When Good Tech Support Goes Bad

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (15-Nov-2007)

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I'm convinced that dealing with the majority of free front line technical support nowadays is an exercise in frustration. This frustration ranges from minor annoyance caused by a tech support agent's (TSA) lack of training, to F-word flying fists of fury triggered by almost comical "interactions" befitting an Abbott and Costello sketch gone wrong. But no one's laughing.

Technical support is increasingly seen as a vital component in technology-based products—from MP3 players to corporate collaboration suites. Consumers expect it, but are companies making a real effort to meet these expectations?

I have the luxury of being able to figure out and fix many problems myself because I'm in the IT field, but there are times when tech support is unavoidable. And when that happens, patience can be tested to extremes.

The best way to illustrate my point is to share my two favorite tech support run-ins:

Episode 1: Are You Talking To Me?

While evaluating a Web-based collaboration suite I noticed a glitch with the tool's instant messenger (IM) feature. Although users are given the ability to create custom availability status messages such as "I'll be back in five minutes" or "Can't chat right now", the software seemed only to display its stock messages regardless of what custom messages were set. I wrote a brief and to the point e-mail to the company's tech support explaining the issue and asked whether this was a known problem.

I received a reply several days later with a set of instructions on how to turn off the little IM avatars you see during a chat session (strike one). That's odd, I thought, I never mentioned anything about avatars. I didn't even allude to anything related to them. Was it a mix-up? Was the TSA actually responding to another user's question? OK, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's try this again.

I figured the best thing to do is to keep things as simple as possible and not to write a long-winded response. Over-explaining might confuse the issue -- or the TSA. Leaving the entire message thread intact, I simply stated that the response had nothing to do with my problem and requested they re-read my original question. Several days later another TSA asked me to forward information about the contents of my Sent Mail folder (strike two).

I responded again, stating my problem was related to the IM custom status messages—not avatars, not e-mail. I received a third reply from a third TSA explaining what IM is and how it differs from e-mail (strike three, you're out).

Episode 2: Round and Round We Go

Before settling on my current anti-virus/anti-spyware suite, I evaluated a slew of products, one of which required ActiveX and the IE browser in order to run manual updates of its definition files. Since I set Firefox as my default browser, this anti-virus/anti-spyware suite automatically installed some sort of ActiveX plug-in to Firefox. I was not a happy camper, so I contacted the software company's front line tech support via their Web site's chat feature.

The following chat dialog has not been embellished:

TSA: How may I help you today?

Me: When I ran a manual update, your software seemed to have installed some sort of ActiveX plug-in to Firefox. Can you please tell me how to uninstall it?

TSA: Yes, that's for ActiveX.

Me: Yes, I know, but can you tell me how to uninstall it? I don't want Firefox to be able to execute ActiveX components.

TSA: You should use Microsoft Internet Explorer to run manual updates of all our products.

Me: Yes, I know... MS-IE is an aside. I know that Firefox doesn't have native support of ActiveX, but I have two simple questions: What is this ActiveX plug-in your software installed on top of Firefox and how do I get rid of it?

TSA: Firefox doesn't support ActiveX, that's why we have the plug-in for it. Without it you need to use Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Me: Yes, I know. I just told YOU that. How can I get rid of it?

TSA: ActiveX support can't be removed from Internet Explorer.

Me: I don't want to remove anything from IE. I want to remove the ActiveX plug-in YOUR software added to my FIREFOX browser.

He then sent me a link describing what ActiveX is.

Me: I know what ActiveX is. All I want to do is uninstall your plug-in from Firefox. Otherwise, I'll have to uninstall Firefox and reinstall it.

TSA: I'm sorry you're still having difficulties. Please wait one moment.

At this point there was nothing for about five minutes. When he finally returned:

TSA: To avoid any update problems I suggest you use Microsoft Internet Explorer in the future. Otherwise you need the plug-in. Firefox doesn't support ActiveX. We have a plug-in for that. But we suggest you use Internet Explorer.

I disconnect the chat...

I realize that it's unfair to lump all TSA's together, but for every professional and conscientious TSA I've dealt with over the years there have been 10 painfully aggravating ones. The two experiences I mentioned are far from isolated incidents. Friends and colleagues have shared similar tech support horror stories with me, and there seems to be a trend going on here.

Companies hire agents—or outsource support entirely—and plop them in front of a computer and telephone with little to no knowledge of the products they're meant to support. And then they wonder why they have such high call volumes. When this happens tech support turns into crowd control—and who among us really care to be herded?

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.