Help-line consultants tackle odd computer problems

Peter Kauffner

When it comes to computer questions, the consultants at the University computer help line have heard it all.
“We get a lot of unusual requests,” said Tony Eischens, a junior in the Institute of Technology and an Internet help-line consultant.
“One person, we told him to press his left mouse button, and he said, ‘I only have one mouse,'” said Tim Corbett, a freshman in the Institute of Technology and also a help-line consultant.
Another caller referred to his mouse as a “foot pedal,” Corbett said.
The help line, operated by Academic and Distributed Computing Services, fields questions from University computer users over the phone and via e-mail. Their telephones are in operation between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. These hours will continue through the summer.
Help-line consultants must be students; they receive several stages of training depending on their prior knowledge before being allowed to field calls from actual users.
“When they first start, they go through a series of what we call trivia questions,” said Simin Hickman, the help line’s manager. The questions are taken from a database of inquiries originally asked by help-line callers.
“If (new consultants) have a technical background, we may just need to give them the trivia questions,” Hickman said. Other new employees might have to undergo additional training on the various microcomputer operating systems.
Two shifts of about 10 consultants answer questions each day.
“It kind of picks up right before closing,” said Travis Noll, a freshman in the College of Liberal Arts. “People try to sneak in. Otherwise, it’s pretty even all day.”
Hickman said about 95 percent of help-line clients are able to resolve their problems with a single call.
Corbett said he generally begins a call by asking some questions to determine the caller’s level of computer knowledge.
“It’s always scary when you ask someone if they’re using a Macintosh or a PC, and they hesitate,” said Corbett said. “You know it’s going to be a long one when that happens.”
Another frequent call comes from students having difficulties connecting to the Internet from home.
“‘My e-mail doesn’t work. Can you fix it?’ That’s a pretty common question,” Corbett said. “A lot of people think we’re magic over here.”
Often the problem stems from callers not being aware that they must dial in and establish a telephone connection between their modem and the University server in order to get Internet access.
“They just assume the connection is there,” Eischens said. “That’s about the most humorous (type of call) for us.”
Some callers don’t realize that their computer connects to the University’s server on the same telephone line they use to call the help line.
“People try to use their modem, and they think it’s not working, but they’re on the phone with us,” Corbett said.
Corbett said people can help the staff by following a few simple tips. He recommends that callers write down whatever error message they get. It also helps if callers don’t get frustrated and question the experts’ ideas.
Not everyone who calls the line willingly accepts help.
“It’s always bad when somebody thinks they know more than they do, and they get mad at you for trying to correct them,” Corbett said.
“Be willing to accept our advice,” he said.
One especially difficult caller refused to trust the staff and angrily insisted the University’s servers were down because his connection wouldn’t work.
“Of course they weren’t, because we were using everything at the time,” Corbett said.
Other frustrations are caused by defects in the software provided by the University.
“In Popmail you can only have messages under a certain length or the program will lock up,” Eischens said. “A lot of people call about that.”
In spite of the job’s frustrations, consultants express satisfaction with their work.
“It’s really fun,” Eischens said. “You get to listen to all the different problems, some of them hilarious.”
Noll agreed. “It’s really good experience for me,” he said. “It lets me work with computers and work with people.”