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Technical Support is Hard

It’s fashionable to criticize the technical support offered by many companies.

And it’s not without good reason. I’ve run into too many instances myself of completely incompetent, incomprehensible, or seemingly robotic technical support.

And yet, after doing Ask Leo! for over a decade, I’ve also developed a lot of sympathy for the folks who are trying to do it right. Ask Leo! affords me a small window onto their world.

There are days where (to put it bluntly) it ain’t pretty.

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Did you reboot your machine?

One of the frustrations that lead me to leaving an ISP some years ago was their insistence that they follow the same technical support scriptevery single time I called. They assumed:

  • Every customer was clueless.
  • Every customer was calling for the first time.
  • Every support technician was incapable of making intelligent decisions.

The result was that every time I called over the same issue, I had to repeat the exact same preliminary steps even though:

  • I had performed those steps before calling.
  • I had performed those steps on each of my previous calls.
  • I could tell the technician that the steps had exactly zero impact on the problem we were diagnosing.
  • The steps had exactly zero impact every time I repeated them.

And that was all above-and-beyond the fact that I knew what I was talking about when I contacted them.

But we had to follow the script. The customer support representative was not much more than a script-reader1 who was unable to deviate from that script.

But … I have sympathy nonetheless.

Here’s the problem: I’m absolutely certain that 90% of the time, the script works.

Yelling at the Phone90% of the time:

  • The customer is not tech savvy.
  • The customer is calling for the first time.
  • The customer has not followed any diagnostic advice already available to them.
  • The support technician doesn’t need to make intelligent decisions and can simply follow a script. Heck, they don’t even need to understand what they’re talking about.

While it’s absolutely frustrating if you’re in the 10%, it makes total sense when viewed as a cost-effective solution to provide support.

And don’t think for a moment that it’s not about cost.

Support is expensive

My feeling is that most folks don’t really understand just how incredibly expensive providing customer support can be.

Providing wages and facilities to people to answer the telephones is expensive. Factoring that into the price of a product can cause a company to price itself out of the competition. We’d like to think that people will pay a premium for a product that includes quality support, but in the consumer market at least, that’s simply not the case. We’re cheap. We want our products cheap.

But we still want quality support.

So companies look for ways to reduce the cost of support. Replacing telephone support with online knowledge bases that a customer can search is one solution. Making front-line staff nothing more than less expensive and less knowledgeable script-reading robots is another. Sending support to lower-cost overseas call centers is still another.

This is how inexpensive products remain inexpensive.

Or in some cases, free.

If they’d just fix the bugs / stop changing / make it simpler…

One common refrain among both software vendors and users is that if they could just make software good enough, it wouldn’t need customer support.

If they’d just fix all the bugs, there’d be no problem. If they’d stop making changes, we wouldn’t be so confused and frustrated. If they would just make everything simpler, we wouldn’t have any questions.

Those are all pipe dreams. Every single one of them.

Believing in these has caused many companies to provide much less support than they should (“Our product is so great you won’t need support”). It’s also caused many users to have completely unrealistic expectations and inordinate amounts of frustration.

  • All software has bugs. Period. Software has become incredibly complex in part because we insist that it do so much (typically proven by what sells and what does not). A company that tries to “fix all bugs” will never ship their product. Every release of every product is a trade-off.
  • Software must change. We keep asking and expecting more and more of our technology, but in a competitive marketplace, any vendor that stops improving their products will simply die. That’s not to say that all improvements make sense. All too often, companies embrace the “we need to change to stay current” idea a little too hard and end up alienating their user base completely. But to insist that products never change is both unrealistic and will result in your favorite, unchanging product to eventually whither away and die.
  • Simple isn’t simple. What’s simple for one person is incredibly complex for another and vice-versa. Some of the things that we expect our computers to do just aren’t simple. While there are definitely improvements that can and should be made to most user interfaces to make them easier, the fact is there is no single solution that would count as “simple” for everyone.

