VSJ – October 2003 – Work in Progress

Stephen Denson, FIAP has been involved in IT consultancy at the SME/end user level for around two decades. He has some trenchant views on customer relations that he’d like to share with us.

If I have learnt anything about the computer business over the last 20 years, it is not to underestimate the obtuseness of end users. No matter how well you pre-configure a system, no matter what detailed documentation you provide, no matter how patient you are in explaining how to use the software, some clients will defeat all your efforts and get everything wrong. Their capacity for misinterpreting any instruction is limitless.

We all know the old joke about the client who calls the Helpline to ask where the ANY key is on the keyboard. ‘Pardon?’ replies the operative. ‘The manual tells me to press ANY key and I can’t find it anywhere.’

I’ve never been confronted with that one but I have had to explain that the floppy drive is the slot at the front of the computer that you push the disc (the square piece of plastic) into. And I have been accused of using jargon when mentioning a monitor. Presumably, the caller thought I was referring to a school prefect. Frankly, I refuse to use baby talk with users and believe in calling a spade a spade and not a ‘tool for digging holes in the garden’. Now I don’t expect the average user to know what an ISA slot is but the basic components of a computer system are surely part of our common language now.

The words I dread hearing most are ‘I know nothing about computers but my nephew/neighbour is an expert’.


I will contradict everything you tell me because my head has been filled with rubbish.

And ‘I’m a retired engineer.’


I’m the sort of person who requires a road map to navigate my way out of the supermarket car park.

All these people can drive a car, operate a microwave oven and even preset a video recorder. So they do possess general common sense. Why they can’t apply this attribute to computing – or why they think they are entitled to free, unlimited support – remains something of a mystery.

My experience is that, increasingly, there is a tendency for problem users to attempt to shift the blame for their own incompetence on to somebody else. Often, dear reader, that means you. My small company operates a telephone and Internet Helpline service for our customers and I can tell you that I like callers who begin with the premise that their problem might possibly be their own fault and can we assist? I dislike callers who assume the opposite, that the problem must be due to a defect in the product we supplied and that it is our duty to sort it out for them. Of course, we realise that computers can cause great frustration and begin by attempting to calm the caller down. Yet I will not tolerate verbal abuse and terminate such calls after issuing a warning along the lines of ‘We can’t help you unless you calm down.’ And it’s true; if they won’t listen, they won’t learn and so you, the Helpline operator, can’t provide the service they need. Worse, you could fall foul of ICSTIS, the telephone service watchdog.

Nor I am prepared to do people’s thinking for them. If the answer is in the manual provided, we will point them to the appropriate section. RTM (such as they are these days) remains our first line of defence, although we are always willing to discuss any ambiguous points. Of course, ambiguity is in the eye of the beholder. Some users praise the documentation as a model of clarity whilst others claim it is written in Japanese.

My company handles over 1000 transactions a year including quite a few system sales to users moving from an ancient computer (often an Amstrad) to a modern PC system. We go out of our way to make the transition as smooth and painless as possible, even to the extent of converting their old data and providing a one-click Internet dial-up connection. I don’t think the likes of PC World or Time would go to this trouble.

Even so, we have a recent client who took weeks to discover how to open the CD drawer. Too mean to ring our 25p a minute Helpline, he sent long, incoherent faxes listing his catalogue of complaints. He didn’t realise he would have to use Windows in order to surf the net. We hadn’t explained this to him presale. Not true actually. Windows was mentioned in our sales documentation and in the specification on his faxed order! The instructions supplied were inadequate, he claimed. We pointed out the software manuals we had provided and the Windows user guide plus a whole setup folder of extra documentation we ourselves produce. He was having trouble using Windows and Internet Explorer, so we naturally recommended the on-screen Help system with its indexed list of subjects. This wasn’t good enough, he said, demanding an infallible step-by-step chart of key presses. In my opinion this is a ridiculous request since it is impossible to learn complex, modern software in such a parrot fashion given the myriad response levels. So we politely refused. Finally, we suggested that he buy some books such as Windows for Dummies but unfortunately he interpreted this as a gross insult even though he’d already gone out and bought the title!

Now the gloves were off. He derided our support system, questioned my fellowship of the IAP and demanded an apology for demeaning his intelligence followed by the answers he was seeking in terms he could understand. With two decades of trading experience I was fairly sure of my ground here. The client was not claiming that the supplied hardware and software did not work but rather that we hadn’t provided sufficiently detailed instructions on its use. Which raises an interesting point: just how much after-sales support should a supplier offer for free? To clarify this, I rang Trading Standards who confirmed that, if tuition was not included in the presale contract (which it wasn’t) then a supplier has no obligation to provide detailed advice on the use of a system. In other words, we supplied the tools to do a job and it is not our duty to determine how well those tools are used in the same way that a motor manufacturer cannot dictate how well its vehicles are driven. ‘Your customer is being unreasonable’, were the TS officer’s exact words.

The moral of this story? Be prepared to bend over backwards to help a customer but don’t agree to do triple somersaults.

EC directives are shifting the balance of consumer law further in favour of the purchaser but it isn’t true that the customer enjoys unlimited rights whilst we have none. However, my advice to members is, ‘get your documentation right’. Make it crystal clear what backup and support is included with the system or service you are supplying. I’ll address these issues in detail in future articles.

You can contact Steve at sdmicros@hotmail.com. The IAP offers various services to members in the context of dispute resolution. Contact the office for details.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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