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Optimizing tech support

By wfaulk in Op-Ed
Sat Jun 16, 2001 at 03:03:58 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Most of us have called tech support at one time or another, and few of us are happy with it on a regular basis. What can be done to optimize support for both the technical and non-technical among us?

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comments (24)
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Tech support is constantly a source of amusement and bemusement for the technically adept groups, and a constant source of frustration for everyone. In order to make it work better, though, we must first define what exactly it is that is wrong.

The most overarching problem is that most companies simply don't care to make their tech support any better. Few people research how well tech support handles issues before purchasing a consumer item, and companies know it. If improving tech support does not increase revenue, there is no reason for a company to do it.

Another of the prime problems is inexperienced support technicians, the ones that know nothing more than the basic troubleshooting steps that are explained to them on their first day of training. The problem here is lack of training on the support side. This is a problem in all service industries these days, as companies feel that they don't have the resources to spend extra man-hours teaching the new employee how to do his job, because that will just pull more already competent employees away from their jobs, or at least slow them down. Of course, it's much more prevalent in the tech support industry, because, usually, tech support staffs do not generate any direct revenue for the company. It would be useful to have these new technicians listen in on the support calls handled by competent technicians and after a day or two, start to handle calls on their own while the competent technician listens in. But that probably won't happen, as there's not really any way that we, the consumer, can force tech support groups to do anything.

Many people also complain about inappropriate levels of support. Sometimes you might hear someone complain about a support technician being too technical, but it's much more common to hear him complain that the tech is taking him through steps that either have already been done or obviously have no relation to the problem at hand. In these cases, the person that requires support already knows more about the product than the person attempting to provide support does. In these cases, the support call is usually forwarded to a technician that works in a higher level group. These technicians, though, usually refuse to talk to customers, and that is often enforced by their company's policy. This creates a number of problems, beginning with trying to filter questions and answers through the lower level technician who has no idea what is being talked about. This simulates the children's game of telephone, where messages get further and further corrupted by repetition, paraphrasing, and summarization. A further problem is that it can easily take days or weeks to pass even the most simple messages and troubleshooting steps back and forth. Some people have suggested that there somehow be a way to prove one's technical prowess to the support staff in order to get an appropriate level of support, but that's a system that can easily be abused.

This is not to dismiss over-technical attempts at support, though. While more infrequent, they do exist, especially amongst the least technical of us. It can be very easy to confuse a person who thinks of their computer as an appliance instead of a tool. Unfortunately, this almost always has to do with the technician being unable or unwilling to dumb himself down in order to get a point across to the customer. Sometimes he may even be unaware that that is the problem. And even more unfortunately, the tech may often be of the novitiate sort and be self-aggrandizing when he finds someone he knows more than.

The final insult in tech support is for a problem to go unanswered. This doesn't happen often, because then there is often a direct recourse by the consumer that the company can feel, usually demanding a refund for the product. But it can happen from time to time that the company won't accept a return directly and the retailer's return period has expired, and probably in some other cases as well.

I am sure that there are more types of bad technical support, but I believe that these examples are the majority, and they all point to one major problem in the tech support industry — the lack of independent accountability. If the tech support center is unable to provide quality support, it seldom affects the bottom line of the company that they work for, as the product has already been purchased and the company given their money. Given that most consumers don't, as already stated, examine the tech support reputation for a product, at least for consumer products, only the most egregious examples of bad tech support reach the ears of consumers, keeping companies with mediocre to bad support on the same level as those with good support.

So how can tech support be changed to make it more accountable? An obvious answer is for a tech support guarantee to be provided. But, given that companies are on the same level now, why would one provide such a guarantee? Maybe consumer force could get an already good support provider to start such a program. But that would only increase the company's liability. Another possibility is for all tech support to be provided at a charge, making the tech support generate revenue and, hopefully, encouraging the company to make it better. There's not really any reason to expect a company to explain how to use a product once you've acquired it, only to fix it if something goes wrong. Automobile manufacturers, for example, don't provide driving lessons for their customers. But consumers would not like that, as that's just not what they're used to. In addition, the company has already gotten their initial payment, and making tech support good would only reduce the profits from the tech support, and you're back to having to research tech support before purchasing. Perhaps the payment for tech support services should come from the manufacturer, by paying an external company to provide tech support for their products. But then you can easily have a contracted company provide worse support for a better price to the company, and you're right back where you started. Companies could charge for support but discount money for every hour that the customer waits for a solution. Again, though, getting consumers to pay for support would be difficult. Plus, it penalizes the less technical consumer for asking simpler questions. Then there's the possibility of completely independent tech support providers, but now you've combined both paying for tech support and doing more research. This might not be a bad option for the more technical people, though, without penalizing the non-technical. It might also be possible to construct a database that houses reviews of tech support for various companies. This is probably the most attainable solution mentioned, but it still requires that people remember to do their research before purchasing, but it could make that research much easier.

