Say what? Three unfortunate users in need of a tech translator

In these classic tech support stories, simple computer tasks become complicated when communication breaks down

Never assume the user understands exactly what you mean -- when it comes to tech support and troubleshooting, it'll serve you well to keep in mind this fundamental rule.

My colleagues and I sometimes came to this realization the long way during our time at a systems integration company, where these three amusing tales from way back actually happened. To this day, they remind me of important points about working with users, especially over the phone: Slow down, be painstaking in detail, and remain patient at all times.

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Consider that disk clean

One of the support techs was talking to an end-user over the phone, helping them copy files from a computer to a floppy disk. The task began smoothly enough.

The tech asked the person to put a blank floppy disk into the drive. The user said, "There's a blank disk right here -- it doesn't have a label." The tech said that even though it wasn't labeled there might be files on it, and they'd need to check the available disk space first.

The user kept saying it was blank and ignored the tech's directions to check what was on the floppy disk. Instead, the user tried to copy the files but got a message that there was not sufficient room on the disk. The copy, of course, failed.

The tech tried to explain it another way, saying they needed to get a "clean" disk with nothing on it.

The user put the support tech on hold for a length of time, then returned, saying, "OK, I did that and tried the copy command again."

"What's happening now?" asked the tech.

"There're drops of water spraying out of the floppy drive," said the user. As the tech struggled for a response, the customer continued, "I went to the sink and cleaned the disk just like you said."

Spell it out

A technician from our support department came to me saying a frustrated customer was on the phone. Nobody could understand what the user was talking about, but they were sufficiently upset to want a refund on the new computer.

I got on the call and listened as the customer insisted we had sold them a lemon. Apparently, the new computer had worked just fine when they brought it home, but after the kids played a game on it, the computer didn't work at all, a mere day later.

Stepping through the boot process with the customer, I confirmed that the computer was unable to locate its drives. I thought perhaps an exchange was in order but wanted to make sure we hadn't missed anything.

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