The Five Worst Things About Working In IT Support

IT support can be an incredibly rewarding job if you like people and solving complex problems. Equally, though, it can downright suck.

Photo: Robert S. Donovan

Many years ago, before I was a tech writer, I worked for a year as a phone support technician for a now-defunct computer company.

It wasn't a great job, and if I'm honest, I wasn't a great phone support worker, largely because I really rather disliked the work. But as they say in the classics, I was young, and I most definitely needed the money.

To be fair, it actually taught me a lot, and not just how to identify motherboard jumpers based on decades-old photocopies of product manuals or how to deal with small children who had inadvertently switched a power supply from 240V to 110V "just because".

It also taught me the ways that working in IT support can suck — and some practical ways to deal with those exact woes. So in no specific order, here are the five worst things I hit dealing with tech support

#1: Nobody ever calls you up happy

This goes with the territory, because nobody's going to spend two minutes, let alone twenty, waiting on hold to tell you how wonderful their printer is.

The psychological drain of taking calls from upset people isn't something you can easily shrug off, however, and there were plenty of days I left work feeling utterly drained. Not because diagnosing config.sys problems was hard (this was some time ago, folks), but because the human toll was much more tricky to mentally balance.

While I'm an avowed tech geek, it was undeniably the least techy period of my life, simply because unplugging from the tech world was the easiest way to release myself from it and provide that kind of relaxation time.

I was part of a group of about a dozen new hires when I started, and during the year I spent on the phones, I lost count of how many other new hires simply stopped turning up for work. This isn't meant to be a criticism of the workplace per se, but more a stark fact about tech support roles, especially first-level tech support roles. Higher-level roles can be more satisfying, but equally depending on structure, they can involve exactly the same kinds of stresses with customers who are far more demanding.

Not everyone will be cut out for a support role, and even now, years later, I have a very slight phobia about answering the phone.

#2: It's massively repetitive

Tech support involves fixing people's problems — same as with any support role — but that means that the most common issues are the ones that you're going to have to face day in, day out.

That meant for me undergoing endless Windows reinstalls over the phone, over and over and over again. Especially at the front line first level support desk, it's not all being able to show off your technical wizardry all the time. You're going to deal with a lot of paper jams.

When I interviewed WWE wrestler Seamus a few years back about his IT support experience, he reiterated the same kind of thought. "I remember my first job. I used to have to make CAT-5 cables. That sucked. That really sucked. It’s just so trite."

#3: You get a heavily skewed view of the product or service

People call you up day in and day out with problems. This thing doesn't work, or that part is broken, over and over and over again. The repetition is one problem, but so is the view that you almost inevitably form about the quality of what it is that you're actually supporting.

If everyone says that a particular product always dies in a certain way, you start to mentally agree with them, without necessarily having the perspective on how many complaints there are relative to the quantity of products sold or used on a daily basis.

When I left my support role, I moved into a journalism job, and I was rather strict for the next two years that I wouldn't review anything at all coming out of the company I'd worked for. That was partly to avoid accusations of bias based on a previous role if a review was to be positive, but also because my own impressions stayed with me for a long while.

#4: It's too easy to assume an air of superiority

The users are all idiots, right? PEBKAC, right?

Nah, not mostly. But again, working frontline tech support it's all too easy to get this kind of viewpoint, because again you deal with problems that seem simple to you, because they've been drilled into you either through your own interest or simply because you've had to fix them previously so many times before.

Reality is a little more nuanced, however. I always tend to try to think of it in terms of my interest in cars.

I'm not interested in cars in any real way at all.

I own and drive a car, and it's a tool to get me from point A to point B. I don't care about the make, the colour, or even the particular feature set beyond the fact that it has four wheels and takes me places faster than I can walk.

I'm passionate about technology, and many of my friends are, but many end users simply aren't. Having an air of superiority over the users because you know more about a particular topic isn't particularly helpful to them. They probably don't care about technical specifics. They just want their printer or computer to work so that they can go back to doing whatever it is that their job entails.

