In addition to manuals and user instructions, helpdesks are important means for user support for technical products. Most manufacturers offer the possibility to get information and help with problem solving by means of a free of paid telephone call. In cooperation with Gert Brinkman, I supervised a number of MSc theses in Communication Science that focus on several aspects of helpdesks.

You should do what I tell you

Daniël Hartman wrote a Master thesis with an analysis of some telephone calls with a helpdesk where users of a universal programmable remote control can ask for support. His analysis showed, among other things, that one of the paramount problems in such calls is caused by the fact that the help agent does not know exactly whether the caller does or does not exactly the instructions. Daniël identified several means by which agents try to solve this problems, such as pauses, minimal responses, extra emphasis on certain instructions and even explicit exhortations to follow the instructions step-by-step. However, all these efforts do not prevent considerable misunderstandings in the conversation.

Conversational styles

Marjolein Gravendeel’s Master research focused on the telephone help desk of the Dutch organization Mothers for Mothers, that collects urine of pregnant women to distill a base material for particular medicines. Marjolein conducted a survey among participants of this action to investigate how satisfied they are about the helpdesk telephone calls and which conversational style they refer. The study revealed a number of practical suggestions for improvement of the conversations. Moreover, it turned out that the preference for particular conversational styles depended partly on the topic of conversation. If the topics were pre practical, such as an address change, an efficient, pragmatic-courteous style is preferred. If the topics are more emotional and personal (e.g. a cancellation of participation because of a miscarriage, some – but not all – participants preferred a more empathic and personal style.

Irritations and politeness

The central question of Marleen te Vaarhorst’s Master thesis research was how agents in help desk calls handle irritations that are put forward by the client. Marleen concluded among other things, that client usually bring up their irritations indirectly, thus offering the agent the possibility to ignore them - which is what they gratefully do.

The structure of helpdesk calls

Elsbeth Smith analyzed a number of telephone calls with a helpdesk for users of administrative software. The main question in her study was whether these calls have a conventional structure. She compared the helpdesk calls with doctor-patient conversations, consultations and oral instructions. Her study shows that helpdesk calls, after a greeting phase, start with a discussion of the problems, in which the client sketches a scenario of what happened before the problem occurred. next comes an interrogation by the agent to find the exact nature and cause of the problem. Sometimes, the interrogation takes the form of a reconstruction, where the agent tries to cause the same problem on his own screen. After the discussion of the problem, a conclusion is drawn (the diagnosis), after which the agent suggest a solution. The solution is carried out step by step in an instruction phase. If this ends successfully, the closing phase ends the call. The study shows that there are numerous variations within this standard structure. Phases are often skipped, and phases are often recaptured if complications occur. Finally, the analysis shows that quite often discussions (or even negotiations) come up about the right diagnosis or the right solution.


Jeroen Keijzer's Master thesis focuses on the question how the agent and the client in a telephonic helpdesk call handle the problem that the can't see each other. The agent has to be very explicit in his directions, and the client has to notify the agent what he or she is doing. Jeroen analysed examples of overspecification, which means that the conversational partners give more (of more detailed) information than what is strictly needed to solve the problem - this seems to be a strategy to prevent misunderstandings. Moreover, Jeroen showed how the client helps the agent to monitor the client's behavior by 'thinking aloud': verbalizing what he is doing at his computer.

Evaluating customers' satisfaction with helpdesks

Lex van Velsen investigated the usefulness of the SERVQUAL framework for evaluating the quality of user support two contexts: a helpdesk and a helpline, using surveays based on this framework. The results show that the SERVQUAL structure is not applicable in these contexts. Three quality dimensions were found: solution quality, experiences during the consultation, and, in the case of a physical environment, tangibles. Helpdesk customers base their overall quality perceptions mainly on their experiences during a consultation, while helpline customers focus strongly on the quality of the solution offered. Customers’ satisfaction with helpdesks and helplines is, directly or indirectly, based on both dimensions of service quality.

Using English by non native speakers in helpdesk calls

Ardion Beldad's Master thesis directs the question how misunderstandings and non-understandings occur in helpdesk conversations between nonnative speakers of English and how they are repaired. His analysis shows that repairing a non-understood utterance can be executed by repeating a statement, repeating and modifying the utterance, extending the meaning of an ambiguous term, and describing a non-understood item or object in more details. He also found that repair is often self-initiated, which suggests that the partners are quite aware of the possibility that they can be mis- or non-understood. Another interesting phenomenon is the prevention of misunderstanding: especially clients verify whether the have understood the agent correctly, for instance by 'echoing' the agent's utterance.

Publications in English about this project

Steehouder, M., & Hartman, D. (2003). How Can I Help You? User Instructions in Telephone Calls. Paper presented at the International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) 2003, Orlando FL.

Van Velsen, L. S., Steehouder, M. F., & De Jong, M. D. T. (2007). Evaluation of user support. Factors that affect user satisfaction with helpdesks and helplines. IEEE Transactions on professional communication, 50(3), 219-231.

Steehouder, M. (2007). How helpdesk agents help clients. Paper presented at the International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) 2007., Seattle, WA.