Support staff feel unappreciated and unloved. Tom Peck hears their tales of woe

The venue where the King's warhorses once rampaged across the floor, where Led Zeppelin almost took the roof off and where Beyoncé dazzled Giorgio Armani has this week been thumping with a rather less exultant sound: the mouse clicks and keyboard taps of Britain's largest IT support show.

London's Earls Court arena, the rafters of which are more familiar with the reverberations of Bono and The Edge, has this week witnessed lectures on a range of topics, from "Autonomics and Self Managing Systems" to "Rationalising the Software License Landscape".

But for the 5,000 attendees of the Service Desk and IT Support Show, this is the equivalent of rock'n'roll. Wandering wide-eyed between the displays, many appear to have even grown ponytails for the occasion, perhaps to make up for the lack of women. That they are cooped up in a windowless exhibition centre as the unlikely April sunshine continues to beat down doesn't seem to bother them. "People actually take holiday from work and pay their own way to get here," said Robert Beswick, from the Service Desk Institute. "Plus, it gets them out of the office."

"I look forward to it all year," said Howard Burton, an IT support guru for RM Education, IT equipment providers for thousands of schools. "Meeting people, going to the lectures. You'll think I'm really boring, but there's some fascinating software around for keeping track of the locations of laptops, projectors and whiteboards."

"It's the big event of the year," said Justin Scott, 28, who is the head of the service desk for a national kitchen retailer. "The breakfast briefings, the hot-topic round tables. It's a chance to discuss the big issues in the service desk world with similar people."

And who can blame them? The Service Desk Institute (SDI) estimates there are 18,000 IT support desks in the UK, from individuals to 300-strong teams. As the nation's go-to people for lost documents and frozen computer screens, they've come in for more than their fair share of flak at the hands of exasperated office workers. "You only get bad press. You only get negative feedback," said Mr Burton. "No one calls up to say 'Hi, I'm having a great day. Everything's working just great'."

"A lot of what people say to you is unprintable," said Howard Kendall, chairman of the SDI, and a leading figure in the service desk world for more than 30 years. "They eff and blind a lot. You have to let the customer vent." This is rule number one of the service desk club.

"They are just venting, you don't take it personally," said Nalini Patel, senior service desk analyst at the University of Wolverhampton. "Let the user vent," said Mr Scott. He added: "Someone rang our desk once who was at home, and couldn't get his Hoover to work. He said, 'Someone there must know how I get this thing working again.' The analyst had to apologise and say 'Sorry, my Mrs deals with the Hoover, not me'."

Warming to his topic, he adds: "We do IT support for a national kitchen retailer. They'll ring the service desk saying they've run out of door handles and can we send some more. When we say no they get angry.

"Once someone thought they'd put the phone down and they hadn't. I could hear him berating us for 10 minutes. One guy rang up saying 'I've just been logged in working in the other building over the road. Now I'm back at my own PC and nothing will work.' It took us five minutes to ascertain there'd been a power cut."

With half of the country's IT support converging on west London, it would not be a good day, you would think, to forget your password, but Mr Scott's reaction is reassuring. "Don't worry, I've got my phone with me. I get a text message every time someone logs a complaint. I can access everything remotely, it's fine."

Many people are here to see the latest developments in helpdesk management software. The systems that are meant to ensure that when the latest person calls up angry about another problem, something gets done about it. Since much of this work is disappearing to India and elsewhere in the world, it is in the interests of both its users and developers to make it appear as complex as possible. Brightly coloured pie charts and bar graphs are the order of the day, and they are big on the words "soft" and "solutions".

Global Technology Solutions Ltd attempt to lure in the crowds with a cardboard cut-out of a scantily clad nurse, but it is the only stand that is deserted. Next door at IPSoft, promises of "Autonomic IT Management" are evidently more alluring.

The endgame of the autonomic systems they and others are boasting about is that your computer can see your cock-ups coming and solve them in advance. Impressive stuff, but pity your colleagues when there is no one to vent your rage at waiting at the end of the telephone.

In the meantime, a little courtesy appears to go a long way. "Rarely, very rarely, but sometimes, you'll get an email saying, 'Thanks very much'," said Mr Kendall. "It's those moments that make it all worthwhile."

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