It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Rob Sylvan!

Lessons from the Help Desk

Greetings! I can't tell you how excited I am to have a chance to give a little something back to you all. Many thanks to Scott and Brad for the opportunity. You see I have been answering Help Desk questions for NAPP members since 2005. I started out assisting Peter Bauer with Photoshop questions, but once Lightroom 1.0 hit the scene I was tasked with handling all of the Lightroom questions sent to the Help Desk from that point forward. It was truly one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given.

Sure, it was a job, but that is not what I mean by the gift I was given. The gift was the education I received as a result of the countless interactions I have had with so many NAPP members over the years. I did indeed learn a lot about Lightroom, and that alone has lead to a number of really great opportunities, but even more important was that I learned a whole lot about how to interact with people; people in a hurry, people at their most vulnerable, and people at their most-frustrated-end-of-their-rope-worst. Believe me when I tell you this is a skill that has served me well in my 16 years of marriage. :-D

It has also served me well in other Help Desk roles I've taken on, such as answering customer support tickets for a new stock photography co-op (Stocksy United) I am a member of, and even helping people in the field with The Digital Photo Workshops. Oh, and I answer all of the tech support questions for Kelby Training too.

So, when Brad asked me if I would be interested in writing a guest post for Scott's blog I thought I could take the opportunity to share some of the most important lessons I've learned in my many roles as a helper in the hopes that perhaps it may inspire you to become a helper in you own way. I've also included a few photos taken around my backyard just to share some of what I do beyond answering questions.

1. You'll become a better listener.
When you truly step into the role of helping someone the first and most important thing you can do to actually help him or her is to understand what he or she is really saying. I get a fair number of questions that are full of a lot of information that is really not relevant to the core reason this person is reaching out to me. I see it as my job to step back, really read (most of my interactions with folks are via email) what they are saying then focus in on the key issue. Sometimes this requires me to ask a few questions to ferret out the right information, but the rookie mistake is to reply too quickly to what we think someone is saying, and then spiral off into a rabbit hole that leaves both parties feeling frustrated.

Newly hatched bluebird chicks.

2. There's no shame in knowing what you don't know.
We pride ourselves on being experts and in being able to solve any problem that comes our way, but the reality is that there are a lot of things I just don't know. I used to be afraid of those three words (I don't know), but now I embrace them. I feel it is far better to let the person asking the question know that I honestly don't know the answer, than to try and bamboozle them with bull-oney to cover up the fact that I don't. I just come clean, and then we can work on trying to solve the problem together, and hopefully at the end they'll have a solution and I'll have some new information for the next person that comes up against the same issue. The person asking the question ends up actually helping himself (or herself), helping me, and then passing it along to others. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Me tending to my bees.

3. There's no shame in asking for help.
My wife will get a big kick out of me saying this as I am far better at giving help than asking for it, but I am working on it! I have had the privilege of helping people from all walks of life, all types of professional backgrounds, and a wide range of ages, and what they all had in common was they had a question that I could answer and the self-confidence to ask it. The moment I gave them that one thing they didn't have before they were free to move on, to stop spinning their wheels, and to get stuff done. Why waste your time digging yourself into a deeper rut when there are so many ways of asking for help these days? I know, I know, I'll try it myself one day. :-)

A beech leaf floating on the pond.

4. Always remember there's a real genuine human being on the other end of that question.
Except when I am on a workshop or standing in at the Help Desk Live booth at Photoshop World, most of my help interactions are done via email. As we all know email and text communication can easily become very impersonal. I'm lucky in that I have gotten to meet a great number of people by working at Photoshop World that previously were only emails stacked up in my inbox (see photo below).  However, I will never meet the vast majority of the people I help, but I strive to always conjure up a picture of them in my mind's eye when replying to their emails as a way to remind myself that they are not just another problem to deal with, but rather a person reaching out for a little guidance. I feel that this comes through in my response, as I have never been accused of talking down to someone or of being disrespectful. I also try to remember this in all those small frustrating interactions we have with each other while standing in line at the grocery check out, waiting at the doctor's office, and driving on the highway.

