Advice for new Helpdesk Analyst

My morning ritual at work is at follows: I roll into the office, scamper into the IT cave, drop my bag down, turn my computer on and while it boots I make a bee line for the local coffee dispenser. Unfortunately, the closest caffeine distribution device is located in the lunch room area, outside to confines of the technological inner sanctum.

Some of us old timers faintly remember “the golden age” when our jolly brigade of tech nerds was allowed to host a dedicated productivity pot in our poorly lit bunker. An unfortunate accident involving a fresh pot landing liquid first into some relatively new equipment put an end to that glorious era. But that’s a story for another time. I will just say we discovered an interesting double standard that day: when users spill coffee on their laptops the management treats them like little cuddly puppies – they get a light slap on the wrist, a wagging of the finger followed by “Awwwww, you poor thing – you know we can’t stay mad at you. We will get you a brand, spanking new laptop right away”. On the other hand when we accidentally spill coffee onto inessential spare parts that were just gathering dust, we get coffee privileges revoked. There is no justice in the corporate world. No justice at all.

But that was long time ago, and probably not true. All tales spun by seasoned sysadmins and grizzled hackers tend to get embellished over time. How do you know when one of us starts making stuff up? It’s easy – just look for the part when the protagonist does something cool, or says something witty. That part is usually hindsight-driven embellishment. Oh, and the parts where users are being ridiculously stupid, and to unbelievably dumb things? Those tend to be 100% true. The sad part is that you just can’t make up this shit.

Since our dedicated coffee pot was taken away we must tank up in the lunch room along with all the other poor souls damned to toil at our company. As I made my way to our glorious and thrice blessed wake-up machine I completely missed a minor crowd of the NOC dwellers conspiring in the corner. The powers that be have delivered onto us a new “Help Desk Analyst”. A fresh, uncorrupted and optimistic looking application support technician was parked in front of the IT cave, and we were ordered to get him trained, plug him into the phone system and prevent him from jamming sharp objects into his eyeballs after few hours of interaction with our users. My fellow geeks gathered together, desperately trying to avoid the responsibility of babysitting the newb all day.

When I returned, coffee cup in hand, I was greeted by conspiratory grins from the corner of the room. They beckoned me to come closer, and filled me in on the new guy situation. Apparently someone had to train him.

So I did the only thing I could do in that situation. I loudly screeched “NOT IT!” and watched them grin, unfazed.

“Oh, fuck… You guys already did the ‘not-it’ thing, didn’t you?”

They nodded in unison.

“Well, why can’t The Intern do it?” I stabbed my finger in the direction of The Intern who, like me, just finished his pilgrimage to the land of Lunch Room. The sudden movement startled the poor fellow, making him yelp like a frightened animal and splatter some of his freshly brewed coffee on the floor.

“First of, The Intern has a name…” one of my coworkers explained “…though I can’t remember it at this time. Secondly, he is an intern.”

So it was up to me to teach the poor new fellow some of the basics. I will spare you the gory details, but here are some of the tidbits of knowledge I shared with him that day. I figured some of you guys may find these amusing and/or helpful. The new guy sure did.

  1. First off, when you are working help desk in a bigger or smaller office you have to remember that your users are going to be white collar, educated professionals. Their computer is their primary work tool. One they use for 8+ hours every single day. Most people who start in this line of business assume that this would make the users at least somewhat proficient at using their tool. This is a mistake. When you pick up this phone, assume the person on the other line is basically Brendan Fraser from the movie Blast from the Past. By that I mean a person who spent the last 35 years in some atomic bunker deep underground, and just emerged from there yesterday. While they know what a computer is in theory, and can probably turn it on and off, and type stuff into it but that’s about the extent of their knowledge.

  2. Never assume the user is actually at the computer or that the program they are having problems with is actually open. For all you know, the users just stepped out for a smoke or is standing in line at a local burger joint. Why would they call you when not at their computer? Productivity I guess. Plus they assume you can just fix it over the internet. You know, log into the laptop that is turned off and in the trunk of their car and fix it. This happens more than you think.

