Knowing when to give the hook to tech support

October 23, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

How long should you let them string you along unproductively before hanging up and trying again?

The trick to using tech support over the phone is to quickly size up whether the alleged tech support expert on the other end of the line actually knows anything.  If not, think of a reason to end the call.  Any reason.  Then call back and you’ll likely get another person.  My recent experiences confirmed the wide disparity in competence among those who allegedly do tech support.  I’ve learned my lesson, I think.   I need to stop being too patient.  I’ve renouced my willingness to sit there waiting for the “expert” to flip through endless knowledge base screens, for instance.

This weekend was a long weekend, tech-support-speaking.  I needed to help my mother install a router and help her set up her new HP notebook computer.  I assumed that these tasks would take about an hour, so I allowed myself three hours.  As it turned out, it took about six hours.  Plus, I had tech support issues of my own when I got back home. Things often aren’t what they purport to be when it comes to upgrading and improving one’s gadgetry. 

The Linksys router came with lots of warnings: “Insert CD-ROM first.”  So that’s what I did.  I put the disk into my mom’s old desktop computer and followed the instructions meticulously until I came upon a screen that requested a lot of information I didn’t have or didn’t understand.  By that point, the router was already broadcasting all over the house, so I tried to skip the screen, although the software would not allow it.  Therefore, I exited the program, which caused the broadcasting to stop.  I then called Linksys tech support. 

If there is one thing more difficult than talking to the tech support person you can’t understand (because he pronounces words differently than you do) it’s dealing with the tech support person who talks so softly that you can’t hear him at all PLUS has a heavy accent.  That’s the sort of fellow I was dealing with on Saturday.  He tried his hardest, but it became obvious that he had no idea what he was doing.  He told me to unhook all the cabling, then go to the company website and follow the easy instructions.  The problem is that the unhooking of the cabling meant that I did not have Internet access any longer.  After about five minutes, he clarified himself that I should look up the desktop computer the way it was before I ever bought a router and then log on to the Linksys easy install portion of its website.

By the time it became clear that he was not competent, I had been on the phone with him for 30 minutes and my patience was running thin.  I eventually sensed that he had nothing to offer me other than telling me to check out his company’s website.  I was actually looking forward to hanging up the phone with him.  It was not out of a sense of personal animosity.  He was a friendly fellow and there is no doubt that he spoke English much better than I would ever be able to give tech support in any language other than English.  On the other hand, life is short, and I felt the grains of sand slipping away. He asked me to rate his call on a scale of one to five on the way out.  In all honesty, I would have had to give him the lowest grade, although I didn’t have the heart to do it in live time.  I told him that I was not able to evaluate the call until I tried out his advice, so I passed on the lifetime rating request.  I then logged on to the Linksys site and clicked on the link he had described.  Lo and behold, this easy install procedure did not apply to Windows 2000, the version on my mother’s desktop computer.

I called Linksys technical support once again. Whereas the first fellow sounded as though he was from India the next person was a woman who sounded as though she was from Asia.  She gave excellent service.  In five minutes she had me completely fixed up and the router was working perfectly; it was even password-protected.  Phenomenal!

Now, onto the notebook computer.  I bought my mother’s HP computer at Costco.  I was attracted by the “Concierge” service offered by Costco, a two-year plan whereby you can call an allegedly competent person who will answer any of your computer questions regarding that computer.  The first problem was a minor one.  When we put a DVD movie into the drive, it requested us to switch to the North American region format.  Given that the screen already indicated that it was set for North American, this was peculiar.  I spent 15 minutes on the phone with a fellow who had me doing all kinds of things that did not work, tweaking, rebooting, deleting the driver, reloading the driver . . . .  Eventually, I suggested that we simply use up one of our format switches (you only get six per machine) and it locked into North American (we tested it with several DVDs). Therefore, I fixed the problem in an embarrassingly simple way.

Then again, while I was working on the router some more, the notebook did something peculiar, going into rescue mode and requesting whether we wanted to do a Windows “restore.”  This seemed to be the only option, so we did it.  Unfortunately, this caused Windows to revert to a condition prior to the time when we had fully installed Norton Antivirus and Internet Security.  The result was that Norton became completely wigged out.  Error screens popped up, about one per minute, for 20 minutes.  No problem, though.  I called the Costco Concierge once again.  I was helped by a friendly fellow who actually knew the product and the symptoms well.  Given that Norton was so twitchy; he recommended we simply delete Norton from my mom’s hard drive.  I asked how to reload it.  No problem. HP puts all the installation software on the hard drive and you can reload it with a “recovery manager” system that functioned exactly how Mr. Concierge described it.  The exchange left me feeling very good about Costco Concierge service.  But I wasn’t done with tech support for the weekend.

But this was one of those rare weekends when I needed to fix several computer issues (I usually don’t spend any time dealing with tech support—perhaps I’ve been lucky).  Back home to days later (Sunday night), I had some problems adding the e-mail account of one of my daughters to my Southwestern Bell (AT&T) DSL service.  I had imitated the format of one of the other e-mail accounts that I had previously added (successfully), but I was now getting error messages popping up regularly.  Most of these were requesting the password again (and again), even though the password had been already added on other screens when the e-mail account had been configured.  Therefore, I called AT&T Yahoo and spent one hour on the phone with a woman who was completely unhelpful. 

Keep in mind, in order to configure an e-mail account, the routine is simple: you simply place basic information in each of about 20 boxes on about 5 small screens.  Nonetheless, she kept referring to the fields by names other than the exact titles.  She kept telling me to use my daughter’s “name” without describing whether I should use her first name, the full e-mail address, or the first half of the e-mail address (everything prior to the @ sign).  It became clear that she was not going to be of any assistance.  I was about to give her the hook and make an excuse for hanging up, when she offered AT&T “expert service” to resolve my problem.  The next thing I knew, another woman came onto the line and asked me to verify whether I want “expert” service.  I said I did, assuming I would be talking to the first woman’s supervisor.  If only it were that simple.  The second woman made clear that this expert service, guaranteed for five days, cost $99.  If I wanted six months use of the service, it would cost $130.