#5: Some problems are just plain weird or unsolvable

"Hi, I'm calling up because I've got kangaroo semen on my monitor" "This is the eighth time I've called. My speakers make a click noise when I turn them off. I don't like that. Can you fix it?" "I got that sound card you sent out, yeah, but it wouldn't fit, so I took the angle grinder to it. It doesn't seem to work. You'd better send another."

Those were all real calls that I took.

The problem here is that all too often you'll be hit with a problem that has no real solution, or a solution that doesn't fit within the job criteria. For the record, I advised a soft cloth to the vet with the 'roo, but pointed out that we wouldn't cover liquid damage under warranty. I endured a lengthy but boring call from the speaker guy whose problem couldn't be fixed because the speakers were designed that way, and had to put the last caller on mute because tears of laughter were escaping and it became hard to breathe.

Working in support means that support is your job, and there's little that's more frustrating than having a problem that you can't solve. The above cases were extremes, but even the mundane matters were problems that I faced on a daily basis. One bit of bundled software — memory tells me it may have been a faxing solution, which again gives away the fact that this was quite some time ago — that came with the systems I had to support was notoriously flaky. It was third party stuff, but we had to support it somehow, even when it was being obtuse, which was pretty much all the time. Sometimes I could solve it, sometimes I couldn't, and sometimes I'd just pray for the phone line to cut out mid-call. I never went down that route, but a few short-term hires most definitely did.


Comments

    This definitely hits the nail on the head! Though, I must say I am quite surprised by how little MOST people know about computers. After explaining for the hundredth+ time where to find the start button or escape keys (Seriously people?) how to open task manager, how to power off the computer by holding the button for 6 seconds, Or that the display isn't turned on if there is no LED light on the front of it.... among other (to me) extremely basic computer knowledge, you really start to lose a lot of faith in people.

    I've done IT support for 6 years, with a bunch of different private and government companies in fulltime and contracting capacity. I understand that I find this stuff as second nature, but honestly, It surprises me that so many people can hold down an office job while being completely oblivious to how their most used piece of equipment works.

    One thing you didn't mention - People who don't understand the role of the IT Support. If I had a dollar for every time somebody wanted me to write macros in excel or add tables of contents in Word because they don't know how, Essentially, asking me to do their work for them (Not that these users are hard to assist, but generally something you don't contact an IT helpdesk about). Assist the user once with something you shouldn't have, word gets around, and BAM you just earned yourself some additional support roles.

    Don't even get me started on short term password memory loss between Friday and Monday.

    Ughhh. I need a new job :/

      So much this. I've been here almost 2 years now taking calls and the amount of times I hear in a day 'Where's the start button?' is agonising. I can understand if Bob Frank doesn't know how to map to a network path or doesn't know the network path name, but when he asks 'How do I copy?' or 'How do I open word?', that grinds my gears. Considering these are the standard things this person is supposed to be doing for their livelihood it scares me that they have a job. Let alone looking after the important things that they look after.

      I'm a person who cannot do something, nor wants to do something, without first knowing how it works on some level. When I first started driving, I knew next to nothing about cars, and sure I may not be Richard Hammond or Jeremy Clarkson and could not give you nearly half the information they could, but I feel pretty confident that I now know enough to modify and tune my WRX, as well as provide basic services myself. Why? because I took the time to learn how something I use every day, works.

      I personally do not see why you would use something every day without knowing at least a small amount about how it works. Why should I have to rely upon someone else to help me if something goes wrong? While I can agree that help desks should exist and can understand that people are different and have differing levels of experience, I just personally find it annoying that people can be paid to know something, and just basically not know it.

      /rant.

        Been doing IT support for over 15 years, and I can say: Whenever you think you've seen it all, something new comes your way. Haven't had Jizz on a monitor yet, but the we're just past lunch time.

          I had strawberry milk in a keyboard. Does that count?

            Try sprinkles and milk under a laptop keyboard. Keep in mind that laptop keyboard is a solid plate.