All of this simply leads to two pragmatic results:

  • Companies need to understand that no matter how good they think their product is, customer support needs to be included.
  • Consumers need to realize that part of the “cost” of low-cost software is bearing some of the responsibility as well.

Responsibility? Yes. They need to at least make an attempt to understand the products that they use and to be prepared to help out the customer service reps when they turn to them for assistance.

The thingamajig isn’t working

Lack of information is the bane of my existence.

I can only imagine what telephone and other support people deal with.

It’s completely understandable that the average consumer doesn’t know all of the technical names for every part of or program on their computer. It would help if they understood a few basic ones, but let’s be realistic – most people have better things to do.

But it would be nice if they followed instructions.

Here’s a quote from my own ask-a-question page:

PLEASE be complete. That means the version of any software involved (particularly Windows), the full text of any error messages, the specific make and model of computer (if that’s going to apply), and of course, detailed steps to reproduce the problem you’re seeing.

I’d wager that less than 5% of the questions that I get from people include this information. I’ll say less than 20% include even the version of Windows being asked about.2

This is why telephone scripts insist that you follow certain basic steps before they’ll address your question. This is why most online forums have stock answers that they provide to initial inquiries.

The art of support

The practical reality is that none of this is likely to change.

You hopefully will be a little more complete when you bring a question to technical support and a little more understanding when you’re run through the script for the nth time. But ultimately, massive changes in the technical support landscape will be slow and even then the direction of that change is unclear.

What I do appreciate are support people who get it. They can decipher incomplete and oddly worded text and actually find a solution to the question that was really being asked. They have the knowledge and ability (and permission) to go off script and the experience to know when that’s appropriate. They can understand me and are able to communicate in a way that I can understand.3 They know what they’re talking about and have the smarts to recognize and take action when they don’t.

I’ve also come to appreciate companies that “get it” and not only insist on high-caliber support representatives (because they do represent the company to the public), but then trust them to do the right thing.

But I’ve also come to appreciate those folks who, when asking for help, “get it” as well. These are the people who follow instructions, make their best-effort to find answers and resolve issue on their own, and just generally show that they’re taking some responsibility for ultimately helping me to help them.

Even if that’s just including the version of Windows in their question.

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Footnotes & references

1: Actually, they served as an interface to what’s called an “expert system” – an ironically named set of questions and next-steps based on the answers to each question in the system.

2: Honestly, the one that stops me from answering most often is “full text of error messages.” “It said something about …” just doesn’t convey the information that’s needed.

3: I don’t mean to drag in off-shore technical support here, but it’s an obvious topic. I don’t care where the support person is. I care that we can understand each other and that he or she can help. One of my favorite related stories was an airline support person some years ago who was clearly overseas, but was able to help me solve a very important and pressing problem quickly and clearly.

27 comments on “Technical Support is Hard”

  1. Overseas support can be useful. I do object to the facade of pretending they are in the US. When the tech guy is in India, why make him work in the middle of his night so that tech support hours match US work hours? I would love to be able to get tech support during my night and their day without having to use my lunch hour.

  2. Thanks for the laugh in the first sentence!! Is it uncomfortable in that giant piece of bread, or did you mean:

    “I was thinking about it the other day and realized that Ask Leo! places me in the role of technical support engineer. “?

    Other than that, I found your article very accurate and hopefully enlightening to your readers.

  3. I judge a company to a large degree for its tech support
    As a teacher and user, I want 24/7, offering both Chat and phone–neither just script readers
    I want faster service at 5 am than 5 pm–and a lot!
    I want support I can clearly understand enunciation
    I want to be asked if I want a Service # so if needed, tech support can pull up my file–often I do NOT need this, but at rare times I do, because a solution may require me to disconnect to do what is suggested
    Something NO company does is when I enter my ZIP Code this automatically fills in city and state–Hey, go a step farther, so when I enter my 9 digit ZIP Code, even my address is filled in
    Maybe even more radical (apparently), why not when I log in, the company already knows this, wow!
    Post common solutions with UPDATED YouTubes
    Senior Execs at a company: go into your site as a regular user–imagine how much better Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc., if the big shots went into their sites as regular users? Imagine how much better M$ could be if Bill Gates went into a M$ site as John Doe and could not summon the head programmer of Windows on Christmas Eve to drop by to solve a little problem?