I got off the phone quickly and called the first number again, this time getting a different woman.  This second woman sounded far more coherent than the first woman.  I told her my story, including the fact that I had wasted almost an hour online and at the first woman had given me advice that simply wasn’t working.  The second woman assured me that, based upon her review of the computer screen in front of her, the first woman had given me perfect advice (despite the fact that my e-mail program was still generating dozens of error messages).  I told her that since my first call, I had taken the initiative of going back into the AT&T site to create a new sub-account with a new variation of my daughter’s name for my daughter’s account (in order to avoid the possibility that the first file had been corrupted in Outlook—this can happen, per Outlook’s knowledge base).  I asked the woman whether she would simply walk me through the information to be placed into the fields on the e-mail set up in Outlook.  Her advice (surprise!) conflicted dramatically with the advice of the first woman.  By the time she was finished, which was only 10 minutes later, the e-mail worked perfectly.

What is the lesson to be learned from all this?  Efficient people learn to recognize competence and incompetence in tech support.  They learn that there is a point where you need to stop fishing and cut bait so that you can call the same number back and talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about.  That’s what happened to me three times this weekend, twice with each tech support organization. The outcome was the same in each case.  When I talked to the first tech support person from each group, I spent a long time on the phone line without getting good service.  After calling back, however, a highly competent person got the job done in short order. 

I’m glad everything is finally working, because I started having nightmares that I would be spending the rest of my life on a phone line with semi-coherent tech support people. Spending such long periods of time on the phone can really wear you down; it can be especially frustrating when you somewhat know what you’re doing.  I truly fear for those customers who are computer illiterate, who have no way of knowing whether the tech support person is competent.

In retrospect, the thing that I did wrong in each case was that I gave the first (incompetent) tech support person the benefit of the doubt for much too long.  From now on, I will keep in mind that when the tech-support advice appears to be incompetent, I need to make a quick excuse to get off of line so that can call right back and talk to someone who will probably be much more able to get the job done.  It’s hit and miss, then, at lease for those of us who are not willing to pay $100 for a five day guarantee service.

I hope this doesn’t come across as too whiney.  I do appreciate how complicated computers are.  I do know that we are privileged to have access to these incredible machines at all.  Perhaps this post is born out of an especially difficult weekend, where I spent probably 10 hours trying to get those incredible machines to work correctly.

Ps.  I must say a word of praise for Fujitsu, which has a top notch tech support staff.  I’ve dealt with them several times over the past couple years.  They are all friendly and competent.  They REALLY know what they are doing, at least when it comes to scanners. 

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ben says:

    I recently purchased a new computer. I bought all the components separately, and put them together. It is so fast and powerful, I can't believe it. The total cost was 800 dollars. An equivalent pre-made computer, such as Dell, with similar specifications would have cost about 1,500 dollars.

    I recommend these websites:

    http://www.tomshardware.com/2007/09/10/the_500_ga

    http://www.newegg.com/Store/Category.aspx?Categor

  2. Erika Price says:

    I've had some truly terrible tech support experiences, too, and I would suggest that anyone in a similar situation take advantage of a company's online tech support when available. The tech support staff in these instant-message-format sites seem more knowledgeable in my experience, and you don't experience the language barrier/accent problem.

    As an added benefit, online tech support can give you a handy link to any driver or "easy online guide" you need, rather than expecting you to navigate the company website (which oddly enough, is usually poorly designed). And instead of ranking your service by speaking directly to the tech support staff, you respond with an online form, thereby removing the pressure to candy-coat your opinion. Of course, you computer has to work in order to access these resources!

    Hanging up and trying to speak with a new person doesn't just work on the tech support hotlines. I received a horrendously incorrect electric bill last month, with totally inaccurate dates that left me with quadruple the price I truly owed. This first person I called in the billing department was inept, apathetic, and didn't have the authority to fix my bill. After two or three additional calls, I eventually reached someone competent enough to sort things out and send me a revised bill of the proper amount.

  3. Blaine says:

    I could not agree more. I work in a highly technical service field that requires at least passing competence in many fields like computers, networking, radio, and telephone. Your advice hold true across most disciplines. I have learned to simply hang up as soon as I feel that I will not be getting the answers I need. At first, I used to feel real bad about that, but I got over that fast when I realized that my soft-heartedness was costing my customers their valuable time and money.

    If I do have time however, I make sure to rate the support I get, because there is the slim chance that the company will be responsive and I will thereby help someone else when they need tech support. The key is to be honest, regardless of what your opinion is. If the person on the other end is also honest, they will take the criticism constructively. If they do not care, there is nothing you can do about it. The companies that provide these services do care about their bottom lines and when tech support issues start impacting that, they will change.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    One of my clients recently called me to tell me that his home cable internet was down. Now, I could have walked him through looking at each light, and trying to find the problem. However, I figured he would be better off calling the cable company himself.

    He called me a couple of hours later and told me that he spent over an hour on the phone with one woman, and got nowhere. Once he cooled down, he called again, and got a different person, and was up and running in minutes.

    I think that phone support training needs to include knowing when to pass the buck to someone qualified. Right now, the front line support folks are mostly trained to not-bother the technically adept second tier.

    Meanwhile, have you all seen <a title="Dead Troll: The Internet Help Desk" href="http://www.deadtroll.com/index2.html?/video/helldeskcable.html~content&quot; rel="nofollow">this video?

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