  3. Most users only know 3 applications: Word, Excel and Outlook. If you are lucky, they might have also heard about Powerpoint. Everything else is a mysterious land of confusion, populated by fox fires and other wild things. Users tame these scary and unfamiliar things by giving them nicknames – usually taken from partial name of the company that made it. So they might call you about the Adobe thing, the Photo thing, the zips, the Microsofts, etc..

    Sometimes users get attached to certain name, and refused to let go of it even when you change the underlying system. For example, back in the ancient times our company used a custom made time and expense tracking system made by some company called Velocity Systems. It got replaced by a completely different web based system years ago. Old users never stopped referring to that system as “Velocity”, and new ones pick it up and repeat it without realizing why.

    If you ever talk to someone who is not confused about applications they are running, and can communicate the problem directly without using some made up of half remembered buzzwords and brands then you are talking to a power user. Enjoy it, because they don’t call often.

  4. Users newer write down error messages. When they write them down, they usually completely fixate on some random detail that looks cryptic and mysterious to them, but leave out the important things like the actual exception/error number, and the plain text message that was associated with it. If you ask a user for an error message expect an incomplete stack trace instead of a clear message.

  5. Never assume the user knows common keyboard shortcuts for copying and pasting. Make them use the context menus if available. If an application does not have a context menu for copy/paste you will have to explain in detail where the Ctrl button is located, and that it needs to be held down why pressing C and V.

  6. About once a week you will get a call from a user claiming their internet is upside down or sideways. Don’t get confused. They just have a laptop that lets them flip the screen orientation. Ctrl+Alt+Arrow keys will flip it back. Make sure they write this key combination down, because otherwise they will be calling back in about a week.

  7. When helping laptop users, try to find some high resolution pictures of the supported models. You will need them in order to explain where to find keys like PrtScn or to help them find the hardware WiFi switch. If you don’t point out the exact location or if you are unable to describe it’s icon/shape they probably won’t find it.

  8. Assume the user cannot handle multitasking. Always frame your instructions in such a way that could be handled while running one app at a time in full screen mode.

  9. Dragging and dropping is for power users only. Anything that requires a user to have more than single maximized window on the screen at the time will be profoundly difficult to explain on the phone.

  10. Don’t assume the user actually understands the concept of a file system. Do not assume they store their work under “My Documents”. It is entirely more likely that they use Outlook as a file system proxy, saving all their documents as attachments. When a user asks you to help recovering a deleted file, check the “Deleted Emails” folder in Outlook before the system Recycle Bin.

  11. Users will commonly “lose” files by accidentally saving them under “My Documents” or straight into the %TEMP% folder. Be prepared to recover them for them from these locations via remote desktop.

  12. Never assume the users understand what a zip archive is. To them it is just a funky looking folder. Most users will always edit zipped files in place without extracting them. This usually works except some particular situations when it does not.

  13. Keep in mind that most people you will be dealing with think that words: UPLOAD, DOWNLOAD, INSTALL, UPGRADE and UPDATE are synonyms of each other. If you are aiming for clarity try to avoid using these words. For example you will be “putting programs on their computer”, “pulling files from the website and onto the computer”, “bringing the application up to date”, “putting documents onto the website” and etc…

  14. Similarly, most of your users assume that terms such as WEB BROWSER, THE WEB, SEARCH ENGINE, SEARCH BAR and THE INTERNET are basically different words for that blue E icon on their desktop. It is usually a good idea to say “go to the internet” when you want them to open a web browser, and “Go to Google” if you want them to make a search.

  15. Most users will be unable to locate the “address bar” on their browser. If you give them a web address they will type it into the search box on their home page. For example, if you will tell a user to go to they will type “” into the bing search box, and then click the first result. If your are directing them to an internal, non-indexed site it is just easier to email them a link.

  16. Users will always put “www” in front of web addresses. No exceptions. Make sure you keep this in mind when you send them to a site hosted on a non www subdomain.

