How to actually respond to user support requests?

I’ve been asked before, “how do you actually respond to customer support requests?”. There are some obvious answers (be polite, try to answer, etc), but are there any specific references for research computing / scientific computing support staff? This page collects my ideas after having done it formally and informally for years.

This page is specifically about making responses respectfully and with compassion for the requestors. It’s not designed to be a big-picture how-to of user support - there are plenty of other resources about that.

Unsorted notes:

  • one person takes the lead in communication

  • Start by talking with people about the big picture

    • their position

    • past work

    • what they expect to get out of the support

  • many questions are actually about:

    • the environment setup

Why care about how you respond?

An example:

When interviewing people once, we started our interview with to-the-point factual information and questions. Our tone of voice was “bureaucratic”, to say the least. Our interviewees responded in kind: with little enthusiasm and we could wonder if they even wanted the job.

We realized something had to change. Our next interviewees were greeted with enthusiasm and excitement about the job. The interviewees responded likewise, and we could more easily see how someone could perform.

Why is this important? Basically, we feed our users how they will respond. Is computing a chore they hate? Is it something that’s fascinating, even if not their main goal? Do they see working with us as the highlight of their day or a last-resort? We need to set the right tone with our interactions. This is true in all of:

  • Our answers

  • Our requests for follow-up information

  • Outreach about our services

See also: Observer-expectancy effect and Clever Hans.

Levels of competence

Customers have all levels of existing competences and needs. The more you understand of this, the better you can assist - and it is needed to frame any response.

  • Understand the level that the requestor is at and the level they need to be at. (this is usually not apparent at first)

  • An answer far below their level is demeaning.

  • An answer far above their level is demotivating.

  • It can be hard to know the level to answer, so multiple levels of answer are useful: one general paragraph, then one more detailed paragraph properly connected. This also helps people advance up their level of confidence, but needs more writing.

  • Aalto SciComps’s Bloom’s taxonomy of scientific computing skills may help to guide your thoughts in evaluating this.

  • Discuss: Is it better to assume at too low a level or too high? How can we find the right level to answer at?

XY problem

XY problem: someone asks about their attempted solution (Y) and not their root problem (X). If a supporter focuses on the Y and not the X can cause very inefficient answers.

Examples: “How do I turn on the stove?” vs “I am trying to make tea, how do I turn on the stove” which allows the answer to point out that the asker is trying to us an electric kettle on the stove.

  • Don’t assume that what someone asks for is what they really need - you need to read between the lines.

  • This isn’t their fault, maybe they don’t know what they need.

  • Possible mitigations:

    • When replying, state your assumptions in your response so that they can correct you if they notice it wrong (if this is relevant).

    • Also consider stating several other possibilities briefly, and when they would be relevant. For example: “Do XXX to install the software. But do you know that you can also load it via the YYY module?”

General guidelines

  • Think about what the underlying need is (X, not the Y)

  • Be verbose (or at least not short).

    • If your answer is “no”, it feels better to say it with many words, rather than few.

    • Verbosity is a sign of engagement, which makes the customer feel respected no matter if the verbosity is useful to them or not.

    • Be especially cautious about answers that are just a link to the documentation - unless they are specifically asking for that. Even then, try putting it in context.

  • Service gesture: something more than people expect (beyond the minimum that they asked). (example: try harder to find someone who can answer, point them to that person.)

Know your audience

  • The more you know about the very work of the person, the faster and better you can answer questions.

  • This is a more direct lesson for the people managing support, but can you do anything about it yourself, too?

Consider at what level someone needs support

  • Do they need single answers to a question?

  • Are they very lost and need to work with someone to implement it?

    • If you answer small questions piece-by-piece this is inefficient hill-climbing.

    • Direct to a RSE service for more support?

  • Do they need a tutorial, reference, theoretical explanation, or how-to (the 4 types of docs). These are all very different types of answers or links.

Accept that you can’t do everything

  • Make this decision explicit, not implicit.

  • An implicit decision here means it is made based on internal biases.

