IT Support Practices: I’m Sorry, But Sorry Doesn’t Cut It

IT Support Practices

How often do you question your IT support practices? A recent call to Royal Mail customer service reminded me how badly-delivered support interactions can be worse than getting no support. As a customer, it’s funny what can make you angry. Previously, after wasting over 45 minutes of the hour I spent at the local doctors’ practice, I finally realized the ineffectiveness of the word “sorry.” Earlier that day, I’d seen a BBC.com article stating that rarely use the word “sorry,” which helped. So did my frustration with the surgery receptionist, who was happy to say “sorry” in a manner designed to make me feel as though I should feel bad for seeking their assistance at such a busy time. The key to my realization was that their use of a “sorry” equivalent didn’t help when a small action would have; in fact, it made me angry, not just impatient.

But “every cloud,” as they say. This unfortunate consumer-world interaction reminded me of the power of action versus words, especially when providing IT support through agreed IT support practices.

The realization scenario

Here’s the healthcare scenario that made me consider IT support practices. Our local doctors’ practice was changing their IT system (so this is, of course, likely all IT’s fault in the eyes of the receptionists). There were various impacts that they had to manage. Such as dealing with the extra footfall as people couldn’t book online and, as I found out to my cost, also couldn’t check in using their kiosks. Add to this that people were queuing to get access details for the new way to book appointments online, and you had a 10-15 minute wait to speak to a receptionist that you didn’t have, nor need, before.

So I queued and checked in. It was 10-15 minutes wasted, but I could now have my appointment and be on my way again. Or so I thought. I sat waiting and waiting, seeing the signs that said if you are not seen in 15 minutes, speak to reception. But that would involve another 10-15 minute queue. So I waited a little longer, hoping to see a passing member of staff who could help. Then I gave in and joined the queue again to find out why I hadn’t been seen. I was mildly annoyed, as we Brits get, but we are professional queuers (even though I see them as a wasted time when operations are inefficient).

Just as I got to the front of the queue, one of the receptionists announced they were locked out of their machine. So, I shouted across from the queue that I’d been there for over 45 minutes and was in my second unwanted queue. The response was unexpected, yet expected, from someone who is ultimately paid to help people – “Please bear with us; we’re really busy.” I’d done that. I’d queued (twice) and sat waiting. I didn’t need a “sorry” type of response. I needed action.

So I was caught in a queue caused by central technology changes that was now delayed further by local technology issues. But this isn’t my link to IT support practices.

The resolution and the root cause(s) of my anger

Thankfully, a senior nurse came to check on the queue – after all, nurses were waiting for patients delayed by the queue – and was horrified that I’d been waiting so long. I was escalated (to use the IT support practices terminology) for immediate attention (and the seven minutes or less appointment I’d expected on arrival). I also discovered that I wasn’t seen because I was on an appointment list that wasn’t communicated to those giving treatment – probably another issue that would be placed at IT’s feet.

Of course, all the medical staff were apologetic, but I had to say my piece – I was angry. Not at the first queue. Nor the wait. Maybe a little at the need to queue again. I was angry at the response of the receptionist. First, that they thought that words would make things better (or at least OK). Second, that they were happy to sit staring at their screen rather than looking to help the people in the queue. Without their failing technology, they couldn’t work (unlike the IT service desks that use pen and paper when the corporate IT service management (ITSM) tool is down).

Of course, once I started to moan about the engagement with the receptionist to the nurses, the floodgates opened in my mind about what was wrong with how the people and process aspects of the technology change were being handled. Plus, of course, what we in IT could learn from this unwanted and inefficient consumer-world scenario in terms of IT support practices.

5 “learnings” for IT support practices

The medical reception scenario has many parallels with IT support practices and how to treat people; here are the five I thought of while walking home after the experience:

  1. It’s all about people, not workloads or queues – the “Please bear with us, we’re really busy” phrase, which I imagine was used a lot and is reminiscent of the many “We’re experiencing very high call volumes at the moment” messages now heard when calling companies for support, seemed very receptionist and queue centric.
  2. There’s a need to value the time of others – while the receptionist and their IT support equivalents have a job to do, it’s important to appreciate the time of the waiting “customer.” Many of the people wasting their time in the queue had better things to do, for some it will have cost them financially to be subject to the delays.
  3. Have a process for dealing with annoyed customers – fobbing people off with platitudes or ignoring them isn’t going to help the situation. If anything, it will make things worse. IT service desks and their staff need an agreed-upon process for handling the situation and the affected people. It’s a good example of actions meaning more than words like “sorry.”
  4. Escalate people and issues as needed – this might follow on from the previous point or be related to exceptional issues or circumstances. Having an agreed escalation process such that service desk agents know when and how (and when not) to escalate people’s issues is another action that means so much more than “sorry.”
  5. Revisit your process if it’s not working for customers (or staff, for that matter) – in this case, the 10–15-minute queue made people 5+ minutes late for their appointments. For me, this wasn’t the queue’s fault; it was the lack of triage – something the NHS should be expert in – of people in the queue. It was a single queue. Where people with appointments (and issues) had to wait behind people simply wanting their sign-on details for the NHS app. People with mobility issues had no priority. Plus, there was no sign of an extra receptionist to help with the delays. It shouldn’t take an annoyed patient or end-user to spot the obvious improvement opportunities in medical or IT support practices.
Here @StephenMann shares 5 learnings for IT support based on his recent customer experiences' #servicedesk #ITSupport Share on X

Ultimately, much of this is down to IT support staff and management appreciating their role in what is a far larger operation and understanding the impact of their operational inefficiencies (whether caused by people, processes, or technology). When there are issues, there’s likely “a better way” if people are motivated enough to find it. For me, it involves IT support practices taking action and not simply saying “sorry.”

Stephen Mann

Principal Analyst and Content Director at the ITSM-focused industry analyst firm ITSM.tools. Also an independent IT and IT service management marketing content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for IT service management professionals.

Previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester and the UK Post Office), IT service management consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT service management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and product marketing for a SaaS IT service management technology vendor.

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