Rant: Worst Way to Be Asked to Help? With No Details and No Responses #mememonday

Oct 3, 2011   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog  //  4 Comments

Tom LaRock (blog|Twitter) posted his MemeMonday call to share stories via blog posts and he asks:

What is the worst way you have ever had someone ask you for help?

The ones that stick out to me are the times where we would get a cryptic email, the subject line would say “our batch failed” and the text of the email would say “Please fix.”

I have to say that my experiences are right up there with Tom’s.  I happen to do volunteer support of some web applications and databases that are used by IT professionals to collaborate on a long-time multi-vendor, global project.  Even though the users are IT professionals, they often assume that there’s some magic that lets me understand what’s going on, what problem they are having, and just get it fixed.

For instance, I’ll get e-mails that look a lot like:

  • The website isn’t working and I need to get some work done.  Fix it.
    Which website?  What isn’t working?  What are you trying to do?
  • I couldn’t get it work, so I’m emailing it.
    What is "it"?  What is this file you attached?  What are you expecting everyone to do with it?
  • I tried to get it to work for several weeks, then gave up.
    What is "it"? Why did you waste weeks before asking for help?
  • [in status meeting] I don’t know how to use that site, so I didn’t use it and didn’t get my committed to work done for the last month.
    What?  You waited until the monthly status meeting to raise this issue?  What did you try? Whom did you ask for help?  Did you watch the video we prepared on how to use it? Why do you think this is a good way to work?

We IT pros like to gripe about end users and how they don’t even try to use the technology, but I have to say based on my experience too many of us are doing the same things.

So I like to remind everyone, even IT professionals, that requests for help should include:

  1. Real nouns and virtually no pronouns.  "It" is especially troublesome in help requests.
  2. A summary of what you need help with, right at the top.
  3. A description, with details, of what you are trying to do, how you tried to do it, what you are using to do it and error messages/numbers you are seeing. Screenshots get bonus points. Names of servers, URLs, accounts (no passwords, please), databases, tools, browsers, etc. are going to get you help faster.
  4. A recognition that the recipient, unless they work at a help desk/support org, probably needs to make room in her schedule to help.
  5. Information about what your priority/deadlines are.
  6. Screenshots, again, are wonderful.

If you claimed it will be the end of the world unless a solution is provided ASAP, it’s helpful if you respond to questions and requests for information ASAP. It’s also helpful if you copied the world when you send your request that you follow up once a solution has been provided with a copy-the-world response that says that. Thanks get bonus points, too.

< /rant>

Have a day.


  • Great article, but I do have one comment about the screenshots. I tend to make excessive use of them when emailing non IT folks that are the support contact for certain external systems (read: email HR because the payroll or 401k companies website sucks). I do get the feeling that my excessive use of annotated screenshots might be perceived as annoying and patronizing to these people. Of course I can never tell, because HR people tend to be really awesome at not showing negative emotion and are a bit hard to read.

    So is it just me or can excessive screenshots come off as patronizing to those that aren’t one with the zen of the bug report?

    • It all depends on what “excessive” means. As the support person, I tend to gauge their use based on how clued-in the requester has been in putting their requests together. For people who send one word e-mails, I tend to go crazy with them, sometimes even recording videos of what to do. I may be wrong, but I think the less communicative the request is the less likely they are to say “I don’t know how to _____.”

  • From the trenches. I have to admit to occasional stalling tactics in the days when I was an expert on something. In that time it was the PL/I language and its associated weirdness.
    I would insist on the actual source code – not a listing after compilation. Also the post compilation listing. The linker output showing how the program was put together – library versions, etc. A core dump. The assembler code created by the compiler. Now I wouldn’t ask all at once, but would string the requests out as if i realized I needed something extra. That bad behavior on my part certainly improved the behavior of those ending help.
    But on a more serious note, I prefer nowadays to state the problem, say what support materials I have available (eg screen shot) and offer those in a subsequent communication. So it doesn’t overwhelm the recipient.

    • You are a tough cookie…. I have a guy who begrudgingly sends me screen shots, but not before putting them inside a PowerPoint document. So he says it takes forever to send them. I want him to just paste them in his email. It takes me seconds to do so, but he says it takes him hours, which is why he doesn’t want to do them.

      And yet he needs my help, immediately.

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