            Nope. Various beverages usually count as one. Coffee, tea, coke etc... I think we've all seen that one on more than one occasion.

              Truck oil in an old 3.5" disk drive because the disk got "stuck"

              Got to love mechanics!

          Just got 200+ monitors back from an upgrade. Can confirm.

      "People who don't understand the role of the IT Support. "
      ... or indeed any part of an IT-related role.

      Interviewer Question "Have you experience with X database?" ... where to the interviewer "use" apparently means anything between data entry (in which case the underlying database is irrelevant) and being able to write/debug a business-critical relational database application.

        This is easily the largest flaw in the industry. Non technical people should not do hiring for technical staff.

      On the flip side, for those of us who know computers inside and out, having to call IT support is an absolute nightmare. The amount of times I had to call my ISP to tell them they had broken something only to be asked "Have you tried rebooting it?", "Have you tried with a shorter ethernet cable?", "Are the lights on" can not be counted on one hand.
      I sometimes feel like asking them to skip the script and to escalate me as I know the problem is on their side, not mine.

        I try to short circuit this crap by using the correct acronyms and listing off those things I've done before they start asking. Getting them to note the items already done in the ticket before they support you ensures they're also in the right mind frame to provide real support.

        Not sure how you are going about it, but try starting with the exact error message or problem THEN the troubleshooting steps performed. If you start with troubleshooting but haven't explained the problem, or take five minutes to tell me how you got to where you are, I will assume you have no idea what you are doing (which 98% of the time is correct).
        Unfortunately, some operators will still ignore anything you say and just follow the script, which is more than a little infuriating.

        This is mostly a hiring issue IMO but, the interviewer is generally non technical and ultimately the wrong person is hired for the job. While the new hire can function well enough and read from a script, It often takes several months to be able to get the requisite knowledge and help telephone customers in an acceptable timeframe. Seven months being about the average turnaround time in a helpdesk environment, rinse and repeat the hiring processes, and you start to see there is a real problem that isn't going away anytime soon.

        I did something similar with Telstra. Once you know their script, all you have to do is to rattle down the answers in advance:
        tried rebooting, tried shorter cable, etc.
        After I've done that the first time, I got asked if I was a Telstra technician (No, I'm not, just a Sys admin), but I got bumped to 2nd level right away.

          I wish more people understood that helpdesk operators don't (generally) give a damn how you broke the thing and get straight to the point. If I had a dollar for every irrelevant sentence people spewed out to to me before telling me an actual error message or even hint at the problem, I would be a wealthy man.

          But what you describe sounds like most of my experiences. If you are up front and have the correct details it can be completely pain free (I spend longer on hold most times than I do to get the issue resolved or logged).

            Agreed. I really prefer a user telling me: I clicked here, done this, now it doesn't work, can you fix it? As opposed to: What did you do? Nothing
            Really? Yeah, I was just working and then it stopped.
            Was there an error message? I dunno. Maybe.

              haha I actually wrote that exact scenario out in my reply but decided to exclude it.

              At least if the user says they clicked it and it broke something we can identify the issue immediately then try and educate them on why not to do it. The people that give you the run around because they don't want to admit to a stuff up (and who are often the most frequent callers) really grind my gears but.

        on the flip side the amount of time I get people telling me they already know the problem and try to point me to where the issue is annoys the hell out of me. the fastest way to deal with a company you know will ask you these questions is to answer them all very quickly so that the tech on the phone knows that you have the knowledge

        Hi
        I have an issue with my ADSL
        I cannot use the phone either
        I have tried a new filter and a new cable
        The light is not connecting
        and I have switched all my hardware on and off

        Simple!

    I don't understand the people that do stuff like take power tools to electronics or 'force' things to fit when they clearly don't. People just seem to turn their brains off with computers.
    If they get the wrong oil filter for their car, will they take an angle grinder to the engine? I doubt it. Why with a computer part which is obviously quite delicate in comparison?

    If ANYTHING doesn't turn on, you will check the powerpoint or if it is plugged in. We often get called about computers not working and they are turned off. Sometimes printers.

