The following advice applies to any situation where you’re taking a problem to an expert and asking for help, whether that’s a support ticket, a customer service call, or a doctor visit. Please note that I regularly make all these mistakes myself.
1. Start by showing them the problem
To you, this issue represents a completely new experience. You've never dealt with this kind of problem before, which is why you're seeking the help of an expert. But to the expert, this is one of a fixed range of problems that she's seen a hundred times before. It's easy for us to forget this.
When an expert asks you "What's the problem?" what they're really asking is "Which problem are you having?"
When you have a rash on your arm and you walk into your doctor's office, you don't spend five minutes trying to describe the rash; you just roll up your sleeve and show it to them.
Most of us are pretty good about "showing them the problem first" with doctors, but not so much with tech support (probably because we know that doctors are more knowledgeable than us; tech support reps are a mixed bag). But it's still good to try this approach first, even if you doubt the competence of the person on the other end of the line. At least assume that he's seen your issue before.
The tech support version of "rolling up your sleeve and showing them the rash" is describing your problem — as it exists right now — in the shortest, most precise way you can. Screenshots, step-by-step "how to see the problem" instructions, and combinations thereof will all get you a better, faster answer.
2. Don't be too vague
If you're reading this article, then this probably doesn't apply to you, but I want to say it as a public service announcement on behalf of anybody who solves customer issues as part of their job (which is most of us, in one way or another).
I can't tell you how many support tickets I've seen that just say "It's broken." or "The shopping cart isn't working." Experts know more about the topic, but they can't read your mind. Is the shopping cart throwing errors everywhere, or is a heading showing up as purple when you wanted magenta?
Being too vague in your problem description is guaranteed to delay a solution and earn you a "Can you describe the problem more?" responses before you ever get something resembling a fix.
3. SUBJECT: Forget grammar. Summarize problem fast.
In your subject line, try to condense the entire problem into the space allotted. When I submit tech support tickets or send emails, I make a game of this. I try to write a subject line that is so short and precise that the person on the other end barely needs to read the body of my email.
The idea here is to prime the expert's brain for the problem, so he can start calling up solutions in his mind before he even reads the full message. People (me included) have a tendency to think that subject lines should be abstract and body text should be specific. Most people write overly-abstract subject lines that only make sense after the body copy is read, and that's why most people never read subject lines (because they contain no useful information).
Example: Let's say you're emailing your landlord about a leaky pipe. Instead of writing "SUBJECT: Maintenance issue" as your subject and providing detail in your body, try "SUBJECT: Suite #312 Leaky pipe. Slow drip. Kitchen sink." and then repeat the description and expand a little in your body.
Of course, this only applies to written exchanges. You'd sound like an idiot if you walked into your doctor's office and blurted out "Rash on arm. Itchy. Just went camping." but at least your heart would be in the right place.
4. Leave out your emotions
As Joe Friday says: "Just the facts, Mam."
Problems --- even little technical glitches --- can cause pain and frustration. They can disrupt your life, then can emotionally traumatize you, cost you money, affect your family, and threaten the dreams you work so hard to achieve. It is the expert's job to ignore all of this, fix your problem, and then move on to the next one as if you weren't a person.
It's not that the expert doesn't care about your emotional trauma. The human side of him cares deeply, but that part of him is deactivated when he's in "work mode."
When an expert is in work mode, he looks at a child with an arm ripped off and thinks "We need to cut another inch away before we can stitch." Five hours later, on the drive home from work, then he thinks "Oh my God that poor child."
What does this mean for you? It means that you should focus on symptoms whenever possible, and check your emotions at the door, because they are usually irrelevant to process of solving the problem (which is ultimately what will make you feel better, and the expert knows this).
This is where I remind you that I routinely make this mistake myself. I can't tell you the number of times I've vented my frustrations to an expert only to have them stare at me blankly. And then I leave and think "Gosh that expert was so callous. It's like he didn't even care about how I felt. At least he fixed my problem."
5. Include one sentence about when the problem started
A three-page backstory on the problem is a usually waste of time. But including a line at the end of your ticket/email/speech to the doctor that mentions the problem's timeframe is helpful. Statements like "It started happening around the time I installed X plugin / transferred servers / let my cat sleep on the keyboard / whatever" give your issue just the right amount of time-context that can be highly useful if the expert needs to go digging or theorizing.
6. Keep coming back until the problem is resolved.
Don't just swallow your pain! If there is an outstanding issue, keep bringing it up (respectfully) until you get it solved. The expert often has far more solutions in her bag of tricks than she's yet applied, but you'll never know about those other possible solutions unless you say "Hey, that other solution didn't work for me."
7. Do mention special time considerations
If you have a client breathing down your neck, a special event coming up, or you're about to go out of town, say so. As mentioned above, the expert often has more in her bag of tricks than she's mentioned, including some that are short-term and some that are long-term.
If you don't verbalize special time constraints, she's probably going to default to telling you about the long-term solution, because that's usually more permanent / less expensive / more popular.
Share your own tips!
Did I miss something? What other tips have you gleaned from dealing with experts, or from being an expert yourself? In my next post, I'll talk about the other side of this issue (How to GIVE faster solutions when you're the expert).