Lost Journal: At the Help Desk, the Customer is Always Angry

Journal entry: November 7, 1997 (age 28) — Help Desk

The only thing worse than calling a computer help desk is taking that call at a computer help desk.

I work as a contractor at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.  As a taxpayer, I came into the job hoping that employees of our nation’s top agency for communications would have an above-average grasp of, say, mouse pads.  This is not the case.  All day long, I talk to people who think their CD drives are retractable cup holders.  OK, I’m exaggerating.  But the current, agency-wide migration from the Windows 3.1 operating system to Windows 95 has been nothing short of traumatic for the many employees who cannot figure out why their illegal, virus-laden, “MmmBop” screensavers keep crashing their PCs.

For her many years of service as an FCC employee, my friend CeCi Stephens deserves the hip-hop moniker “EfCeCi.”  She lined up this help desk job, both for me and our mutual friend, Jack Reda.  I know both of them from the improv troupe ComedySportz, which means we have the perfect temperament for mocking the unfortunates who turn to us for help.  Jack and I enjoy telling particularly annoying callers that they are experiencing an “I-D-10-T” error.  This stealth insult is much harder to detect when it is spoken aloud.  One of our most frequent callers is an older gentleman I’ll call “Leonard Lambly.” Leonard is a sweet but confused older gentleman who seems to call more for company than assistance.  Jack and I have each developed a dead-on impersonation of poor Leonard, and we take turns calling each other with fake requests.  “Hello…Help Desk?!  My mouse keeps ignoring the cheese I bought…I’M COLD!”

We have to vent our frustrations somehow, because we are forbidden from reflecting back the anger and abuse we often receive from our callers.  I have always been a little more tightly wound than most people, and I tend to respond in kind to extreme displays of emotion.  The sometimes fever pitch of my feelings makes restraining my mouth the toughest part of this or any job in which “the customer is always right, even when they’re a fatuous, belligerent ignoramus.”

This afternoon, I boiled over.  At the end of a long series of stressful calls, I was failing in my attempts to calm and assist a particularly harried customer.  She refused to let me get a word in edgewise, and her complaining had devolved into shouting.  As I felt my inner Hulk getting angry, I pressed the HOLD button on my telephone headset, and announced to nearby co-workers that “I need someone to take over on this call, because I’m about to strangle this woman!”  I took a deep breath and felt my rage begin to recede.  Then a familiar voice came over the headset.  “I’m still here!  What did you just say?!”

It felt like a good time for an unscheduled break.  As I walked around the block on M Street, I realized that perhaps the help desk wasn’t the right job for me.  And that federal communications policy shouldn’t be dictated from a place that can’t provide a functioning hold button.

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