      I've seen it with cars - My favourite from days in automotive was someone who came back with discs that were causing horrible vibration (out of balance). He had tried to make them like a sports car by angle grinding his own 'slots' into them... And you would be surprised how many mechanics (let alone joe average) take a grinder to parts that don't quite fit!

        Well there you go. You can find stupid people everywhere it seems.

          That's the part where I say: Remove all warning labels and let nature sort things out.
          Idiocracy prevented, only smart people and people with common sense survive.

    It's twice as bad when you're both handling support and also doing system admin (i.e. looking after the systems that are doing the work.)

    When there's an actual system failure, (a) to some degree it's your fault and (b) you have to decide whether to spend your time fixing the problem or telling people about it.

    This may seem like a no-brainer (fix first, so people can get back to work) but keeping people informed - in particular of when a fix can be expected - is often at least as important as getting the fix done. If you're lucky you can offload some of that to somebody else, but when everybody else is out on a job or has gone home you may be stuck flying solo.

    It becomes tremendously tempting to tell people "can you please get off the phone so I can get back to fixing the problem you are complaining about?" This is not an approach that makes anybody happy.

    The main problem I have is just repeat customers, with the same problems, over and over again. After showing someone how to connect to a WiFi network 14 times you'd think they'd remember. And don't get me started on old age. If you can drive you can connect to a fricken wifi network...

      Seen this hundreds of times. Often you will find they are telling their boss "I'm waiting for IT to fix my computer" so that they can sit around and do nothing.

      These are also the people who send vague e-mails to the helpdesk then don't pickup their phone 1 minute later when you try to call them for more information. Then they do not reply to e-mails, messages, or requests for them to call the helpdesk back so we can actually sort out the problem. The minute we close the ticket (three strike rule) they are back on the phone logging a new one, or I'm getting chewed out by their boss for not fixing the computer.

      Have caught far too many people out on this one, several have even lost their jobs.

      Last edited 29/07/14 3:40 pm

    I totally get this. Hand up how many support techs have had customers hold down the "F" and then the "1" key and complain they cannot see the help file?

    But the single most infuriating thing for a customer is to ring an IT support desk, be answered by someone who probably doesn't know where Australia even is, then proceed to read the same script to you telling you what your problem is and how it's all your fault and that nothing on the Internet is guaranteed to work (including the download speeds you've paid for).

    My favourite was the TPG support script where ringing regularly 3X per week to complain about non-functional or dysfunctional ADSL2+, only to be told every single time, that my problem was "you have an interfering device on your line". On Naked DSL--where there are no other devices on the line.

    Absent of any basic concepts of IT or logic or ability to exercise fundamental troubleshooting procedures--just read the script. If the customer doesn't go away, read the script again. (repeat until customer hangs up).

    Having said this, there are some notable exceptions to this in Australia, including especially , Internode. (no affiliation with them in any way) Want to learn about what exceptional IT support SHOULD be like? Sign up for an Internode service and ring them every now and again (even though you probably will rarely have to, because their stuff actually works as it should!)

      Yep TPG support is absolute rubbish, especially if you have already done the things they ask before you call them and asking to escalate gets you no where.

      Dell support, depending on how you talk to them can be rubbish or it can be great.

      As for working in a tech support role, those who I have to support must have a greater level of IT knowledge than the general public (or at least they perhaps ask some of our younger staff before calling) as I rarely have to explain features in Word or tasks that they should be expected to know and use on a day-to-day basis.

      My two pet hates are saying the whole "have you checked the cables or restarted it" because it makes depressed about how useless the human race can be and number 2 is those who decide to give you a 10 minute story about what they were doing before it happened, why they were doing it and every other useless fact about their day, I just want to fix your problem and get back to the other parts of my job.

        I've had to explain to a Dell agent what "USB" was. Most other interactions have been so close to a parody of a Lewis Carroll Wonderland conversation that I should have had them bound and published.

        My most recent experience has been with HP, where even the third-tier support have minimal powers of comprehension, and Western Digital where an email I received from a support officer is so close to gibberish, I'm surprised it wasn't classified as spam.

