No good deed goes unpunished: Helping to redirect a question

It is a common occurrence that a question is sent to a mailing that is close, but not quite right. Usually somebody will provide information to help redirect the question to a more appropriate mailing list. But this effort does not always go unpunished.

From: X

A customer is encountering a problem with Product Q when they blah blah blah. Can somebody help?

From: Y

Support for Product Q is handled by Team R. Note that Product Q is out of mainstream support; you will need to have an extended support agreement.

From: X

Thank you. I have confirmed that the customer has an extended support agreement for Product Q. Please help me on how to proceed further with this case.

Person Y fell into the trap of being too helpful. If they had stopped after the sentence "Support for Product Q is now handled by Team R," they might have gotten away clean. But no, they made the mistake of providing a tiny bit more information, and person X has now latched on.

Here's another example, and by an amazing coincidence, it came from the same Person X.

From: X

A customer is encountering a problem with Product P when they blah blah blah. Can somebody help?

From: Z

For this particular problem, I'd contact Team P.

From: X

Thank you for your prompt response. I look forward to the next update from you.

Person Z made the mistake of only implying the "If I were you..." before the sentence "I'd contact Team P." Person X therefore interpreted the "I'd contact Team P" as saying "I will contact Team P for you."

The moral of the story is that when you are redirecting a question to a more appropriate mailing list, you need to be very explicit that you are telling the person what to do and are not actually assuming responsibility for doing it. Otherwise you run the risk of being punished for being helpful.

  • "Support for Product Q is handled by Team R. You need to send your questions to them."
  • "For this particular problem, you should contact Team P."

Bonus chatter: Just last week I tried to employ the lesson from this message:

From: Q

A customer wants Feature X to behave like ZZ instead of YY. Can somebody help?

From: Raymond

In order to get it changed, you will have to file a Design Change Request with the X team.

Apparently even a statement this direct was not correctly interpreted.

From: Q

Thanks. I wanted to check about the request which the customer has requested to change Feature X to behave like ZZ instead of YY.

Not only did the person think that I had taken responsibility for resolving their issue, they thought I had written up the Design Change Request for them and submitted it to the X team!

Comments (42)
  1. Nawak says:

    Raymond, I'm happy to read that you will fix this blog software. I really look forward to its next update.

  2. Karellen says:

    Yup, I suspect that X and Q have both learned that if they feign just a bit of clumsiness in "misunderstanding" this kind of help, they can get some nice people to do plenty of extra work for them. If they get called on it, they can just respond with "Oops, sorry I misread your response. Mea culpa. Will contact the appropriate team…" with very little loss of face.

  3. cheong00 says:

    Person X deserves being hold there with no reply at all for a while, then he/she will learn not to take it for granted others will do things for him/her.

  4. cheong00 says:

    Btw, where's the punishment? It seems pretty okay for left the person there after the third response.

    Afterall it's perfectly normal for the conversation ended after the second one. It's unlikely the person want to help out will get into trouble.

  5. DWalker says:

    Raymond, I'm glad to hear that you will fix everything in Windows and Office and SQL Server that anyone dislikes.  And you will fix it to everyone's satisfaction.  I look forward to your next update.

  6. cheong00 says:

    @Nawak: Yup, the blog software really needs a fix. Here's the one of the few place that logged-on users are not allowed to edit their own comments.

  7. Leo Davidson says:

    Along these lines, on tech-support forums people who ask for help often only pay attention to the most recent reply while completely ignoring the earlier suggestions. I've seen it happen again and again, even in threads with only two or three replies.

    When a thread already has a good answer, but you want to add/correct a detail or provide an alternative theory, it's frustrating to have to weigh up likelihood your info will be useful versus the likelihood it will cause the reader to overlook the existing answer.

    (Or you have to waste time explicitly pointing out the previous post, and that you are adding to what it says rather than replacing it with a one-stop, definitive answer. When doing that, it's always fun to see which person gets thanked in the end.)

  8. CGomez says:

    Finally!  I've been waiting for Windows to do ZZ for ages so it will finally be a standards compliant operating system.

  9. NB says:

    Is there a "Like" button in this blog somewhere?

  10. DavidR says:

    This kind of thing is why I have stopped stating things in a passive language or with any preamble.  Now I say things like:

    "Please file a Design Change Request with the X team."

    Of course, that doesn't stop everyone from misunderstanding, and I suspect a few people dislike such as terse response.

  11. JohnL says:

    From the other side, I asked a question on Yahoo Answers, someone had a bash at answering it but didn't really answer the question – except the "community" decided that the question had been answered, marked it as such and suddenly I couldn't even comment on it to tell them why it should be considered still open!

