The client question I dread most

No, it is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” It is not, “Now that I have gone through and torn apart your completed editing work, will you re-edit it for free?” And it is not even, “Will you look at my child’s writing and give her a critique?” It is not, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”

Not that I don’t dread those questions; I do. But for all of them there are responsive answers to offer: ‘from life,’ ‘not for free, nope,’ ‘only if you understand that I will lie,’ and ‘it doesn’t exist.’ For this one there is no good answer:

“How do I do that in Word?”

You might be amazed at how often clients look to me for Word tech support: on how to enable this feature, or make that go away, in a Word document. Often I am their first point of call, and it does not occur to them that I dread the question.

Perhaps the assumption is that I’m a Word expert, and that I have mental models of every version of Word since Word 97 to summon forth. What else can I assume?

So why do I not just say “no, not my line of work?” Because that come across as bad customer service. It doesn’t matter that the expectation is unreasonable. How I feel is beside the point. If I say what I am thinking, the client will think I’m a jerk, unhelpful, and crabby. That’s no good. Most clients find me easy to work with, helpful, and cheerful, and that’s important to me.

But life is not fair. As an editor, at one point or another in the relationship, every client will ask me for Word tech support, and I will have to attempt to offer it, and if I cannot do it with a happy smile, I must at least muffle the curse words and replace the grimace with a mask of calm. Never mind that I feel like a flight attendant who has just been handed a baby and asked to change the diaper.

What’s the big deal? Why all the stress and dread? Because:

  • I am incompetent at it, I know this, and being inept is intensely uncomfortable for a person who takes pride in capability.
  • I don’t want to become competent at it. I’m an editor, not a technical guru. All I want from my word processor is that it serve my work functions. I don’t want to be the Word Answer Man. I want to help people perfect their brainchildren, combining candor with consideration and camaraderie.
  • I used to be a computer shaman, and came to hate it, and when I left that line of work, my mind and heart left it behind. When I have a computer problem of my own, I don’t go very far trying to solve it myself. I call the tech support guy I know in Utah who does a fantastic job (that’s Ray Ross of Bugzap), and I do whatever he says to do.

So why is it impractical? Why can’t I just joyously answer the formatting question and be happy to be helpful? Because:

  • The client and I are probably not using the same version of Word, nor will we be, because Word gets worse with every new version. I’m using Word 2002 and will not switch unless/until forced, and if forced, may end up switching to a Mac. With each new version, MS rethinks the names of some concepts, and moves some features around so that one no longer knows where to find them, and calls that an ‘upgrade.’ I don’t have time or patience to go on a new treasure hunt every year, paying for the privilege, so I am not ‘upgrading.’ Neither should most people.
  • Clients vary in technical know-how, but writers often seem to take a perverse pride in technical dufosity. Most computer users don’t even know the real meanings of words like ‘login,’ ‘download,’ ‘malware,’ and even ‘word processor,’ thus often we do not even begin by speaking in the same terminology. It is a weakness of mine, related to my line of work, that I count upon knowing exactly what words mean.
  • Since we are probably not using the same version of Word, I can’t know what s/he is seeing, or where/how to tell him or her to start looking. I can, with laborious effort, explain in some cases how it is done in Word 2002. But if it’s Word-flaky, I can’t answer why theirs isn’t working like mine.
  • Since that is the case, the client will probably still have questions, which I can’t answer. I will look useless, feel uncomfortable, and silently dislike the unfairness of the situation, powerless to change it.
  • If on the other hand my help does solve the problem, the client may decide that I am a Word Deity, and may even come to depend on me for Word tech support in the future, since that went so well.

Thus, there is no good outcome for me.

What do I wish people would do? Join a discussion forum about Word. Many are staffed by actual Microserfs, or people blessed by the company. I don’t know of a specific one to suggest, but I know they are there. When I find myself confounded, here’s what I do (or would do if need be):

  • Save a backup copy of your document beforehand. Now you can experiment and butcher it to your heart’s content, because you have a fallback position.
  • Check Word help, though it will probably be irrelevant and clunky. I marvel at how much worse they have managed to make it.
  • If you think it’s a technical problem with Word, restart your machine and try it from a fresh Windows and Word session with nothing else going, just to rule out some potential conflict sources.
  • Use the exact terms Word uses, and feed your problem to a search engine. That will probably lead you to the MS Knowledge Base, or to a message board discussion about the situation, where someone already solved this for someone else. Be sure to include your version of Word in the search, but when the search turns up solutions that seem to apply to other versions, try to run with them.
  • Sign onto one of the message boards that seemed to have the most helpful people. Read the FAQ in case you are about to become the 101,000th newbie to ask this question; it may solve your problem. Be prepared for very brief, direct questions and answers; gurus don’t waste lots of time. Be prepared also for at least a few people who don’t read your post with attention to detail. List your version of Windows, your version of Word, the type of document, what you are trying to do, and if necessary, take a screenie of the problem, using these instructions. Explore anything they suggest.

Some other generally-sound-practice technical tips, while I’m at it:

  • Always save a copy of your work before doing anything daring, so you can revert if you butcher it.
  • There are two types of computer users who do not back up their data files: those who have lost data that way and do not learn from their mistakes, and those who are waiting for doomsday.
  • Just because software offers you an update does not mean it’s always an upgrade. There are exceptions, but the usual result is everything gets moved around and you gain nothing new. Firefox is the poster child for software that gets worse with every new version.
  • If you do not keep a virus scanner updated and current, you are just waiting for the suffering. If you take my advice, you’ll either go with Panda AVG for a free version, or for a powerful pay version worth every penny, Eset’s NOD32. That’s what I use. When I hear that someone got a free trial of McAfee and just stayed with that after the trial period expired, that’s someone I’m expecting to hear got a virus.
  • Not everything your computer vendor pre-installed is garbage, but a lot of it is free trials, tutorials you will never use, and other whizbang stuff from which you can not benefit. Always be careful (like the time I uninstalled a network speed monitor and it took my Internet access with it), but a lot of that is just crapola that can be uninstalled.
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