  17. TLD’s that are not .com, .net, .org, .edu and .gov do not exist. If you need a user to visit a .me,, .tv or perhaps .ly site make it very, very clear not to type .com after it. Because they will do it.

  18. Do not assume users know which web browser they have open. In fact, do not assume they always use the same browser. For example, if Firefox was ever set up as a default browser it will automatically open when they click on links, but they will likely still habitually access the web by clicking the blue E on the desktop. They probably won’t know the difference. Use server side browser detection scripts to work around that.

  19. Get used to hearing “Fox Fire” a lot. Correcting them is pretty much a waste of time at this point.

  20. When sending out a mass email always use BCC. Never actually put emails or mailing list addresses in the TO or CC fields. Users will always Reply To All on company wide memos and announcements. No exceptions.

Can you add anything to this list? What are your tips on dealing with users? Let’s continue this in the comments.

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15 Responses to Advice for new Helpdesk Analyst

  1. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    How about:

    21. If they need to click the F1 or other F-key, you have to specify the keys that actually say F1, F2, etc. on them, else they will click F and hit the 1. Especially if you just told them how to do CTRL-C for copy.

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  2. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Oh, and one more:

    22. When they type, they get, for example, french characters instead of english ones. This will happen if they have more than one language in their Language Bar. To easily fix, use ALT-SHIFT (because explaining where to look on the task bar for the language bar would probably be more difficult).

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  3. icebrain PORTUGAL Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    23. If the user says (s)he can’t open a CD, check if there wasn’t a CD already in the drive. Sometimes they just forget. Often they simply have no idea that doesn’t work.

    (A Meta tip is subscribing to Not Always Right and Clients From Hell. You’ll get such gems as
    “HELP! I can’t send or receive email.” — Sent via email.
    Me: “Click on the start button.”
    Client: “Let me just get my daughter, you’ve lost me.”

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Steve:

    See, you can totally avoid this issue in corporate environment by simply not touching the Windows defaults. Most users won’t know how to add alternate keyboard layouts and never experience this issue. :)

    Also, when interacting with Polish immigrants living in US I noticed that you can tell who has a legally purchased copy of windows by the their emails – or the lack of diacritic characters. For example they will spell żółw (turtle) as zulw. That’s because the US version of windows defaults to the US keyboard layout and they just can’t figure out how to change it (it’s actually easy).

    Most people who do have the diacritic characters in their correspondence are running pirated Polish edition of windows which defaults to Polish Programmers keyboard layout. Why I assume it is pirated? Because it is a pain in the ass to legally obtain it outside of Poland. And no, you can’t just download a language pack – it’s stupid like that for some reason. Most people don’t bother and just pirate it. :)

    @ icebrain:

    The whole “put your kid on the phone” thing used to be true about 5-6 years ago. But they technology moved forwards and we have made these damn machines so easy to use, even the kids don’t know shit about them these days. :P

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  5. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Actually, as I am working under a consulting contract with the federal government, the “default” setup is English (Canada), English (US), and French (Canada). So, it happens all the freaking time :)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Steve:

    Ah, yes. I can see how this might be a common issue in Canada with the French language regulations and all. :)

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  7. Gothmog UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I am forwarding this article to my techs right now and am seriously considering making this material part of our new helpdesk on-boarding training.

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  8. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    #2 reminds me how at some point during my glorious 7 months in bank IT we installed RAdmin on each and every computer. If the day was bad, we just f*cked with user computers, mostly by moving mouse all the time. Users then called us to complain, and we asked them in DRAMATIC voice: what were you doing when it happened? And they were like, well, I don’t know, it’s not important, blah-blah, because actually they were playing solitaire during work hours.

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  9. remember that your users are going to be white collar, educated professionals. Their computer is their primary work tool. One they use for 8+ hours every single day. Most people who start in this line of business assume that this would make the users at least somewhat proficient at using their tool. This is a mistake.

