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Changing the balance on the frontline

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Poll Several weeks ago, I had a problem with a new HP desktop right out of the box. When I tried to install MS OS updates they were downloaded, but when the system rebooted it caused a permanent loop.

I called HP and got a message that it was busy. Naturally, I didn't want to play the call back game all day, so I got onto my other computer and initiated an online chat with HP tech support through the US, where I got a first level technician who was less than stellar in his reaction to my problem. In a fit of pique, I then blogged about the experience and vented my frustration. Here is an extract:

I wrote out an explanation of what had happened, and what I had tried. I explained that I needed to know which one of the updates was not getting along with HP's version of XP Media Center Edition 2005 and what I could do to get around it.

His response: you have to do each update manually to figure out which one doesn't work.

Mind you, there are 63 of them according to Microsoft. Also, this has been a problem since October, so you'd think I wouldn't be the only one with this problem. Maybe someone at HP and/or Microsoft had worked it out by then and could tell me? Nope.

So in the end, this is HP's response: go figure it out by yourself. AND THEN WHAT!!!???? So once I know which patch is damning my system – which it will do again – then I'll have to do F10 AGAIN and install all the other patches again and then hope that was the only patch giving me a hard time. However, that only isolates the problem. It doesn't solve it. What do I do about the bad patch? Skip over it and leave my system vulnerable to whatever that patch was supposed to fix?

I think what really annoys me most is that Alvin (the support technician) clearly didn't go digging through any databases to see what might have happened previously. Nope, he just blew me off with – well, you have to install each one and see what happens!!!

Now, the good news is that both HP and Microsoft eventually responded to me and got some competent people working on the problem. There are a couple of Microsoft engineers who have earned gold stars in my book along the way, chiefly Pedro Ribeiro, who has been responsive, patient, good humoured, and competent with me and my little problem.

To be fair, the HP guys local to me in Italy that have borne the brunt of my bad humour have also since been very good in following up, suggesting that once a problem does successfully start down the escalation path, the processes in place seem to be quite satisfactory.

In the meantime, I've been having conversations about this problem and the real issues behind it – which are basically concerned with forcing technically competent power users to bear the excruciating pain of negotiating past front line support people with a fraction of their knowledge who make dumb and unhelpful suggestions or insist on following an irrelevant script.

As far as I'm concerned, this could have happened with any set of vendors. In this instance, it happened to be HP and Microsoft, but that is a risk when you're volume leaders – more problems fall on your doorstep.

From the blog I had several responses from people who pointed out that they had had fabulous support from HP at the corporate level and that I was mad for buying a consumer system from them. I had other people take that argument further and point out that I was mad to expect customer service from any vendor for a consumer product. Didn't I know this was all about price and margin? Didn't I know that the only customers that matter are corporate?

It saddened and shocked me that we've reached this point, that we can fork out 1,000 or more euros/dollars/pounds for a product and have little expectation of any help should something go wrong. It saddens me that the industry has collectively reached the point where service is considered secondary when so many companies are heavily investing in services and economically we see the services sector as the great growth of the future.

I got talking to my colleagues about this too and we discussed several options that we'd tried, with vendors or third parties, none of which were satisfying, and why.

I think we've worked out what the problem is. The challenge is power users. If you are a neophyte, then you call tech support, you get someone with a script who walks you through the basic steps. Usually this solves a significant number of problems in a relatively cost-effective manner.

Power users do not work in this model. Generally, by the time we call, we've tried many of the basic fixes already, we've done research on the web, we've called our friends, family, and mavens we know and we've still reached a dead end. What power users do not want is to wind up on the phone with someone who knows less than they do and then waste everyone's time and money trying to get around someone who doesn't understand what they're talking about and is a gatekeeper from those who do.

The industry as a whole needs to think about power users and how to deal with them. Specifically, how do you identify them without insulting them? How do you provide them cost-effective offerings? And, most importantly, how can you use them inherently in the process to reward, support, and empower them further? Because these guys are the fanboys you want talking up your products. Because many power users are also mobile workers who can influence the corporate decision-making process - and if you've ruined your reputation for them, it will transfer to the office. Because many younger power users are the future IT decision-makers who will carry their biases with them through their careers.

I've spoken to several companies, and we've started to think about some good ideas. However, we are trying to establish the extent of the problem and gather more feedback. So if you have a couple of minutes, it would be great if you could participate in our little poll below.

Power user poll

To what degree do you encounter the kind of issues with inexperienced front line support agents discussed in this article when calling as a consumer (rather than when calling on behalf of your business)?

On average, how do support calls when calling as a consumer compare to calls made on behalf of your business?

As a "power consumer", would you ever consider paying for a "fast track" service to get straight through to a more experienced support technician?

Does your support experience as a consumer impact products or services you recommend or decide to buy in a business context?

Any specific support related comments or experiences you would like to share as a "power consumer"? Feel free to highlight specific vendors – good or bad!

Thank you!

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