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Reg readers admit to faking it

Poll results: The frustrations of front line support

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Reg Reader Studies A Reg reader poll looking at power users and their experiences with customer technical support flushed out a lot of opinions.

The exercise focused particularly on support situations in which IT literate users are calling publicly facing help desks as private individuals, rather than on behalf of their company. In all, we received over 1,300 responses and many of the experiences and insights you shared are extremely enlightening.

Not surprisingly, the majority of power users believe that technical support for consumers is worse than support for commercial users (Figure 1).



In the associated freeform comments gathered during the poll, respondents went on to explain many of the issues that frustrate them.

The thing that seems to drive bad experiences for most power users is being forced to go along with the script that level-one technical support is required to use. It’s not that the scripts used are inherently bad – most of the power users who responded are either IT professionals or have worked in tech support themselves and they understand the purpose of them and why businesses use them – it is the process by which they are forced through the script in a plodding, uncreative way that makes everyone miserable. Additional frustration comes when the front-line technicians are unwilling to do anything other than slavishly follow the script when it’s clear from the start that this isn’t going to solve the problem.

In response to this conundrum, two schools of thought have arisen around how to deal with The Script. One approach, the direct one, is to take on the script and get through it as quickly as possible with minimum wasting of time and effort so the call can continue more productively. The other approach – which gets more interesting – is to find a way around the script. We can call this the evasive approach.

Those who take the direct approach freely admit to faking it. In this scenario the script-reader goes through the motions and the power user pretends to follow – "OK, I need you to reboot the system and choose safe mode" – so the faking techie pauses, examines their fingernails, rearranges the little toys on their desk – and then gives the answer they got when they actually performed the task several hours before they called tech support.

There are benefits to the direct route. Sometimes it is the only way past the gatekeepers – some companies or script readers just have no processes for doing things any other way and faking gets everyone through to the next level if not making everyone happy. Additionally, although power users generally do think of most simple solutions before they call tech support (yes, most power users have already checked power cables and lights before picking up the phone), sometimes the script does yield a suggestion that they hadn’t thought of that solves the problem.

However, there are many users who just don’t have either the time, the patience, or the ego to fake it. These users resort to the evasive method, of which there are several variants that all work to a greater or lesser degree.

The most popular is to state one’s credentials up front. Some front-line techies respect these credentials and will escalate the problem to their level-two colleagues or simply go off script if they also have the requisite technical skills. Unfortunately, though, some script-readers take this request as a personal challenge to their prowess, and/or they become deaf to anything other than what they want to hear – which is usually a direct answer to their script questions.

This leads to another variant of the evasive approach, which involves intimidation or surliness, real or imagined. Again, this works with some technicians who cave in to hostility and quickly escalate the call. This can also lead to a perverse standoff, though, in which the tech support person decides they are either going to be hostile themselves or they begin to reprimand the hostile caller for their hostility.

A third variant is to try requesting or demanding to speak to a supervisor or manager, which also sometimes works, although users overwhelmingly warned that service providers in particular seem to have little or no escalation path in their technical support system. ISPs were singled out for their binary mode of fault determination – e.g. if the line appears to be working from their end then it isn’t their problem. Period.

Finally, many power users lean heavily on the fourth variant, which is to call back and start again until they reach an amenable or knowledgeable support person.

As we read through the hundreds of comments and anecdotes received from respondents, it became very clear that the real problem isn’t with the front line technicians per se – it’s the company processes behind them. Organisations have come to view customer support and contact centers as cost centers, and in the process seem to have forgotten that this part of the organisation is the main face of the company to most users. It is ironic that companies who spend millions on marketing, sales, and brand promotion will shave costs in support and hire the least expensive people possible to populate their contact centers. They will give them minimal training, and will construct business models and metrics that reward technicians for short calls in high volumes – regardless of whether or not those calls actually help users. Additionally, many companies have outsourced their contact centers to countries where there simply aren’t enough of the necessary language skills. The result is frustration, anger, and lost revenue.

In their defence, the vendors often say that this is the price users have to pay for, well, lower prices. Undoubtedly there are business pressures here, but as we have said, most of the issues are caused by processes that do not distinguish between those with little knowledge at one extreme and the tech savvy users experiencing all of the frustration at the other, so the problem is not necessarily one of cost. But it is an issue that the industry needs to take more seriously, and for vendors and service providers that doubt this, check out the picture in Figure 2 below.



With personal experience influencing buying decisions in a business environment, perhaps there is a competitive advantage to be gained by those who take notice and address the issues effectively. Then again, perhaps some companies will rise to the challenge simply because it is the right thing to do. We can live in hope.

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