Thursday, March 30, 2006

Getting what you want from tech support

General Tips

I've seen some articles on how to deal with computer support agents that give the reader the impression that techs will inevitably be slackardly dullards whom you'll have to browbeat to obtain the service you deserve. These adversarial articles focus on quick ways to escalate calls and ways to badger things like free shipping and replacement hardware out of computer companies.

My take on all this is, remember the golden rule: treat others with the same respect you'd like them to extend to you. I fully realize that many executives in Corporate America are encouraged to act like Top Dogs and treat staff and servicepeople like so many fire hydrants. But I'm willing to bet that the pissy Trump wannabes in the world find themselves suffering from a lot of mysterious computer problems that their respectful counterparts do not.

Technical support agents are there to help customers, and they are expected to be polite no matter what callers say to them, but callers do not make their jobs appealing by copping an unpleasant attitude. An annoyed or frustrated tech is a tech who will be more focused on ending the call than on fixing the problem. It doesn't matter if the call is monitored or not; a tech can still be unflinchingly polite but working 100% on getting a caller to go away.

True, if the problem is simple, the outcome will likely be the same whether the caller is nice or nasty, simply because fixing the problem will the quickest way for the tech to end the call. But if a problem is complex and the caller comes off as rude from the get-go ... well, the caller's not likely to get the best the agent can do.

So if you want your telephone tech support experience to go smoothly and produce positive results:

  • Speak your name, username, and account numbers clearly and slowly. Don't just rattle off a string of letters and numbers and expect the tech on the other end to understand you.

  • Give the tech salient details about your computer and the malfunction it's exhibiting. The basics include your operating system (Windows XP, Mac OSX, etc.), computer model and model number, the amount of RAM you have, the name and version of the software that's been acting up, and any changes you or others have made to your system since it started malfunctioning.

    Don't just announce "My computer won't work right!" and wait silently for the tech to magically know what kind of computer you have. The more you make the tech drag information out of you, the more annoyed he or she will be.

    By the same token, try not to natter on about a bunch of extraneous stuff: "Well, I got this computer last year and my cousin really said I should get a Mac not a Dell but she wore a red dress at our aunt's wedding and that's just really not done so I figure what does she know and anyway ...." Don't make the tech do verbal archaeology to sort out what's going on.

  • If the tech asks you to try something, or for more information, try not to act impatient or, worse, lie and say you've tried something when you haven't. This is for your benefit, not the tech's.

  • If the tech seems uncertain or unhelpful, you should certainly ask to have the call escalated to the 2nd level, or failing that, ask to speak to a supervisor. But there's no reason to be rude about it; 1st-level techs in big call centers often get poor training, are laboring under time quotas (they can get in trouble if they spend too much time on the phone with customers) and aren't paid well. They're just people laboring at not especially rewarding jobs. Stand up for yourself, but don't stomp on others to do it.

  • At the end of the call, make sure you've written down your call/ticket number. Having this number handy will speed the process if you need to call back about the same problem.

Special Advice for Staff and Faculty at Universities

In the corporate world an exec can often heap abuse on his or her tech, and the tech pretty much has to politely take it.

But if you work at a university, things are different. Be very wary of being a demanding, foul-mouthed jerk when you request that your call be escalated if the tech support isn't going as you think it should.

I've done tech support for several large universities; many techs are pretty jaded because they've run into a phenomenal number of people who have no interest in learning about and taking responsibility for the machines they use. But in the main, they try to rise above and do the best job they can with each call, as long as the customer is willing to work with them. If you, the customer, want to talk to a more advanced tech, or a specific tech, all you need do is ask.

University techs generally don't have quotas and time limits imposed on them like techs in the commercial world. Your average university supervisor won't berate a tech after she spends an hour on the phone with an undergrad who got the CoolWebSearch trojan off a porn site.

But if you get rude with them, they won't be in a frame of mind to walk that extra technical mile with you.

And callers are not anonymous; many agents have access to a truly scary amount of personal information. Maiden names. Social security numbers. Home addresses. Forwarding email accounts. Passwords. Logs of every call and email you've sent to the help desk.

Most agents take pains to keep sensitive personal information secure. But at publicly-funded universities, be aware that every ticket you open with your university's help desk may be considered a public record.

Don't think that agents keep the most 'entertaining' calls to themselves; the rude and outrageous may get printed and posted on a call center Wall of Shame for all to see. These calls and emails speak for themselves, and they speak volumes about the people who sent them.

But getting your email on a Wall of Shame for 30 or so techs to shake their heads at isn't the worst that can happen if you get downright abusive.

Because remember: if you work for the university ... so do the tech support agents. They are your coworkers.

One day, an untenured faculty member called up in a profanity-spewing rage about a piece of university-supplied email software. He told the level-one tech who answered the phone, "I want to talk to the shithead who made this piece of crap!"

The tech knew the senior admin who in fact had coded the software in question. He put the instructor on hold, and called up the admin and explained the situation. The admin told him to go ahead and transfer the call over.

The admin answered the phone: "This is the 'shithead'. What can I do for you?"

The instructor backed off the verbal abuse a little, but not nearly enough. The admin sent a letter of complaint about the instructor's unprofessional behavior to his supervisors.

As a result of this little episode, the instructor didn't get tenure. And once you try for and fail to get tenure at a university, you're pretty much done there. He wrecked his academic career because he thought he could treat tech support as subhuman lackeys.