My good friend Ed Law at Photoshop World 2013.

5. Answer the question, but also try to increase their understanding.
When someone asks a question there is almost always an opportunity to give them something more to help increase their overall understanding, and quite possibly head off the next question before they even knew they were going to ask it. If job one is understanding the question, and job two is answering the question, then job three in my book is providing them a link, resource, tip, or tidbit that gives them something more to chew on. If someone asks what is the keyboard shortcut to show/hide the Lightroom adjustment brush mask I tell them (press O), then I provide a link to all of the keyboard shortcuts too. It would be quicker in the short-term to just answer the question and hit Send, but by taking a few seconds longer I can give them a resource that gives them more and saves them from having to send in five more questions. That's a win for both of us.

The view from the side of my house one snowy morning.

Beyond those five things I can tell you that working on the Help Desk is one of the most rewarding jobs I've ever had, that it must be good for my karma, and it has allowed me to learn Lightroom inside out and upside down. For all of that, and so much more, I am grateful to you all for the opportunity to serve. Hope to see you at Photoshop World!

You can see more from Rob at and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He is a photographer, trainer, and author. Aside from also being a NAPP and Kelby Training Help Desk Specialist, and instructor for the Perfect Picture School of Photography and the host of Peachpit's Lightroom Resource Center. He is a founding member of Stocksy United (a stock photography co-op). Rob writes the "Under the Loupe" column for Photoshop User Magazine, is a regular contributor to Lightroom magazine, and is the author of many photography related books.

  1. Nice blog, Rob! I could certainly write about being the frustrated guy on the other end of the email more than once. It’s nice to know that we have someone like you who actually cares enough to get to the real issues that so many of us have with LR (particularly with catalogs and storage!). Thanks for doing a great job!

  2. Excellent post Rob! We have a lot in common. I supervise a computer lab at a not-so-small college. I used to hate so say “I don’t know” but now embrace it as well because I usually learn something from it myself. There haven’t been too many times I’ve been on the tech support at NAPP, but each time I have I’ve gotten the correct answer. Thank You!
    I have seen you at Photoshop World, but have never made contact. This will change next year in Vegas. I would love to get away in April for Atlanta, but that’s a really busy time for me. (End of semester instead of beginning) so it probably won’t happen.
    I love the leaf on the water and the snow scene!

  3. Such excellent advice. I am going to bookmark this so that I can read it more than once and also just to remind myself of these things.

    Love your photos. That one of the baby birds slays me!

  4. Fantastic advice Rob! ANd so true! I often find that when I can admit I don’t know something and go ahead and ask for help, I end up learning 10x more trying to figure it out! Thanks for the good karma reminders and for sharing!

  5. Rob is one. Of the good guys. Maybe the only help desk experience I can say was enjoyable in a world of delayed responses and ACD phones, at least with Rob I won’t start a day full of dread knowing I have to ask for help and the ugly process it takes to get it. With Rob I know I’ll get a quick, clear, friendly answer. Thanks Rob.

  6. Awesome Rob! Erin and I are not afraid to ask for help – that’s for sure!! Rob is definitely one of the good guys – a really genuine nice guy and very helpful! Awesome advice!

  7. Great advice Rob! I have you to thank for my love of Lightroom now! If it wasn’t for you teaching us at The Digital Photo Workshops, I’d still be cursing it!

  8. My buddy Rob, great post! I do tech support as well (not for NAPP though :) and sometimes I do forget, even if the question is really really dumb, that it’s a real person behind there (I’ve been asked “why can’t I see a picture when I click on the ‘audio stream’ link?”). Good reminders all around!

  9. These posts from the diverse talent represented says it loud and clear.

    You have and do good young man. You, NAPP and Kelby have made Photography my “lifeline” through your help and friendship..

    Our picture, “My friend, Ed Law” is an honor, indeed!!

  10. nice to read like your way to explain things. i work mostly only with lightroom and must say it is a strong tool. stocksy the best concept for photographers at the time with great authentic pictures.

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