Marketing vs. Support: Reeling in the Big Fish

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (18-Jul-2008)

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You can tell a lot about the integrity of a sport fisherman by how he or she treats the day's catch. There are some who treat their catch with great reverence. Then there are those who are only concerned with the thrill of the chase and have no respect for the fish at all, not caring what happens to it once it's reeled in.

A recent computer meltdown reminded me of this chase, and how high-tech firms treat us poor little fish once they reel us in. It reminded me that most technology companies have two very distinct faces: The marketing face, all polished and accommodating; and the after-sales face that couldn't care less whether you lived or died after you buy its product.

More enlightened companies realize that the quality of after-sales support is just as important as the quality and performance of the product itself. A company's after-sales support tells you a lot about the business and how it treats its customers. Although after-sales support is a cost center and doesn't bring in any direct revenue, it does contribute to brand identity and customer loyalty. You don't sell a customer one product and run away, you sell a customer ten products over several years. This is an elementary concept that every business understands but few put into practice, evidenced by the sorry state of after-sales customer service and technical support.

With the ever-increasing demand for immediate returns, it's no surprise that a company would throw millions of dollars at a slick advertising firm to devise a multichannel marketing campaign, and then shove its after-sales customer service and technical support in some dark corner of Bangalore where a rep named "Frank" or "Cindy" hides their lack of practical knowledge with obsequious formality.

Luckily, as a former IT professional, I'm able to solve the majority of my own technical problems. But for certain things, I need the assistance of someone from the computer or software maker. So I resign myself to my situation and make the dreaded call. And you know that it's going to be a bad one when, within the first two minutes, you realize that you know more about technology than the so-called tech support agent. This is where things usually go wrong and something gets thrown against a wall.

The majority of my recent calls to tech support unfold like the nine circles of Dante's Inferno:

  1. Call tech support hotline;
  2. Wait on hold for 10 minutes (if you're lucky) or 45-60 minutes (if you're not);
  3. I explain my problem to the tech support agent with great care and detail;
  4. I'm placed on hold while the agent "consults his/her resources";
  5. The agent returns and regurgitates a series of procedures that have nothing to do with why I called;
  6. I inform the agent that he or she is not addressing my problem and continue to pepper the agent with highly technical questions;
  7. I'm placed on hold again while the agent "consults his/her resources";
  8. I wait, and wait, and wait;
  9. I'm disconnected.

I recall a time, before the unfortunate offshoring of tech support, when I actually used to have real, productive conversations with tech support agents. It was a time when they would say things like, "You know what, Paul? The exact same thing happened to another caller this morning. It's one of those weird undocumented quirks with the software. Here's what you need to do to fix it ..."

But now it's, "I'm sorry, Mr. Chin, we are not equipped to solve this problem."

When I'd press the issue, the agent would simply repeat, "I'm sorry, Mr. Chin, we are not equipped to solve this problem." I start wondering if I'm actually talking to a real person or some primitive artificial intelligence robot.

Tech support agents used to be problem solvers, using their own training, experience, and knowledge to help users resolve their problems. Nowadays, tech support agents are only able to resolve scripted problems. They're little more than organic search engines who type your problem into their company's knowledge base. If it's not in their knowledge base, you're on your own.

It's sad to see such a large discrepancy between the quality of a company's marketing and the quality of its after-sales support. Too many company's treat tech support as a nuisance to be shuffled off to the side. They already have your money so if you come back, that's a bonus; if you don't, who cares. The high priced marketing machine will reel in a new customer. It's become quite clear that many high-tech firms would use a five thousand dollar fishing rod to reel in a big catch only to throw the fish into a rusty, three dollar bucket.

Copyright © 2008 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.