IT helpdesks get a bad press. The phrase ‘Have you tried switching it off and switching it on again?’ has long since passed into folklore and we can all laugh about it. But now IT helpdesk staff are fighting back. Recently, the heretical suggestion has been raised that it might even be that we, the users, are at least sometimes the problem, rather than the IT helpdesk. IT staff have an acronym for this—PEBCAK, or Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard—and have started to do more to manage user expectations. The results have been both interesting and informative.

Reporting IT problems

When reporting IT problems, it is generally good practice to do so in response to three questions:

  • What did you do?
  • What did you expect?
  • What happened?

This gives the IT support staff the information that they need to help you to solve the problem, and hopefully to avoid having to tell you to switch off and switch on again.

Explaining that this structure is helpful, and, indeed, communicating it to users as a requirement for reporting problems, has helped IT teams start to ‘educate’ users. They have been able to set some expectations around response and resolution. They have also been successful in improving resolution rates as a result, because they know more about the situation from the beginning.

This information has also helped IT teams to create better documentation for user self-service. This, in turn, has both improved user experience with technology, and is likely to help with demand for helpdesk support. Support can therefore be focused on those who really need help. After all, if you know to try rebooting and whatever is recommended as ‘fix #2’, you may well be able to solve the problem for yourself.

The importance of setting expectations

But what is the lesson behind this? It is all about setting and managing expectations.

Recently, we have seen something similar happen with business ideas. Well-meaning enthusiasts and subject experts come up with what they think is a brilliant idea, but are deflated when it is rebuffed, or simply not taken up with similar enthusiasm by others. If they are tentatively starting to share content and ideas with potential customers via a new blog, this may cause them to give up writing altogether.

However, the reason for the lack of uptake may not be that the idea is bad. It may simply be that you failed to manage expectations. It is simple: for an idea to have impact, it must be presented in the right context.

Just as IT users need to explain what they did, what they expected, and what happened, so business ideas could benefit from being clearly set out under a three-part framework:

  • Why does this matter?
  • What is the impact?
  • How will this be measured?

Setting out the stall is essential for subject matter experts and enthusiastic amateurs alike, and in almost every setting. It does not matter whether you are presenting a solution to executives, or describing an idea to potential customers, you have to structure it appropriately.

Define the burning platform

John Kotter, the change guru, described the importance of making the case for change: setting out the ‘burning platform’. This is essential to establishing the need for change, and is why ‘why does it matter’ is the most important question. Your audience needs to know which of their many business problems you are trying to help them solve: what will they get out of reading your article, or listening to what you have to say. If you fail to set this out, they simply will not read or listen any further.

When time itself seems to be at a premium, showing that you value your audience’s time is half the battle towards building a relationship. Structure your argument so that it takes them neatly and swiftly through the important questions of why, what impact, and how.  Apart from anything else, it makes clear that you understand their needs. Not just their immediate problem, but also that they are busy, and need information rapidly, and in an accessible form.

Learning from experience

It may seem odd to be taking lessons from the IT helpdesk. However, if the problem with your content sharing is not to be ‘between chair and keyboard’, you need to do so. Bottom line: setting out the issue in the right way will help you to manage your audience’s expectations.


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