    (Since Raymond is working in this area, he should be able to fix it.  Right?  :P )

  12. JM says:

    The obvious counter-riposte is "if you want to check about the request which the customer has requested to change Feature X to behave like ZZ instead of YY, you will have to file a Design Change Request with the X team." It takes very little copy-pasting and eventually you'll win by sheer attrition. In fact, you could consider writing a program to handle this for you: if you flag your post as "I'm not responding to any comments on this", a chatterbot will handle further responses for you. Handling the fallout from the obviously inappropriate responses it will eventually generate is a challenge, but arguably a more interesting one.

  13. prunoki says:

    I do not quite get it.

    "Thanks. I wanted to check about the request which the customer has requested to change Feature X to behave like ZZ instead of YY."

    In my reading this does not ask you to send a request instead of him but wants to check the status of an existing request.

    [If that's what he'd done, then he'd have followed up with the team he submitted the request to. The person thinks that I had already submitted a request for him and is now checking on the status of that request. -Raymond]
  14. MikeCaron says:

    @prunoki: The idea is that the asker has assumed that there IS such a request, presumably due to the reply to his (or her) previous message.

  15. JJJ says:

    And then if you decide to go out of your way to provide help, further punishment awaits with the dreaded follow-up.  "Thanks, that fixed my problem.  But now my frobulator is depolarizing, so how can I do YY".

    Oh good, you apparently thought that my help on your first issue implied a lifetime support contract…

  16. xpclient says:

    Can you tell me more about a "Design Change Request" and how can a non-enterprise customer/end user request this for a product in mainstream support?

  17. Ross Bemrose says:

    @Leo Davidson: I'm active in a game community that deals with a game (Team Fortress 2), a third-party API to the game (MetaMod: Source), and a library built upon the third-party API (SourceMod).

    Needless to say, the only paid attention to the most recent reply thing happens both on the game's dedicated server mailing list and the third-party API and Library forums (they're the same forums for the latter two).

  18. Billy O'Neal says:

    @Chris Gomez: What standards affect operating systems? There's POSIX, but that's for UNIX, and Windows is not a UNIX operating system (nor did it ever claim to be so)…

  19. Joshua says:

    @Billy O'Neal: Windows NT 4 did. It wasn't, but it claimed to be and passed tests as if it was.

  20. JamesNT says:

    Whenever I attempt to help someone like this, I typically ignore them if they send me a bone-headed response like that.  I have found that, while the customer may get upset sometimes, they eventually follow through and go the correct place to get their answer.

    I don't think there really is any right way to handle situations such as these.


  21. ulric says:

    I've had these mail communication problems withsupport.

    However, it was with our Japanese support team.  they were not native English speakers. The replies are just as cryptic as the examples here. it's a language issue.

  22. Nick says:


    Call MS PSS and open a support case. Do some back and forth with a Tier 1 support person about the request. Eventually they'll tell you to fill out a Business Impact Statement.  Now you wait and, if you've been very good this year, you will hear from an escalation engineer.  He will tell you that he spoke to the Project Manager of the product in question and that, unfortunately, there are no resources available to make the change you've requested.  He will also encourage you to maintain a false sense of hope that the change request will be reviewed during the next development cycle of the product.


    Nature of the beast, I guess. Being a big company with significant monetary clout is necessary (but not sufficient) for a successful DCR.  For everyone else there is Microsoft Wish^W^W^W^W, you're SOL :(

  23. Guy Incognito says:

    A couple months ago I received an internal email on behalf of a client asking about the maximum expected performance of a driver I once was involved in developing. I answered it as best I could, but at the end had two bullet points to add:

    The 1st was to mention that the original referenced doc containing the client's questions wasn't attached (so I had to guess on some things).

    The 2nd was a link to one of Raymond's blog articles about how the subject line of an email should be meaningful to the recipient, not the sender (followed by a smiley), since this was very much the case.

    I received a reply from the internal support rep, with the same subject line, an attachment, and the entire message content being "Client document attached".

    That was around 6 weeks ago and I haven't been asked for a follow up since. So either reading this blog gets me in trouble, or it gets me out of legacy busy-work.

  24. steveg says:

    In my experience the weasels who try to teflon work away from themselves like this are pretty much incompetent and incapable of producing work of any usable quality. It's only because of their innate friction co-efficient that they survive.

  25. cheong00 says:

    Talking about feature request, it seems the Console Selection Mode item <…/console-selection-mode> I made on MS Connect a few months ago is still there, without even the orange colored moderator reply that they're checking the issue… :O

  26. JustSomeGuy says:

    Apparently, the correct response should have been:

    In order to get it changed,

    YYY   YYY   OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
     YYY YYY    OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
      YYYYY     OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
       YYY      OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
       YYY      OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
       YYY      OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU
       YYY      OOO     OOO  UUU     UUU

    will have to file a Design Change Request with the X team.

