Ask HN: How to Handle Help Vampires?

38 points by nicbou 6 days ago

A help vampire is someone who requires a disproportionate amount of energy to help, usually because they make no attempt to find a solution themselves, or because they ask vague questions with little context.

I frequently get emails from energy vampires since I encourage people to reach out if my website does not answer their questions. However I get annoyed by the few people who cannot be arsed to write a full sentence to ask for help. No hello, no thank you, just "I need [thing] plz help".

How do I deal with these people?

smcleod 6 days ago

I like to ask people what they've tried so far so I can understand their thought process - but also to give them a hint that I expect them to use brain a little bit.

With every client I've ever worked with I always have a wiki page with common Q&A, some "required reading" and links to other wikis / docs.

If people do the incredibly annoying thing of starting conversations with "Hi" or "Hey Sam, how's it going?" Or even worse "Hey, can I ask a quick question?" I politely share this site https://nohello.net if I feel it likely won't be taken with (much) offence.

If they always send you a DM/PM rather than asking in a shared room I ask them to please start a thread in the room so that others can learn and the help can be load balanced, I often link people to this article: http://blog.flowdock.com/2014/04/30/beware-of-private-conver...

If none of this helps and they really are just being lazy - I all have a direct conversation with them and be pretty frank that the value people add to a team / company is the effort and how they go about problem solving - if they're just acting as a middle-person passing questions and answers around it becomes and highly inefficient system.

Not thinking before asking someone else for the answer is a learned behaviour. It can be learned from being out of your depth, low confidence often combined with a lack of context, laziness or general incompetence. Most people aren't generally incompetent but have become comfortable with their learned behaviour.

  • brnt 6 days ago

    In defence of greeting people: there's an enormous variety of communication styles, and I don't like passive aggressively pushing your particular preference.

    Also, there is utility in such an opening, besides being an unnegotiable bit of politesse for some: the internet isn't at all easy to communicate over, precisely because you have no idea how long someone may take to respond and what style of communication they may prefer. Which is ofcourse no problem, you don't owe the asker anything. So, a greet can be a low key way of gauging that timeline, and help you reach out to others if you are under some time pressure.

    Instead, how about you get over your wish to feel or appear helpful, and instead be upfront yourself: announce on your website that only well formulated and detailed queries will be responded to, with no promises to a particular timeline.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    This is exactly the approach I followed as an employee and it worked great. Unfortunately it doesn't work so well as a single guy answering reader mail.

    • smcleod 6 days ago

      What about an automatic reply with some "helpful links" and a suggestion box?

      • nicbou 6 days ago

        That would be the website through which they contact me! It's just that some questions cannot easily be answered.

        The lazy users are a fairly small subset of the people who contact me. Most of them stump me with their questions.

gus_massa 6 days ago

Assuming it's about https://allaboutberlin.com/tools/tax-calculator you can have a few canned answers like

> I can help you to use my tax calculator estimator, but for more complicated task you probably have to ask a tax advisor. For example, there is a list in [link]

Also, don't answer instantly. Apply exponential backoff. Just delay the answer a few days even if it's trivial. (Gmail has a delayed sending option :) , but I never used it yet.)

Another trick is to just repeat the same polite answer, like

> Sorry, I can help you to use my tax calculator estimator, but for more complicated task you probably have to ask a tax advisor. For example, there is a list in [link]

here in Argentina we call it the "broken record" (disco rayado). It's useful with small kids, because otherwise you are tempted to loose a lot of time making a new "better" explanation each time the kid repeat the question.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    It's the entire website actually, not just this tool. Bureaucracy is complicated. You need a human sometimes.

    Perhaps a contact form could nudge them towards a longer question.

    • gus_massa 6 days ago

      You need a different canned reply for each page in your site. Probably 5 is enough. I have a few, but I edit them when the question has a twist. (And I write a full answer when necessary.)

      > Bureaucracy is complicated. You need a human sometimes.

      Completely agree.

freemint 6 days ago

Groom them into knowing http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html . Help them build a basic mental model of the discipline. Teach them how to google but have them send you the thing they want to do before they implement it. Explain why it will or won't work. After they got good at it task them to send questions about the answer they consider implementing in addition. Give them answers on the questions and rate the questions. Build their confidence in trusting their own reason. The make them research the answer to some questions they raised with you about an answer to another question. Give them time to figure out the answers themselves and get them out of the critical chain of business processes while they learn and complete their mental model. If they are unable to adopt or improve see whether them switching employment, ignoring them and ot you switching employment is possible.

Barrin92 6 days ago

>How do I deal with these people?

You don't. Tell them that you're not going to offer support until they can provide you with / talk to you in a way that respects your time. Sounds harsh but is reasonable because you're time is valuable, they're hopefully going to learn to acknowledge that, and it gives you more time to help people who can be helped effectively.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    I've done exactly that in the heat of the moment and I felt incredibly rude.

    • djmips 6 days ago

      because it is.

wenc 6 days ago

Julia Evans has a really great strategy for helping folks learn how to find answers themselves by writing (but not necessarily posting) an email or forum post:

https://twitter.com/b0rk/status/1546875361002135554/photo/1

This not only helps you, it helps them too. In fact, many Github repos force you to fill out a template when you try to open a new issue.