    The company ought to toot its horn that a certain percentage of maybe the higher cost of the product is based upon the above–damn it, brag you offer the best Customer Service, and NOT Customer No Service

    • Keep in mind that all that you are asking for costs a business a lot of money. We have to give the smaller folks a break and not expect everyone to have the resources of the huge companies. Sometimes just the fact that they are friendly and helpful should be enough.

    • All good ideas. Now… all you have to do is pay (about) triple for any software product you buy. Possibly purchase a subscription based tech-support package too.

    • Just a quibble, but a serious but of misinformation here — Xyzzyva57 (BTW, nice username, I know its derivation!), except in a few rare instances, the extra four digits in a 9-digit ZIP code do not convey one’s “exact address,” only a more narrow grouping of addresses (including yours). A much closer approach to what you are suggesting, is the use of Caller ID to recognize previous and/or regular callers; some businesses already do this (you’ll know you’ve met one of these, when the service rep greets you by name when he first picks up the call, and before YOU have had any opportunity to utter so much as a single syllable).

      And, I actually have encountered customer service systems which provided me with a “reference number,” which links (presumably) to a file listing all previous steps taken, so that calling back does not require one to start all over again from the very beginning!

      I’m sure both of these conveniences are hellishly expensive; don’t expect to encounter them very often — and be sure to appreciate them when you do!

      • Oops forgot to add that as to company bigwigs examining the operations of their companies as Average Joes — well, that sometimes happens, too! Ever watch the television series, “Undercover Boss”…??? :)

      • I don’t know exactly how 9 digit Zipcodes work but when they were introduced a work colleague poster a letter to herself with only her name and 9 digit Zipcode and she received it the next day. It’s possible that Zipcode included more than her building and the postman knew where to deliver it but 9 digit Zipcodes get pretty close.

        • It’s as he said — it’s just a smaller geographic region. Depending on the density a nine digit zip might reference one address, or a handful. For example in my case we live on just under five acres, so the nine-digit zip is indeed enough to ID our house. If this were a dense apartment building, probably not so much.

          • That’s what I assumed. I’m sure everyone in her apartment had the same 9 digit Zipcode. I assumed that it identifies each building or street address. When I checked it out, I found it represents a block of houses.

  4. Great article as usual Leo! I’m kind of a novice and have trouble following the helpers’ instructions to fix the problems. My loss… What I did learn early on was to give ALL info on OS, etc.
    TO THOMAS: I’m curious as to what it is you found in Leo’s first sentence (having to do with bread???) I compared his, and what you say you thought it was, and saw no difference whatsoever. Will appreciate satisfying my curiosity… :o)

  5. Whilst I’m obviously not as computer savvy as Leo, I am nevertheless a lot more computer savvy than any of my friends or family. But now and again, I do still need to contact a support technician either by phone, by email or by filling in an online form. But surprisingly quite a few online forms fail to even ask which OS you’re using let alone any of the finer details, whilst others ask you to fill in an exhaustive list of system properties, which can take ages to complete! In my opinion, it would be far easier if they either allowed you to upload a system information report or if they invited you to run a system information tool of theirs, as this would ensure that they receive correct and full system info.

    As for phone or email support requests, it would be useful if companies listed the system information you should supply in advance:-) Because I’m sure that even I have failed to state which OS I’m running occasionally!

