The questions we ask

I work in customer service, so I get a lot of questions and requests for things that sometimes are odd or at least out of the ordinary.

Last weekend, a customer wanted to find a circular saw blade that would fit his 4-1/2 inch angle grinder. I asked him what he was trying to accomplish.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “I am just trying to find one, and none of them seem to have the right arbor size. The grinder is one of your models.” He pointed to one on the shelf, the most popular and cheapest one we sold.

Bringing up all my $8.00/hour skills and training to bear, I again asked him what job he was trying to do, spinning the gears in my brain to perhaps come up with a solution or alternate ideas.

“I want to cut off some 2x4s, and I don’t really want to buy a whole tool too do that since I do not have a lot to cut.” Not a bad idea, really, in theory. After all, an angle grinder is used to cut and grind metal. 

“The only blade with the proper arbor size we have is this 4″ plate joiner blade,” I replied, pointing him to the item in question among the myriad of saw blade we carried. “However, there are a number of things you may need to take into account. First, cutting a 2×4 may be tricky as the blade is 4 inches in diameter, giving you a 2 inch maximum cut, but you also have to factor the arbor and safety guard, which will limit the overall depth.”

The customer frowned.

“Secondly,” I went on “this blade has only 6 teeth which means it very likely will chatter and dance terribly when you try cutting with it, as it is designed to cut relatively shallow slots in the end of the wood for gluing biscuits.”

He looked less happy now.

“Another thing to consider is the motor in that grinder. It is relatively small and I do not think it is up to the task, in my opinion.”

“But it cuts metal, so it should be able to cut wood then,” he retorted.

“Not necessarily,” I returned, again bringing all my eight dollar wage  to bear. “The cutting and grinding on these is partly from the much higher speeds these motors run at to spin the very thin cutoff or grinding wheel, while the motor in a circular saw spins slower and has much  more torque as it has to plow a much wider tooth on that blade through a lot more material.”

“Oh, yeah that makes sense. So you don’t have any blade that will fit the grinder, other than this?”

“No, I am sorry, we do not. Have you tried Lowe’s or Home Depot? I imagine that they have a much larger selection than we do.” Both of these home improvement centers are less than a block away.

He laughed.

“Trying to send me to the competition, eh? Not good for business if you ask me! I really don’t want to go all the way over there, plus your prices are so good. This blade is only ten dollars.”

“We do have a circular saw on sale, with a blade, for 24 dollars,” I responded. I wasn’t even going to try to sell him an extended service plan.

“Hmm, not bad. What if I take the guard off and try a larger blade, then? I don’t care if I burn up the grinder, really.”

“I can’t recommend that, for safety reasons, plus I do think that you will not have good success doing that. I would rather have you happy getting your job done, sir.”

“Well, you have  given me a lot of information, thank you! I think I can come up with something now.”

He went off to look at various blades, and I went on to finish my stocking.

Now what does this have to do with Linux? A lot, really. Those of us who offer our assistance in irc, mailing lists, and forums, are providing a form of customer service. We ask you questions and make suggestions based on our experience, knowledge, and research. We may ask the same questions I asked my customer, clarifying both what it is a you want, as well if the helper understands your situation correctly.

We will have many suggestions, sometimes. These may not always be what you want to hear.  Don’t take this the wrong way. We may suggest another tool, based on your desired destination. Don’t think we are trying to keep you from doing it your way, as these are suggestions. Take them for what they are worth.

We may even *gasp* suggest another distribution that may offer you what you are looking for. Again, this is based on our experiences. It is not offered as a way to get rid of you or push you away. It is offered as legitimate customer service.

Don’t chide us for attempting to do our low paying job 🙂

However, for the other side, the store clerks and stock persons out there, do not  forget how you come across when making suggestions or providing solutions.

A simple, short post with just a command line string may be correct, but do take into account the user’s skill level.  Explain the command with some detail, offer a gui method if there is one. Do not overwhelm the user or make them feel stupid.

Ask what the user is trying to do and why, but don’t suggest that it is the “wrong” way to go about it. DO suggest alternatives, preferably with links and examples. Again, do not make them feel dumb here, unless they are attempting something that is dangerous. If that person finds their own solution, don’t hesitate to ask what it was so we can have that knowledge as well.

Do not be afraid to offer alternate distros, but be careful not to seem like you are being condescending or turning the user away. They may feel that way anyway, but don’t push the matter.

Finally, do not be afraid to let the user make mistakes. That is tough, considering our own failures and mistakes as we learn about this wonderful Linux thing we are sharing. It has to be said, and some may disagree, but there are times when you just have to step back and let someone experience a bit of fail for them to learn.

2 thoughts on “The questions we ask

  1. “Now what does this have to do with Linux?”
    Actually I can think of several applications to various disciplines, age levels, and areas of life. I can imagine sharing this with a range from my middle school Sunday School class to a course at the local community college. Thanks for sharing this in such a careful and well written way.

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