  • Better to discuss among the team to make sure it is consistent.

  • Document what you do know and learn while working, even if you don’t have the full answer yet.

    • Yes, this can be a rather hard thing to do: we don’t want to give a partial or possibly wrong answer.

    • On the other hand, being silent for days or weeks until you have the proper answer really doesn’t help anyone. With the rate of research, they have probably even gone on to something else!

    • Consider if you should keep the requestor in the loop (generally yes, probably good, but qualify if something is still in progress and may not work).

    • This also helps any future staff who may pick up after you. So, even if you don’t document to the requestor, document internally.

  • Try to avoid long silences before any replies, for example if you don’t even know who can answer. This can be especially hard without a front desk or if you think “just a bit more and we’ll know something”.

Giving bad news

Sometimes you have to say “no”

  • Again, be more verbose rather than less

  • Acknowledge the X and the Y of the initial request, so that they know the request really isn’t possible (rather than “you not understanding”).

  • State why it’s not possible, in more or less words.

  • Can you turn this into an X-Y answer - find what they really need, that you (or someone) can do?

If you don’t know the answer

Our audience does all kinds of advanced work, so often we don’t know the answer - or don’t know it right away.

  • Ask to see what they actually do, all error messages, etc. Ask to share screen. This can help you to see some problems, and makes most problems easy.

  • Request the basic information to “work on it yourself for a bit to save time”, this gives you enough time to study solutions.

  • Related to the above, take the time to make things reproducible. This is needed for you to begin working, but also seeing the basic steps will help to understand the background.

Dealing with mis-directed issues

  • It can be frustrating when someone asks the wrong place

  • If you need to be nicer than just saying “no”, since you have presumably already understood what the issue is, you actually can give useful pointers to where to ask next. This itself may be a useful answer to them.

  • Can you give keywords / a copy-paste text that explain the actual problem, that they can send to the other support you are now directing them to. This:

    • Save the other staff time (they don’t have to do the X-Y analysis themselves)

    • Save the customer time in thinking about what to say

    • Makes the customer feel valued and validated

Communication strategies

  • Communicate with respect. Informal is probably OK, but know your audience.

  • Sarcasm is usually bad (but we should have already know it’s bad online). Even if you think the person reading now will get it, what about all the people in the future who might read and rely on the same answer?

In-person or synchronous support

  • See the How to help someone use a computer for many ideas that are relevant to in-person support (and more).

  • When you learn something, do you want to create an issue about it so that the knowledge can be used later?

  • Try to avoid simply taking over their computer and doing something. On the other hand, dictating something key-by-key can be equally frustrating. Try to let the user do as much as possible and clearly explain why you do some things yourself.

    • Does saying “I don’t know, so it’s hard for me to tell you what to do. But I can try to figure it out while you watch - is that good?”

    • Online support allows screen-sharing and remote control, which allows you to type but the other person to still feel like they are an important part of the process since they can see everything.

Ticketing system support

  • Is your ticket system public (e.g. Gitlab internal to organization, but not private to your team) or private (requestors only see their own tickets). You should answer respectfully anyway, but this does matter somehow. The more people who can see it, the more careful you should be, but also the more long-term benefit your answers have.

  • Document your intermediate progress at least as comments in the tickets - if it’s not appropriate to send to the user, too. (see above about silence)

  • You want separate issues in separate tickets. Often times, users will ask multiple things at once. You’ll have to figure out what to do about it, but you should probably clearly say “more emails is better, don’t worry about sending us three emails all at the same time if they are different things”.

    • Can you separate issues yourself, instead of replying “please send this again”

Private email support

  • Do you forward it to a ticket system? Information in private email always gets lost.

  • If you reply with only “please re-send this”, that can sound like you don’t want the issue in the first place. What do you do?

Plan for problem situations


How do you answer things such as the following? Write draft responses:

  • Not enough information

  • Possibly

  • Mis-directed

  • Something requestor should be able to do themselves?


(examples to be inserted here)

See also