          I've only had to ring Dell once but it was pretty great as it was a business support line.

            Dell ProSupport .. FTW!

            Aussie accents (mostly). Understand what you say first time. Can pick up straight away that you're in IT and not a gimp and order / replace the part as requested!

            OTOH I feel like scratching my own eyeballs out every time I need to call Lenovo. Whilst they (and I) speak perfect English,..I may as well be speaking a foreign language.

              The last firmware updater released for my Lenovo laptop was released in Chinese only.

              Dell Pro Support is usually great.
              Except last time... the PoE part of our POE switch failed. POE devices had no power. No brainer, easy troubleshooting: POE device works on other POE switch (same model), not on the faulty one.
              Ring Dell:
              Tech: Can you do the reading for command X and Y? Sure - done, emailed (command X bummed out because POE is not working)
              Tech again: Can you give me the readings for command X and Y for the working switch? Fine, if you must.
              Tech once more: Please perform firmware upgrade on faulty switch so we can get a better reading for command X and Y! DAFUQ? How is that going to fix the POE part? Just send me a new switch!
              Tech: Oh, and can you upgrade the firmware on the other switch you did the other test on, for a better reading of command X and Y? No frigging way dude, this is a hospital and the other switch is our main switch. I am not going to schedule an outage across the whole campus just so you can tell me something I already know.

              My desk has a big dent in it since from me head-desking after that call.

              Yep, pro support can be very good but sometimes they still try troubleshooting until you stand your ground and say you've already done it.

    I have to admit I didn't enjoy my stint in a call centre much either - but I do have some awesome stories - like the hippy woman who wanted us (the company I worked for) to disconnect one of our customers because he was stalking her. We told her to go to the police. Oh and the guy who changed his details in our system every 2 weeks religiously so the government couldn't trace him. He would only talk to me on the phone because he trusted me. But I couldn't understand much of what he said because he always whispered.

    @gregorvorbarra
    I find it quite easy but maybe it's just my workplace. I normally start with answering the phone mentioning the fault, "You've reached the network drive offline help line." and they normally reply with "oh, you already know, ok bye". But it's as easy as recognising the fault and telling them you are currently working on it. If they persist you can follow up with a "I'll call you when it's fixed".

    Last edited 29/07/14 11:08 am

    On the flip side, you can get a snotty little kid with zero work ethic passing the buck by insisting you that you should only use a less than 1m phone cable for your ADSL connection and that all your cables must be faulty.

    Meh. I don't miss my days in ISP support either! But please.

    Last edited 29/07/14 12:39 pm

    Having been in an IT service management role for many years, done ITIL V3 Foundation and Change Release Validation, and LSS-GB, and managed many teams in IT support I can tell you this:
    1. The first point is mainly true
    2. The second point is true but should be false if managers provide good training to their teams and a customer facing knowledge base to reduce the repetition (Yes it works, I've implemented knowledge bases (both internal and external facing) to teams that were receiving up to 400 new tickets a week and saw massive reductions within 6 months).
    3. Point three relies on management to provide information to their support teams through reports, and other information sessions and training.
    4. Point four, well I've always reminded my teams that just because they're familiar with computers, doesnt mean they should expect the same level of knowledge from their customers. If their customers had that same level of knowledge, my team would not have a job. Superiority is then put back in its place.
    5. Point 5 is what most IT people seek - variety. Something new to investigate and resolve. It makes them feel like they achieved something. And moreso adds to the knowledge base to prevent the time taken to action similar issues next time, or can prevent the ticket from being raised in the first place if on the customer knowledge base.

    More often than not, its about having the right tools, systems, training and knowledge in place which makes all the difference for IT support personnel. These five points are fair enough as many organisations I've worked in as a Service Delivery Manager, Head of IT Service, and Head of Service Desk (currently working in a consulting role for Service Delivery), they have not had the right training, knoweldge base, process and systems in place to prevent a lot of the issues and pains faced by IT support staff.

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