None of these solutions seem to be adequate, but there needs to be something done to provide better support for products. Maybe it's just a function of the lack of quality in service industries in general these days, but bad tech support is something that's been going on for quite some time, and it shows no signs of getting better.


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o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


How should tech support be improved?
o Better technician training 21%
o Better customer to technician matching 26%
o Tech support guarantees 2%
o Easily researchable support quality 0%
o Third-party tech support 4%
o Immediate replacement policies 4%
o Funny answer about your mad tech kung fu 39%

Votes: 41
Results | Other Polls

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o Also by wfaulk

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Optimizing tech support | 25 comments (15 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
Tech Support. (4.50 / 4) (#3)
by DeadBaby on Fri Jun 15, 2001 at 06:37:55 PM EST

I find tech support commonly very helpful. If you call up, presenting yourself as the average user who, in all likely hood, can be helped with basic troubleshooting tips you'll be unhappy. Normally I just find out what the problem is, let the tech rep know that I understand the issue at an advanced level and they can handle it accordingly. If the issue is above their heads, I'm perfectly happy talking to someone else.

Tech support is fine. These people aren't trained programmers or engineers, they're tech support reps. They can't perform acts of magic over the phone. No one should expect that of them.

"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us." - Carl Sagan
Tech Support (none / 0) (#18)
by aakin on Mon Jun 18, 2001 at 11:31:27 AM EST

Exactly. From what I have noticed, once a tech support person gets comfortable with the issues they have to solve, they are qualified enough to move on to better jobs that pay more. Tech support is the starting position for most people... once they get skilled, they move out of such entry level jobs. I think that is why most companies don't put their support techs through extensive training... if they did that, the techs would start looking for a better job. - Aakin

[ Parent ]
[burnt-out tech supporter comment] (4.33 / 3) (#4)
by Anonymous Commando on Fri Jun 15, 2001 at 06:54:52 PM EST

[disclaimer regarding following rant]

<rant>[rant about stupid users with unrealistic expectations created by clueless marketing department and unrealistic release dates forced upon an understaffed, underfunded development team]</rant>

[gratuitous link to "No, I will not fix your computer" t-shirt at ThinkGeek, which yours truly will never actually order due to high shipping cost to Canada]

[sudden realization this style of joke is way overdone on K5 lately, and may not be viewed as humorous]

[realization that yours truly is rambling needlessly and drifting off-topic]

[abrupt end to post leaving many thoughts unfinished]
Corporate Jenga™: You take a blockhead from the bottom and you put him on top...

Career (5.00 / 3) (#12)
by fluffy grue on Fri Jun 15, 2001 at 09:53:31 PM EST

You (apparently) used to work in tech support. Thus, fixing computers was, at one time anyway, your career. It makes sense to ask you to help fix computers.

I am a computer science grad student. I hate computers (but I enjoy programming and the thought processes behind computation). I have never been trained in tech support. And yet this is a conversation I have far too often:

"And what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a grad student."

"Oh, in what?"

"Computer science."

"Oh, could you help me fix my computer? It's always telling me I'm doing an illegal operation."

Believe it or not, but computer science has very little to do with computers. Unfortunately, I try explaining this to people. I say, "No, but I could help you write a recursive-descent parser or prove the correctness of an algorithm." Then they stare at me blankly, and then say, "That went totally over my head."

As Darren Bleuel once put it (when I was bitching about this on his webcomic's messageboard), asking a computer scientist to help fix a computer is like asking a physicist to help fix a bridge.

It doesn't help that they're always asking about issues with Windows that I wouldn't be able to help with, and even if I could, I don't even know Windows very well. "Oh, you're a Mac user?" comes the next question. Then I explain that no, I use UNIX, which is the operating system of choice in academic circles, being very cleanly and academically-designed overall, and then they just stare at me blankly some more and ask, "So why can't you fix my computer? I mean, don't you have a degree in computers?"


