The lost art of listening to users

Beyond book learning and college courses, there's a way to hone your tech skills and solve users' IT issues: Lend them your ears

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Keep a lid on it

Other times, my enthusiasm outpaced the user's -- and ultimately did them little good. For example, a coworker asked me to help with a problem at her workstation. I approached her desk, and on her Windows XP machine was the infamous Windows Blue Screen of Death.

"I tried to restart, but this keeps happening," she said, very worried.

I was delighted. "Cool! I haven't seen one of these in a while," and launched into a long-winded explanation about all the potential causes of the error.

She listened, went quiet for a second, then bluntly asked, "Can you fix it?"

"No! Are you kidding? I don't have the disks or the access to fix it, but this is still pretty cool."

The following eyeroll with a very deep sigh let me know she was not happy with my answer.

Yeah, we called the help desk. And I made a mental note that end-users don't really care what the problem is -- they just want it fixed. Meanwhile, I have plenty of time to share my theorizing among other IT personnel without taking up the troubled user's time.

The smartest guy in the room

After I completed my computer science degree, I left my position at the insurance company for a developer job at a software company. It was a small company, so the developers had to take support calls from the end-users. I felt I'd spent enough time on the other end of the help desk and could get a handle on what our customers had to say. I approached the task starry-eyed and eager to jump in.

One Sales Guy also pitched in with first-level customer support. He did all the sales and demos anyway, so he knew the people submitting tickets. Thus, he'd screen the help desk tickets to find the ones that dealt with the sales software and call them back if they had basic problems.

The Sales Guy was on vacation one week, and I got a call from an end-user. She was getting an error telling her she had entered some bad data for a standard task. I took down the data she entered -- or thought she had entered -- and set to work.

Three days later, I was still at it. I tried to track down the error, but to no avail. I even called back the end-user twice to verify what she was seeing. I tried everything I could think of but still couldn't find the error.

Finally, I was put out of my misery. The Sales Guy returned and asked me why the ticket was still open. I went into great detail about the error and what I'd found out over the last three days. The Sales Guy laughed. He went to my computer where I had the program running and deleted a piece of data from a text box and hit the Enter key. Voilà, the error appeared. My jaw just about hit the floor.

"They need to enter this piece of data, because if they don't it really messes up their downstream reporting. We keep reminding them of this, but sometime they forget," the Sales Guy explained. Needless to say, I didn't feel like the smartest computer guy in the room at that point.

I guess you can say that sometimes you get the end-users, and sometimes they get you.

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This story, "The lost art of listening to users," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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