December 12, 2009

Day 12 - Managing User Expectations

This article written by Jason Dixon

Show me a carefree Systems Administrator, and I'll show you someone who doesn't interact with users. The typical End-User (userus idiotus) is a lazy creature, disposed towards foolishness and lacking in common sense. Although many of us are equipped with the prescience to avoid them, the Business Office (paycheckus routineous) demands that we cater to their whims and folly.

While it's fun to be a Bastard Operator From Hell, sometimes we just need to get along with our users. Managing those relationships is an important part of daily SA life, one that we frequently take for granted. Besides the fact that some of these folks are decent people, there are usually ancillary benefits (money, sanity, free beer) that go along with keeping them happy. I've developed a few guiding principles over the years that can help any bastard get along with his or her users.

Underpromise, Overdeliver

First, it's vitally important to set user expectations accordingly. Anxious users will expect that their problem is the most important thing on your plate, because it's the obstacle keeping them from getting work done. Resetting their expectations allows you to budget plenty of time to complete the task. And you'll be seen as the rock star Sys Admin that delivered the solution early.

Kevin: Pam, when will the new copier be ready?
Pam: I'm working on it Kev.
Kevin: You said it would be ready by today. And it is today.
Pam: It'll be ready soon.
Kevin: Soon could mean anything. Soon could be three weeks.
Pam: Is that what soon means to you?
Kevin: Sometimes...
Pam: Then come back soon.

Educate Without Patronizing

Believe it or not, there are scores of users who like to fix their own problems. They simply lack the skills to get it done or to avoid making it worse. Many of the common troubleshooting techniques we use each day can be passed on to others (checking cables, rebooting, minor software updates) if we take a few minutes to patiently walk them through it.

Teach, but don't condescend. Just because you have an aptitude for computers doesn't make you a genius. We each have our own areas of expertise. Theirs may be kicking you in the face.

Avoid the Mr. NO

Years ago, I had a bad habit of immediately saying "NO" to strange requests before fully vetting them. After a few minutes I would find myself reconsidering the problem and searching for whatever unorthodox solution presented itself. While the user was generally happy when these situations resolved themselves, the experience was probably confusing at best, and discouraging at worst. In all likelihood, this trigger response was a mechanism I'd developed for queuing up unusual requests.

Just say, "maybe." Your users will appreciate the candor. It gives you time to investigate the matter thoroughly (see: Underpromise, Overdeliver) and instills them with the belief that you're giving it your best shot.

Further reading:


natxete said...

Calling your users idiots is going to get you into trouble sooner rather than later ... (by the way, I understand that it was meant humorously).

At the end of the day, the reason you have a job is because of them. I recommend you start calling them 'customers' instead of 'users'. For more good advice about dealing with your customers as a sysadmin, read the excellent 'The Practice of System and Network Administration, Second Edition' by Tom Limoncelli, Christina Hogan and Strata Chalup.

Matthias Marschall said...

Avoiding Mr. NO has another advantage: Often your users' requests sound silly at first, but if you try to understand the underlying root cause of their problem (why they really have a problem?), then you often can come up with simple solutions, which really help your users.

John Allspaw said...

The relationship with users is so important that we have a real public forum where operations people actually *do* talk to users:

Kudos for pointing it out this importance. Transparency during site issues or degradation is paramount for anyone who wants to grow their product.

BSAFH said...

You people kill me. The reason the network/server needs us is because it runs perfectly until the users get to it. A LART is the proper tool and answer for 99.999% of all user problems (look, I have a five 9's reliability!).