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Want to keep the users happy? Don't call them users for a start

Five commandments for sysadmins

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Sysadmin blog A common complaint about IT staff is their lack of social skills. As in any industry that attracts a certain type of person, there's a high percentage of dark-room-dwelling people who can sometimes struggle to communicate. This is either through what they say or how they interact with others.

Not all IT people are like this of course, just as nurses are not all popping out of their skimpy outfits and pool cleaners don't universally have a mustache and manage to find themselves in many interesting and awkward situations.

There are some guidelines I can recommend based on many years of personal experience, as well as observing others.

Helpdesk 101: Never trust the user. When a user tells you something is happening, see it for yourself. Think of this situation as if they just watched a doctor perform brain surgery, then had to summarise what happened. They're going to make guesses and assumptions on the bits they don't understand. Once you see the issue for yourself, then start the troubleshooting. There is no point spending hours chasing a dragon to slay if the dragon turns out to be a funny-shaped rock. Ask to see that error message or recreate the issue.

Don't call them 'users': IT staff can often forget they're in a position of service. Nobody likes getting bad service; it doesn't matter if it's the 15-year-old at your local fast food restaurant or a rude doctor. This means respecting every person you deal with. "User" is a technical word and should not be used outside of technical circles - people want to feel like people. Generally I would recommend calling them "staff" for internal people, and "clients" for external people – a good guide is to use the same term as other departments with their communications.

Turn a "no" into an alternative solution: Everyone gets questions that should receive a negative answer, but when someone reaches out for help, that's the last thing they want to hear. "Can I plug in my personal laptop and use it at work?" usually comes under that category. The answer should be an alternative solution to their problem. Maybe they can do everything over the internet from that laptop, or they just need to get some files off, which could be done via USB storage.

Often people will ask for something they think is the best solution to their problem, which means more questions need to be asked to find out what they are actually trying to accomplish.

Good communication: Keep people updated. Let them know someone is working on their issue. Let everyone know of outages and resolutions by whatever notification method works the best. Check if people want more assistance, or to be left alone. Follow-ups should always be done; all users should be notified somehow that their issue or request has been addressed.

Adaptation: Some users want to know every intricate detail about their brand new laptop and how to use all the fancy new options. Others will want the laptop left on their desk without a word. Part of adaptation is reading people and asking the right questions, and the other half is leading them down the path that actually helps them more.

You can't hassle that person who wants to be left alone, but if there's one important nugget of information, you need to get that across somehow. Just wiping your hands clean and walking away won't help: if they don't know their password was reset, they'll just get angry and think you're useless at your job.

This might all sound like common sense to many, but it takes a lot of time to build up trust with your userbase, while only a few slip-ups can completely destroy it. You're there to assist the business, and that often doesn't align with an individual's particular request, but part of your job should be to keep both sides happy. ®

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