  27. JustSomeGuy says:

    Damn blog software munged up my big honkin' "YOU" banner. Not to worry, I'm glad that hear that you'll soon be fixing that, Raymond :-)

    [A comment that awesome deserves to be fixed up. -Raymond]
  28. Lawrence says:

    Aw man, I was really hoping for this to end with a "social skills of a thermonuclear device" situation and tag!

  29. Worf says:

    @Joshua: POSIX is a set of APIs exposed to the user. Whether that API set is implemented by a real Unix derivative (BSD, possibly OS X), a workalike (Linux), or through special runtimes (Windows) or libraries (Cygwin), is irrelevant.

    It's also evolved into the Single UNIX Specification run by the Open Group. If you read the standard, it dictates system calls, header files, constants, prototypes and minimum user library functions that must be provided.

  30. Timmy Mallet says:

    I've learned this lesson well over the  years. I tend to format my response as such:

    I'm sorry, I cannot help you with this request. All queires regarding J must be sent from yourself directly to department K.

    If possible, highlight "I cannot help you" and "from yourself directly" in red, bold, and 10 points larger than the surrounding text. Also if your email is in HTML format, implement the [BLINK] tag.

  31. UnPunisher says:

    Customer – I have been misled by this stinkin software!

    X – Then you have to compain at department X.

    Customer – But that's YOU!

    X – Yes, but you have to make a *formal* complaint. Cya!

  32. Random832 says:

    @Joshua – if it passed the tests, in what sense it "wasn't"? The fact that it didn't derive from the UNIX operating system? The whole purpose of the POSIX standard was to have a baseline standard that non-UNIX OSes could be able to run apps written for.

  33. alegr1 says:

    I've had a similar situation with MS tech support. They don't bother read the case history and look at the attached files. As the case goes forward to the next tier, they ask all the same questions again and get surprised when I tell them that the case already has the information. Well, that's what you get from hourly paid contract workers. Work longer, not smarter. Thankfully, when an actual enginer gets the case, it's more or less sane.

  34. Random832 says:

    Then what is the purpose of the provisions of POSIX that are written in such a way as to allow a POSIX implementation to (for example) use a non-ASCII character set? (as in, I believe there are mainframe POSIX implementations that use EBCDIC)

    There's all sorts of oddball corner cases that don't make sense except from the perspective of allowing non-UNIX-based OSes to implement it.

  35. Jason T. Miller says:

    Sheesh. From the horse's mouth:

    "The basic goal was to promote portability of application programs across UNIX system environments by developing a clear, consistent, and unambiguous standard for the interface specification of a portable operating system based on the UNIX system documentation."


    The point of standards like POSIX was not to define "UNIX-based OS," but to replace non-productive existential arguments concerning "UNIXness" with functional specifications useful to application developers.

    Consider: architecturally, the POSIX subsystem running on the NT kernel is not entirely unlike the BSD subsystem running on Mac OS X's Mach-derived kernel — even if its place in the application development ecosystem is quite different — yet many would say NT is "obviously" not UNIX, while OS X "obviously" is…

  36. Ben Voigt says:


    Obviously, the correct statement is not that NT "is" Unix, but that it "contains" Unix.

  37. Skyborne says:

    Any OS that is not Unix, or does not contain it, will expand until it does. :-)

  38. laonianren says:

    Random832 wrote: "The whole _purpose_ of the POSIX standard was to have a baseline standard that non-UNIX OSes could be able to run apps written for."

    Back in the late 80s, early 90s, when there were literally hundreds of incompatible versions of UNIX from different vendors, the whole purpose of the POSIX standard was actually to have a baseline standard that *UNIX* OSes could be able to run apps written for.

  39. ender says:

    If possible, highlight "I cannot help you" and "from yourself directly" in red, bold, and 10 points larger than the surrounding text. Also if your email is in HTML format, implement the [BLINK] tag.

    You have too much faith in people. Years ago, before I moved my Windows installer of a popular open-source program to SourceForge, I had a separate page that had the source code available for download, with a "Do not download" and a very short description of why not above the source archive (and a link to the installer). Eventually the "Do not download" text became red and blinking – and people still e-mailed me asking what to do with all the .c and .h files (luckily, this stopped when I moved to, since there I simply didn't have a direct link to the source on user-visible pages – it was only available through the complex download pages).

  40. cheong00 says:

    @Skyborne: Unless it has name "embedded" attached to it. *nitpicking*

  41. bleary says:

    There's a term for this in education: Learned Helplessness. Practice it enough and people will do things for you.

  42. DWalker says:

    I wish MY frobulator would depolarize!

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