    I’m not in IT, but I had this mistaken assumption for awhile. I figured people who make a professional living using computers must know a lot about using them. Literally everything they do depends on it, right? My parents, both white collar workers but don’t do computer stuff specifically, are quite capable with their home computers — a solid data point to my initial assumption.

    However, I quickly learned that most of my co-workers, made up of engineers and developers, know just enough to get their work done and nothing more. They also have very little interest in learning anything beyond what is absolutely needed, even if it would make their lives a lot easier in the long run. Like your list, the list of programs they know is limited to Word, Outlook, Powerpoint, and Matlab (for the engineers). The nice part about them knowing Matlab is that it comes with a text editor, so they can at least edit plain text files. For developers, replace Matlab with some IDE; and they only know source control as far as the Subversion extension handles it in their IDE. This is better than the engineers, for whom a source control commit consists of emailing their work to someone else (like another point you made).

    I can see why you listed this as #1. It’s probably the most shocking discovery for an IT newbie. The rest of your advice is very spot on with my experience helping friends, family, and co-workers with their problems.

    The nice side of being one of the few capable computer people around is I occasionally get to be viewed as some kind of mystical wizard. For example, the DNS servers at work were not responding one day last month, which for most people means “our internet’s down right now.” Naturally, I switched DNS servers when I saw this. My co-workers noticed that I was the only person at work with functional Internet access and suddenly I’m viewed as some kind of computer hacker. I really do enjoy those moments.

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  10. MrJones GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Anyone got a better expression for “the office button on the upper left corner”?

    most people dont know what im talking about and search around in the tabs -.-

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Gothmog:

    Hehe! Thank you for driving traffic to my site. Tell them to click all the ads. :)

    @ Victoria:

    Hehe, I did that to a fellow GA when I was in grad school. We shared an office, and I was usually there first so I installed some sort of vnc server on her machine and waited. When she arrived I would nudge the mouse when she was trying to click on something.

    It lasted maybe 10 minutes before she caught on. Mostly because I couldn’t keep a straight face when she tried to show me the weird mouse behavior.

    @ Chris Wellons:

    LOL! I would watch out though. I have heard horror stories about people who have gotten in trouble they were seen doing regular power user things, and someone clueless reported them to the management for haxing.

    @ MrJones:

    Heh, I wish I knew a better name. I usually call it the round button in the upper left corner. But since it does not look like a regular button, a lot of people have trouble finding it.

    Also, it the Word/Excel options button is located in such a weird position. It is nowhere near all the regular items on the Office menu, and it is tiny. It usually takes 2-3 tries to get people find it. You have to very patiently explain it is small, rectangular, on the bottom and to the right of the list.

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  12. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Gah, #14 brings up so many memories. I’m not IT or anything related (CAD monkey by trade), but I’ve dealt with that one far too many times. And the blank stares those people give when you start listing the pros and cons of various browsers… heh.

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  13. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    @ Victoria:
    Hehe, I did that to a fellow GA when I was in grad school. We shared an office, and I was usually there first so I installed some sort of vnc server on her machine and waited. When she arrived I would nudge the mouse when she was trying to click on something.
    It lasted maybe 10 minutes before she caught on. Mostly because I couldn’t keep a straight face when she tried to show me the weird mouse behavior.

    I happen to have a good poker face :) I once trolled one of my bosses (who was late for work) for an hour that I didn’t know him and he had no right to be in the server room and that I would call the security if he didn’t go away :)

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  14. Ron NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Linux says:

    Remedy == Whiskey?

    Worse ive heard related to browsers was. I use you know the ah shiny one, look at there machine turns out they use Chrome.

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  15. Glenn Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I had a old boss who no one liked. He claimed to know One day i was tired of him complaining about everything, and pulled the power out the back of the box. He called an external support technician in as he couldnt figure it out. At the time he had been giving me a lot of crap, due to me not remembering most things.. my memory was bad as i had had a near drowning and lost a lot of my memory due to lack of oxygen. I was tired of being blamed for everything, so I did it.

    It wasnt right to do, but i did feel good.

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