  6. This is what happened to me:
    How to Wreck a New Computer, just call COMPAQ Tech Support!
    Back when Microsoft’s “SP-1 Update for Windows XP” was new…
    I bought a new Compaq computer, but two months later it went back to Costco (At that time they would accept computers back for up to 6 months)
    I had the computer for a month and had installed all the programs I wanted on it by then. While talking to Customer Support on another issue, I mention that I can not register the computer using the telephone modem connection. I had Cable Internet, but at that time, most programs, as well as Windows XP, would not recognize the Cable Internet connection, so instead the telephone modem would attempt to dial out to register the computer, but it had successfully dialed out to register some of my other programs. The Compaq Tech Support had me do a “non-destructive recovery” repair for this ONE TIME only problem.
    Then after the “non-destructive recovery” repair is all done, and Windows is starting to load in, the computer is asking for this special patch file. It would NOT continue loading at all, with out the patch file.
    Back on the phone again, I learned from an American Tech agent that the Compaq needed a special file to patch between the Microsoft ‘SP-1 Update’ and the Compaq Operating System. (SP-1 was fairly new at the time) but he gave me totally elaborate and confusing directions to the proper website. Then I could not get another American Tech support agent on the phone, it then took 30 DAYS of hassling on the phone with their total idiot East Indian tech support agents.
    I was told, “You must be downloading SP-1 from the Windows Update website.” I tell them, “I already have SP-1; I need a patch between SP-1 and the COMPAQ operating system!” They again tell me, “You must be downloading SP-1 from the Windows Update website.” Then “If you are not doing what we are telling you to do, there is nothing we can do to help you. You must be downloading SP-1 from the Windows Update web site.”
    One idiot Tech AND his supervisor, both East Indians, living in India, insisted I had to have a Dial-up Internet Service Provider …just to dial out! — More of the benefits of “outsourcing”!
    I had told them that I have Cable Internet! The phone modem was properly hooked up to the phone line, and had registered other programs by phone; this is similar to the sending of a fax.
    One entire month goes by of many more horror stories like this, then I finally get an American Tech agent and I am told that I should have installed the patch PRIOR to doing the “non-destruct recovery” He admitted that the first tech messed up in not having me do this first.

    After I finally get directed to the proper website that I needed to go to (on another computer of course, the new Compaq has been a “large paper weight” for a month.) that will get me the patch. It turns out after I try to install it, the computer tells me: this is the WRONG PATCH!
    Back on the phone AGAIN! That is when find out no patch is available for this particular computer model.
    So now the only option I was given was to do a Totally-Destructive-Recovery (T-D-R) (back to the “fresh out-of-the-box state”). This means: No Other Programs. All those programs I had JUST installed would be GONE! All of my saved E-mail correspondence and all my saved files would be gone!
    So I finally told Compaq, that I would not do a T-D-R. Because with out them having this patch file available, if I ever needed to do a Recovery AGAIN, it would be once again: “T-D-R – fresh out-of-the-box”.
    Then you have all the hassles of reloading all of those other programs. AGAIN! So I told the Tech Supervisor that after all the hassle they put me through; they would have to send me another, BETTER computer, one with the patch available. But they would not go for that, at all, and they insisted that my ONLY option was to do the T-D-R. I told him about buying the computer from Costco and that I could return it posthaste.
    The Tech Supervisor INSISTED that I must do the T-D-R and that I would not be able to return the computer.
    So I asked the Tech Supervisor, “Can you say, ‘Dude, Your Getting a Dell!!’?”
    BTW: This was (originally) typed on the new DELL.

    Since then, Compaq was purchased by Hewlett Packard… nothing has changed.
    In May of 2010, I bought a HP printer, after I brought it home I noticed that there was a note on the box that said, “Some features may not be available with Windows 7”. I called HP and got back to some of their “highly knowledgeable and competent” East Indian Tech Support agents, to ask about: “What features will be unavailable with Windows 7?” Four phone calls later, and after a lot of listening to some crappy music on hold for 55 minutes on just one of those calls, I was no more knowledgeable about my question than when I first read the note.
    One memorable statement that I was told, “Never mind what the box says, you are installing the printer, not the box!”