I can't tell you how many times I've found my answer in the middle of writing an email or forum post (which I never end up posting). The act of writing helps me clarify my thoughts, and maybe it can help others do that too!

(also, it's a life skill that applies to more than just finding answers to technical questions. When I'm stuck on a life issue, I start writing and recalling what I've tried, what worked, what didn't.)

The verbal version of this is called Rubber Duck Debugging, but I find that doesn't work as well for me since I'm not a verbal person.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging

  • vestrigi 6 days ago

    I think a great extension to that is to post the question anyway, add your own solution and mark it as solved.

    • wenc 6 days ago

      Many StackOverflow answers are exactly that.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    I really like that tweet. It’s exactly what I was looking for! Thank you

  • alexk307 6 days ago

    I need to frame that tweet…

mackatsol 6 days ago

I keep a snippet for that.. (something like) “if you would be so kind as to provide some details? What are you trying to accomplish? What have you tried? What problems have you encountered? Help me help you.“

spywaregorilla 6 days ago

ITT we have OP complaining that people don't say hi, and another poster complaining that they do say hi. On cultural internet norms, y'all are going to have to accept that there's a wide range of opinions.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    I just mean adding "Dear person" at the top of your email, and not just writing like you're pinging your bestie on whatsapp. Basic email etiquette ya know?

    If I got an email that was JUST "hello" I'd just ignore it. It's different advice for a different situation.

    • gus_massa 6 days ago

      I only use "Dear Person" when I'm BCC-ing it to another person and I think the the email may be confusing for the person in the BCC field.

      • nicbou 6 days ago

        You write a brand new email to a brand new person to ask for their unpaid assistance, and you don’t start with “hello”?

        It’s unusual but I can get over that. It’s the rest of the message that gets me. Some people need my help but can’t be arsed to write a halfway decent question. Then it’s my job to figure out what they even need, what they want to achieve, their situation, etc…

        • gus_massa 5 days ago

          >>> If I got an email that was JUST "hello" I'd just ignore it.

          I think I misunderstood this sentence in your previous email. I understood that if the if the email stars with "Hello" instead of "Dear Person" you would ignore it. But reading it again, you are saying that you ignore "empty" emails that only say "Hello".

downboots 6 days ago

"Thanks for the message Here's some things to try: Here's some FAQs: If that doesn't answer your question please try to be more specific and state what you've tried and I'll try to review it. Due to the high volume of requests I can't guarantee I'll get back to it. Thanks for understanding. You can also ask in our community forum: "

sealeck 6 days ago

I would add a notice on the contact section of your website saying "if your email is not written in a proper manner, you are unlikely to receive a response from me" and then list a few examples of emails of the kind you describe that you've received. Then just don't reply.

mmphosis 6 days ago

Kindness, regardless of who “these people” might be. Patience and generosity — thank you for asking, what a great question, I wish could have thought of asking those questions. Yesterday, by the time I had looked up in the manual, the technician had figured it out — they then told me they appreciated the support even though I didn’t provide a solution.

If support is sucking your time and energy, you need to stop. Maybe hand support off to someone else.

  • nicbou 6 days ago

    I'm a single people doing support for free. Most people are a treat to work with, but some emails are stream-of-consciousness one-liners. Others will ask me to Google simple things for them.

    • mmphosis 6 days ago

      I would hand those off to an auto reply bot. Simple repetitive questions get simple repetitive answers.

tedmiston 6 days ago

Ignore or send them Stack Overflow's guidelines for how to ask a good question.

e.g., "I can help you if you provide [this]"

https://stackoverflow.com/help/how-to-ask

Some people ask for help in a low-effort way: (1) out of sheer laziness, while others (2) just don't know better yet. The SO doc is pretty good for (2).

mackatsol 6 days ago

Are Help Vampires related to Attention Vampires? Those folks who message you in chat, “Hi”.

I always wonder how many people they ‘Hi’ at once.

  • Smeevy 6 days ago

    I hate that so very much. There's no problem starting with a salutation, but just hit alt-enter or else I have to wait 5 minutes for you to finish typing out the entirety of "Moby Dick" in chat.

    • djmips 6 days ago

      Why wait? Just keep doing your stuff.

      • Smeevy 4 days ago

        Because the people that do that the most need tend to need something urgently that will make me stop what I'm doing and handle their problem anyway. I'd rather just be interrupted all at once than in dribs and drabs.

  • 202206241203 6 days ago

    I typically just ignore if for 30 minutes. It seems that they do learn eventually!

  • rad_gruchalski 6 days ago

    I usually don’t even reply to those. When I do, it’s simply “Hi” back.

joshxyz 6 days ago

Oh its my time to shine.

I lose my shit on these people if it becomes a too common of occurence. I straight up tell them to google xyz, try xyz. No spoonfeeding. It creates some drama sometimes but hey it moves things forward and really teaches them to fish on their own.

  • joshxyz 6 days ago

    things to learn on their end

    - askign the right questions

    - trying something before asking for help

    - giving all the context i need instead of making me ask for it one by one

rufus_foreman 6 days ago

You're asking how to tell them to fuck off.

The answer is that you tell them to fuck off.

balentio 6 days ago

Put a dollar amount on the help. More potent than garlic.