Just thought I'd point out that things could be worse.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Actually.... (none / 0) (#19)
by Anonymous Commando on Mon Jun 18, 2001 at 11:47:07 AM EST

I have a 4-year B. Sc. majoring in Comp. Sci., but jobs were pretty tight locally when I graduated (and I didn't want to move), so I went to work for a local ISP for a while. Got to do tech support, web design, programming, system administration... all sorts of fun stuff (it was a small ISP - for the first year or so, I was the only full-time employee). The one part of the job that I grew to hate was handling phone tech support. It wasn't bad until some users began to call me at home for help (which convinced me to subscribe to caller-ID)...

Today my job title is "IS Manager" with another small company, but my duties still include system administration, database work, web design for our corporate web sites, and... tech support for our community ISP (non-profit volunteer group formed under Industry Canada's Community Access Program). I still have caller-ID, I still get calls at home in the evening on occasion...

If you happen to know a doctor socially, I dare you to ask them (outside the office) for medical advise, or even "Does this rash look weird to you?" Chances are you'll piss them off. Same thing with me - let me leave my work at the office, and let me enjoy my down time without some nimrod asking me why Internet Explorer keeps crashing...

Oh wait, there's my phone ringing now... I gotta go...

[grumpy old man mumbling]
Corporate Jenga™: You take a blockhead from the bottom and you put him on top...
[ Parent ]

True (none / 0) (#21)
by fluffy grue on Mon Jun 18, 2001 at 07:27:54 PM EST

Asking for help outside of work is still a faux pas (though apparently people do ask doctors on their time off if they could get some medical treatment etc.etc.), but it's not as annoying, IMO, as asking someone for unpaid help on a career they have nothing to do with...
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Some ideas (4.00 / 2) (#10)
by slaytanic killer on Fri Jun 15, 2001 at 09:30:25 PM EST

When the frontal attack doesn't work well, the preemtives might. I was curious for the longest time why companies such as Dell didn't ship videos to customers, until they actually did. I'm surprised other companies don't search for good film teams and writers for documentation contracts. Humans are expensive, so it's best to reduce this cost through one-time deals. I personally am curious how much Dell saves through such things.

Web support also scales well, but losing one's link to the net is too simple. When there are pervasive consumer connections to the net, companies will be able to suddenly reap huge efficiencies for tech support.

I'm pretty tired, so I'll just note that trying to find extra efficiencies in tech support itself is probably pointless. Higher morale will get you places, with your smartest support people gaining experience and lower turnover... But tech support must be combined with other things, otherwise it's just an endless cycle. Too bad companies such as Dell don't have complete control over the user environment as Apple does.

Great Humor Link (5.00 / 3) (#15)
by Sikpup on Sat Jun 16, 2001 at 01:32:17 AM EST

I've posted this one before, but it still kills me. The link opens up a quicktime movie:

Welcome to the Internet Help Desk

anyone who has ever worked in tech support will laugh themselves to death...

The concept that Training Fixes All (4.75 / 4) (#16)
by Rendus on Sat Jun 16, 2001 at 04:33:48 AM EST

I currently do tech support for a rather large cable modem access provider, and before that I was a Product Specialist for **ll

Anyway, I've always found it amusing that people think training will fix everything. The training is fine, it's the people that are being hired for what ammounts to a minimum wage job as far as the tech industry goes (I make $11/hour in my current position, when I left my PS position I made $10.30/hour after a year and a raise due to the promotion).

Think of tech support as the fast food of the tech industry. For many, it's just a start (I certainly don't believe I should be doing tech support, but having no certs and no work history, there's not a whole lot else to do to get started), but for most it's what will pay the bills for years to come (in their eyes. The fact they'll probably leave within 6 months doesn't hit them until after the fact). They're not career techs. They're not enthusiasts. You'd be suprised how many of my coworkers don't own their own computers, and wonder what this Lienuxe (actual spelling of Linux from a call log) thing is. They don't have any experience, so they don't understand the theory behind the practice (such as DHCP won't work if your NIC drivers aren't installed. They just know they were told to check Device Manager if they're getting a 169.* IP).

The problem with the "train them better" mentality is you can't pound theory into someone's head when they're having a hard time keeping track of the difference between ping and traceroute. Yeah, you can extend training to give more time to pick up theory, but in the end, it doesn't matter as only a few will retain it, and they'll discover it on the floor on their own anyway.