    The HP Printer went back to the store …unopened.

    • You wrote:

      One memorable statement that I was told [was], “Never mind what the box says, you are installing the printer, not the box!”

      Despite your teeth-gritting frustration (which I really do appreciate, BTW), I think you’ll have to admit that that was one pretty snappy reply (even if a stupid one)!

  7. I would like to point out that, back in ye olden days, software generally came with actual *manuals* that typically provided very thorough “getting started” instructions/tutorials, as well as technical details for the advanced user. Sure, you might need a third-party book if you wanted true mastery of the software, but the software itself included one or more books that got you up to speed on at least 80% of the tasks you wanted to perform. I still have some of the huge books that came with packages like Quattro Pro, Turbo Pascal, Turbo C++, Wordperfect 5.0/5.1; even the operating systems (DOS, and every version of Windows prior to 95) came with thick printed manuals.

    The point at which software companies decided that those books weren’t cost-effective is the point at which the extra-added need for technical support hotlines became inevitable.

    And before somebody insists on pointing out that a lot of those “manuals” have switched to online… well, only in name in most cases. You see, once you reduce your documentation to a bunch of disconnected blurbs on a website, with no effort to create a unified learning path for a user to follow, you’ve eliminated the cohesive bundle of learning that a book encapsulates. It’s like expecting a student to study history by reading random historical entries in an encyclopedia rather than following a programmed course of learning.

    • Amen! I have a new system and desktop – Windows 7 and have been using Windows XP for 12 years. You would think that the transition would be fairly easy … Not! Online help files and chat rooms do not make a good replacement for a written book “for Dummies” . I would be willing to pay extra for and having an included “disc” to restore my new system to delivered status as well as a manual as to how the program is configured and works. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. It should be available to the person purchasing the system – and not just on an e-format, but as an actual paperback and included restore CD.
      Note: My system came with a CD to restore drivers, but no explanation as to what , if any, was included. Further, if the system doesn’t respond, how do you get on line help? Everything is on the system to fix your problem, and I have waterfront property in Arizona for sale.

  8. Here’s a transcription of my latest encounter with a script-kid.
    “My power microswitch on the my tablet is not working. When off, I can’t turn it on via the switch, only by plugging it in. When on, I can’t turn it off via the power switch, only by using apps or the home screen that time out and power the tablet off automatically. The battery is fully charged”
    (not only verbally, but in the written description filled out beforehand in the support screen).
    “Have you tried plugging it into other outlets?”
    “It charges just fine. It is fully charged. The problem is the power switch. How would other outlets help?”
    “Try a hard reboot by holding down the power switch for 15-20 seconds and releasing it.”
    “The power switch is NOT WORKING! How is that going to help? But I will humor you….. Gee, it didn’t help, what a surprise.”
    Try reading and understanding the whole problem, not just searching for keywords like ‘won’t turn on’ in your knowledge base. Any fool can do that, and ONLY a fool would think that would help in this case.
    Now, I will entertain the possibility there can be software/firmware component to reading the power switch, and that the switch actually works just fine, but trying to access a reboot through that very same switch rather than a different reset button, or system setting accessible via the touchscreen isn’t very likely to work in that case, is it?

    I sure hope the actual repair people i am shipping this back to have a bit more cluefulness…

    (incidentally, my title for several decades was “support engineer” Our company decided that we computer programmers should not only write our software, but also be the front line for customer support (this was primarily a cost-cutting move, as a large percentage of the time, the non-technical account managers had to elevate the problem to us, anyhow). It worked out quite well. We could dispatch the easy problems quickly, and fix actual bugs in the software and give them a new version. Because we UNDERSTOOD the system, from a technical standpoint, and didn’t have scripts to follow. I appreciate when I get a technical person when calling support, because I can let them know that I have already tried the obvious stuff before I called, and they don’t have to have me go through all the steps again)

  9. This is kind of old, but I’d still like to voice my thoughts.

    Reading Michael’s post reminded me of some of the inane error messages I’ve seen. Such as “Keyboard not found. Press F1 to continue,” or “CD drive not found. Put OS disc in drive and press Continue.” One of my favorites(?) is to say I got a blank page, and being asked to send a screen shot of it.

