users. More than once, have I called my ISP and told them I was having internet connection issues and even after telling themthem I had tracert'ed the link up to their servers and from there on I would not get routed to outside their network, they kept asking me if the cable modem was on...

Just wait until you have to call Comcast on their VoIP system and they reset your modem from their end. Then don't call you back.

Whenever I call up our IT guys at work most of the time they are a bit thick, and they take forever to get anything done. I usually give up waiting for them and go and fix the problem myself with my own solution, even if it's not procedure.

I'm not saying all IT support is like that.. I'm just saying... they're rubbish where I work.

I remember once we restarted our server due to an issue they were taking too long to fix - which fixed the problem, but they phoned back a little bit later and went mental at us saying we should NEVER restart the server. ... My response was "You didn't do anything to fix it so we had to take the matter into our own hands. If this restart has caused any corruption it's your problem."

Cryton said,
I'm glad I don't have to support you.

I've seen IT supports horrible aswel. but indeed some easily think their IT department is a whole lot of suck and take matter into own hands, which sometimes goes well, but mostly goes wrong/worse.

Cryton said,
I'm glad I don't have to support you.

Well, you're either as bad as our guys or you didn't notice the part where I put our IT team are rubbish. It's one of the weaknesses of the business.

jamesyfx said,
Whenever I call up our IT guys at work most of the time they are a bit thick, and they take forever to get anything done. I usually give up waiting for them and go and fix the problem myself with my own solution, even if it's not procedure.

I'm not saying all IT support is like that.. I'm just saying... they're rubbish where I work.

I remember once we restarted our server due to an issue they were taking too long to fix - which fixed the problem, but they phoned back a little bit later and went mental at us saying we should NEVER restart the server. ... My response was "You didn't do anything to fix it so we had to take the matter into our own hands. If this restart has caused any corruption it's your problem."

Without knowing if they were actually doing anything on the server, you could have very well made things MUCH worse, you got lucky you didn't. and no it would have been your problem if you corrupted anything, as you said, you didn't follow procedure.

jamesyfx said,
Whenever I call up our IT guys at work most of the time they are a bit thick, and they take forever to get anything done. I usually give up waiting for them and go and fix the problem myself with my own solution, even if it's not procedure.
Ah, the self fixer. The worst kind when it comes to IT support. I've had users like you messing things up so many times.

About your first comment "However, it does beg the question, does the user calling think I sit and watch the servers, waiting for a little green LED to turn red, leaping into action to resolve the problem behind the red LED? Maybe they do."
I feel your pain but you do know that there are monitoring applications that that do exactly that, monitor critical services and alert you when there is an issue and a certain service is down.
So it depends from your job and the level of support you provide but, the comment you made is not much out of line....

Nice article, I enjoyed reading about it. And I wholeheartedly agree!

Also learned a new term, PICNIC, I'll be remembering it!

Thank Xerox for PICNIC. They have a YouTube video where it was first used...


Farchord said,
Nice article, I enjoyed reading about it. And I wholeheartedly agree!

Also learned a new term, PICNIC, I'll be remembering it!

Huh...I've never seen the PICNIC variation before for that issue. I've always seen it as PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair). Also known as an ID-10T error.

It's more effective (on the last one) if it is spoken instead of written...otherwise they seem to understand what I'm saying...


I will say that this article gave me a few things to ask folks in order to weed some people out in interviews...and reminded me that I need to do more 'pressure' interviewing. I define that as when I intentionally act disinterested, obtuse, or flat-out annoying to see how they respond.

I know if they can't handle it in the interview process they won't be able to handle it well when it comes to the customers...since often they behave better in interviews than while actually working.

Thank Xerox for PICNIC. They have a YouTube video where it was first used...

Shane Nokes said,
Huh...I've never seen the PICNIC variation before for that issue. I've always seen it as PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair). Also known as an ID-10T error.

It's more effective (on the last one) if it is spoken instead of written...otherwise they seem to understand what I'm saying...


I will say that this article gave me a few things to ask folks in order to weed some people out in interviews...and reminded me that I need to do more 'pressure' interviewing. I define that as when I intentionally act disinterested, obtuse, or flat-out annoying to see how they respond.

I know if they can't handle it in the interview process they won't be able to handle it well when it comes to the customers...since often they behave better in interviews than while actually working.

Andrew Stevenson. said,
Is there a problem with the server?

or maybe you could just do your job, instead of poking fun at your paying customers, and ask a simple question or two and actually HELP the user who has rung you because he can't connect to a server you support?

dvb2000 said,

or maybe you could just do your job, instead of poking fun at your paying customers, and ask a simple question or two and actually HELP the user who has rung you because he can't connect to a server you support?

Lighten up.... sheeesh

dvb2000 said,

or maybe you could just do your job, instead of poking fun at your paying customers, and ask a simple question or two and actually HELP the user who has rung you because he can't connect to a server you support?

You've obviously never done any form of customer service job before. Have you?