What I'd like to see is more specific support departments. My current employer has the "Front Line", which I'm a member of, where we handle anything considered "soft", or clientside. Modem won't sync, we'll send a "tech". Link light off, we step you through reseating the CAT5. Anything beyond that is beyond the grasp of most of the people at this level, and off you go to Tier 2, Level 2, a Product Specialist, or whatever.

The problem is, for us who understand exactly what's going on, or have a good idea anyway, we have to bite the bullet and tell you we're sending you off to someone else. We may even be more qualified than the Tier 2 tech you'll talk to, but we're not allowed to use the tools to fix your problem. You call in because your mail server is giving you a "Mailbox Locked" error, but you can see it using the web tools. Ok, that's easy enough, there's a lockfile that wasn't deleted when you last got your mail (just an example, anyway. This is one where we could fix it ourselves in 5 seconds, but we have to "Send you up" for them to click on "Remove Lockfile"). It's this sort of thing that makes it seem like ALL Level 1 techs are inept, and the Cream of the Crop was promoted to Level 2. In the end, Level 2 is probably almost exactly like Level 1, but with better tools or more information.

In the end, often it's not what the tech rep you get on the phone knows or doesn't, but what they have access to or don't. There are plenty of times where I get a call on a known issue (Tech Support Rule #1: There are no known issues), but the document is labeled Properietary and Confidential.

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't know a resolution to that problem at the moment."

"Is this a common problem?"

-bites tongue because I've taken 14 calls today about the problem- "No, not that I've seen. Perhaps Tier 2 has, though. Would you like me to transfer you?"

"Yeah, go ahead and transfer me. They probably have better information or something."

Even if the tech rep didn't understand the document themselves, they could probably at least relay the gist of it to a customer if the customer may understand it and be able to act. Or the tech could get a supervisor or more experienced tech to interpret and filter. But such nicities are reserved for those who are worthy.

I'm pretty sure someone will counter with why Management sees these policies as necessary. I could extend this post with the counterpoints that Management makes (I've been in their position as a PS myself), but I think this post is already too long.

My point, for those of you skimming, is for the most part, what "level 1" techs can do for you isn't just a limitation of the tech's ability, but rather of what they're told they're able to do.


-edit- (none / 0) (#17)
by Rendus on Sat Jun 16, 2001 at 04:36:25 AM EST

-Sigh- Preview, then post.

Whenever my thought process seem to derail, please throw in a "And then there's the...". It should make slightly more sense that way.

[ Parent ]
A good tech support system (none / 0) (#20)
by simon farnz on Mon Jun 18, 2001 at 01:19:21 PM EST

A certain company here in the UK (which has other problems BTW) has set its tech support system up in a very customer friendly fashion.

The first line of contact can take you through the basics (is it switched on, plugged in etc.). They can also give you a direct line for their second line of contact.

The second line of contact is aware of network problems, and can identify known problems, or help you determine where the issue lies.

The third and final line of contact can only be reached through the second line; they are aware of the details of the product and use you to diagnose faults.

This system works well, as experienced techies bypass the obvious solutions, and go straight to the interesting area, while less knowledgable <sic> people get a more basic level of help.
If guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns

me, doing tech support (none / 0) (#22)
by genux on Tue Jun 19, 2001 at 09:19:10 AM EST

I currently work at an ISP and i provide tech support. Although you can optimize the techers, first look at the managers. They are too blame for lots of things, trust me.

Second, the people that do tech support do it for a) the money (only "descent" -18 job) or b) only job they coud get, they had a year of MS-Word so they think they are qualified or c) well there is no c.

My company has a fairly good outlined tech support policy. First we get trained (if nessecary), then we listen in for a day en then we begin with someone listening in on us. After a few weeks you get Quality Monotoring, meaning that your Team Coordinator will listen in on you to see if they could improve your skills. Now we even got a department that mails people if they are happy with the support and if they want to see anything improved. That does seem like the necessary steps for "good" tech support?

Well saidly it doesn't, half of the staff is imcompent, a quarter is frustrated why they don't get a better job and the other quarter is hired because we were short on tech support people. That doesn't mean we deliver good support, but there isn't much motivation. Also our manager wants (even) better stats while a) we can't deliver our DSL service properly (the cause is Belgacom-> like BT/AT&T but in Belgium) and b) we are not with enough people.