    Most of my complaints against Customer Service people fall into three categories.
    1) They don’t know how to handle technical information when it’s given. It’s not in their script, so they don’t know what to do with it. For example, I had a problem with my ISP not being able to access numerous sites. I used ping and tracert to isolate where the problem was in their system. Even after relaying this information, I was told to use a different browser reboot the modem, and a lot of other ineffective actions that I’d either already tried or eliminated through troubleshooting. Finally, one rep asked me to send the information via e-mail, which I did. Although the rep did not understand anything of what I sent, she forwarded it to the Tech Team. The problem, which had existed for over a month, was corrected in two days.
    2) The second relates to e-mail support – they don’t read what is sent. “Cut-and-paste” responses are sent even though they have nothing to do with the complaint. Sometimes these are even self-contradictory – saying something can’t be done, but telling me to do it anyway. When I complain about the response, they just send me another copy of it. It’s like they think if they send the same response often enough, it will fix the problem.
    3) Customer Service reps don’t know how to escalate a problem or ask for supervisor help. For one case I had been complaining about a problem for over two months. Finally a supervisor got involved. The problem was quickly resolved, and I received a personal apology. The supervisor included that my case would be included in the training program on how NOT to handle problems.

    In my experience, most Customer Service reps are completely unfamiliar with the site/product. Since they don’t know how the item is supposed to work, they can’t really understand what may be wrong with it. I had one rep say he couldn’t open a ticket about a broken link because the problem was with the other site. I would have to find out who had the other site and report the problem to them.

    I know customers can be a real pain, too. Although I haven’t worked in Customer Service, I did help customers from another capacity. I worked the graveyard shift, and had to handle all the complaints registered when the Customer Service reps weren’t there. Even when they were there, I was often called upon to handle the most obnoxious and unreasonable customers.

    Maybe a less expensive help would be to include having the Customer Service reps role-play as customers in the training program. Or, as a minimum, have the supervisory staff call their Customer Service to see the quality of help being provided. This wouldn’t cost the company anything, but could result in much improved service to the customers.

    • Does it occur to you that customers can be just as “klewless”?

      I’ve read many a (alleged) transcript of support-customer interactions; of course, those posting them only provide the “worst-of-the-worst,” but even so, many were quite a hoot!

      I remember one, in which the customer called because his computer wasn’t working. As part of the initial troubleshooting (BTW, I’ve always been amused by that word — with what kind and caliber of gun, do you “shoot trouble”?), the service rep asks the customer to check that the computer is plugged in. The conversation went something like this:

      CUSTOMER: “I can’t see to check the plug; the light is out.”
      REP: “Well, turn the light on.”
      C: “I can’t.”
      R: “Why not?”
      C: “Because we’ve got a power failure.”
      R: “You’ve got —!”
      (Silence for about five seconds.)
      R: “O.K. Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to pack up the computer, and return it to the store.”
      C: (Dismayed) “Oh, bother, REALLY? It’s that bad?!”
      R: “Oh yes, I’m afraid it IS that bad.”
      C: (Pause.) “Well, what should I tell them?”
      R: “Tell them you’re too stupid to use a computer.”
      (Dial tone…)

      • I tend to believe that that particular scenario is fiction. It’s funny because it’s very close to the truth. I can imagine some users being that clueless but any help desk operator would be fired for saying, “Tell them you’re too stupid to use a computer.”

        I know you agree because you said “alleged”.


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