How helpful is the helpdesk?

Calling the helpdesk has become either an odyssey or drama, depending on how serious, urgent or frustrating your problem is. Even in this age of self-help and online everything, most people still like to get quick help from a fellow human. But judging by the proliferation of automated systems that pick up helpdesk calls, one may say the helpdesk call has become a dehumanizing experience.

First, you must find the helpdesk number — not always found on that attractive box your software came with. If the level of frustration does not get very high by the time you find the number on their Web site, you have a chance at dialing it correctly.

This is an important step because mistakes can be costly: I once dialed an extra ‘8’ and landed in the lap of a ‘lady’ with plenty of technical skills…of a very different nature. But I appreciated how quickly I was about to be ‘serviced’!

Past this hurdle, a message touts with suspicious insistence the virtues of the company’s Web site self-help feature. If this does not deter you from still seeking help over the phone, you have to listen to all sorts of warnings and options ‘to serve you better. ’Then the humanoid thing (a voice-based system) may be thrown at you, asking you to enter or utter PIN, phone number (with area code), employee or customer number, account ID, password, secret code, etc.

Next, there is the menu labyrinth. You have to listen carefully, as ‘the options have changed’ (to serve you better, of course). Sometimes this sequence is replaced with a humanoid whose mission (sometimes impossible!) is to guide you to the option you really need. If you do not put up with humanoids and still want to reach a real human, it is better to try the French language option in the early stage of the game, if such option is provided. Those agents may be less busy and more sympathetic.

Or, if you are dealing with a bank, take the ‘lost credit card’ route: someone, usually with good listening skills, will pick up your call. Once you tell your real story, chances are you’ll be transferred to the right place.

Sometimes that place is far away. Before you can say ‘hello’, a voice with an accent and echo will ask again for identification.

So you start the dialogue with a number or code, and you have a split second to decide whether you are talking to a human or a robot. It is a human, but one that is trained to act robot-like, and will assess your problem against a list of symptoms, checks and operations. If your trouble is run-of-the-mill, chances are it will be fixed right away. It is not a guarantee, though.

I once needed a password reset and, in keeping with best practices, the new password was left on my voice mail, repeated twice and each letter also associated with a proper name. But accent and echo conspired so that I was not able to figure out the whole password, even after a few replays. By the time I gave up, the e-mail arrived, so I was lucky.

On another occasion I got assistance via instant messaging, but an essential e-mail that was sent to me (twice) never arrived. So the problem was escalated from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the shores of the Atlantic. But until someone looked at my machine on site, the problem could not be solved. The more complicated the problem, the nearer to home the help.

No wonder, then, that some people, even IT professionals, use the helpdesk as a last resort. The better line of defense is usually the next-cubicle peer who had already encountered the problem, or who has more expertise in the domain.

But calling the helpdesk can work wonders. While waiting for the ‘next available agent’ to pick up your call, or while reciting the problem again, you figure it out yourself. If nothing else, teamwork and self-reliance are two unexpected benefits of helpdesk support.

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–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer for a large IT firm. She can be reached at

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