Honoustly, they may seem that i am frustrated, i'm not, but i don't know the solution either. I'll just be glad when i can find a "real" job.

What you do is insignificant, but it's important that you do it...
Tech support. (none / 0) (#23)
by Alarmist on Tue Jun 19, 2001 at 11:13:17 AM EST

I'm doing tech support (in addition to other duties) now, and at the job before this, most of what I did was tech support.

The average TS person is an hourly employee at a TS farm somewhere (Stream International, for instance). These people are told they'll be handling thus-and-such an account (Roadrunner, Gateway, etc.) and are given a script which they must follow. They are also (to enhance "productivity") given a time limit for each call, usually around 10-15 minutes.

These are entry-level jobs and there are few opportunities for advancement. Advancement is almost entirely within the ranks of TS, so the farthest you can really go is floor manager (tier two or three, depending on how things are laid out). As I've said, pay is on an hourly rate and most employers are pretty sticky about what you do with your time. Call monitoring is the order of the day, so get used to someone listening in who will switch the caller to another tech if you start screwing up.

Turnover at these jobs is high, with average life expectancy being about six months. The pressures are great and come from two sources: the customer (who is usually not in a good mood and knows almost nothing about what's broken) and the management (who is trying to handle as many calls as possible and insists that you stick to the script, even if the script is wrong or you know what the real problem is).

That's why tech support sucks.

Yes, I do TS as part of my job, but it isn't all (or even most) of what I do, which is why I'm getting close to the magic six month figure without going crazy or entertaining thoughts of quitting. That's about the only reason I can stand it. If I had to do TS all the time, I'd snap in six months and have to do something else.

The moral of the story is that you can't put ill-trained personnel on the phones under high stress and expect them to last long.

Re: Tech Support (none / 0) (#25)
by dave256 on Thu Jun 21, 2001 at 06:53:36 AM EST

Turnover rate at call centers is astounding. My experience has led me to the conclusion that at most you'll find two types of employees answering the phones.

  1. The newbies. These are the people who are fresh out of training and are madly clicking away on their troubleshooting tools and reading you verbatim what is said on the screen. These are the people you get free parts out of.
  2. The Experienced. These are the ones that can within about sixty seconds of your description have a mental troubleshooting path already laid out and will carefully lead you through it. These are the ones that will fix your problem.
The problems here are fairly simple, and there's no real way to fix it. Management rarely has a clear concept of what's happening on the phones. All they see is 'Hey, that technician took 7 calls an hour!' and refuse to promote said technician (after all, cash cow, right?).

And so, management is flooded with the Newbies that have managed to survive the phones, and still don't really know what's going on. But their promotion leaves a hole, which is filled by more newbies.

"But wait," you think, "what about all the Experienced people?" Well, that's easy. They get fed up and quit, or they annoy some manager and get fired. So with a high turnover rate of experienced employees, and a sea of cubicles filled with disgruntled over-qualifieds and stressed under-qualifieds, we come to the real reason why technical support really does suck.
[ Parent ]

Users don't bother to learn the first thing (none / 0) (#24)
by Pyrrhonian on Wed Jun 20, 2001 at 08:05:02 AM EST

I'm currently working in support for a web design company, the entire support for the userbase is... me, for all of their problems.

The teiring system is that if I don't know the answer I go hassle the sysadmin. The customers never ever get that far.

However the main problem that I have is that people don't bother to learn even the absolute basics of their product, they don't apply common sense. They don't pay attention to training, documents we send them, advice we gave them just hours ago.

They don't know what they're paying for in terms of boxes/net connections either... which baffles me. They pay stacks for things they can't even name.

If they took the time to just GLANCE at TFM then they could be much more helpful but for some reason they REFUSE to LEARN!

If they bothered to READ error messages then they might understand an error that names a company that doesn't even sound like mine MIGHT be a problem with another company!

Most of these irritating users just want everything spoon fed to them, they want me to break the laws of physics, they attempt to buy warez off me! They just need to understand that if they just TRY a little and put 5 minutes into it then everything would work.

Its not lack of knowledge that I don't like about these people, everyone starts somewhere and I don't know about many subjects. But its the lack of TRYING to understand that does my head in.

well I suppose I'd better stop ranting now and get back to work.

Optimizing tech support | 25 comments (15 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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