Whether you’re an indy artist establishing a full-blown online presence or just an average tech user, sooner or later you’re going to run into gadget problems that need resolving. It’s the nature of the tech beast that the devices and services we rely on are complicated and regularly in need of reconfiguration.
While even the most automated updating process can go wrong, where most end-users run into real trouble is when they require (or think they require) individual tech support. Even worse, the more obscure, intermittent or subtle a problem is, the more difficult it can be to get tech support to address the problem.
The good news — and I think it is very good news — is that there are some basic things you can do to make the problem-resolution process as efficient as possible. Which is not to say that you will enjoy it, or even that your problem will be resolved, but simply that you will know you took your best shot.
Quieting Your Inner Geek
Speaking of good news, it should come as a relief to many to learn that your own level of technical expertise has little or nothing to do with whether you will successfully resolve a problem. The reason for this — and it is a basic truth in all tech support inquiries — is that each problem must be confronted logically from square one.
Even if you’re positive beyond doubt that your cable modem is balking because of a bad phone line, which you have personally watched squirrels chew on, which you can document with full-color, close-up images of suspiciously-perforated wire, the tech support rep you talk to — and particularly the first level of support you encounter — will ask you to make sure your modem is plugged in. If you’re proud of your inner-geek diagnostic skills and all the obscure knowledge you’ve learned over the years, this is the moment that will enrage you. This is the moment when tech support will let you know they think you just might be the dumbest person on the face of the earth. (There is nothing more offensive to a geek than to be accused of technical stupidity.)
The problem from the point of view of tech support is two-fold. First, at least in theory, it’s possible for someone of super-human intelligence to forget to plug in their modem. In fact, there are probably one or two in-house examples of this happening, along with voice recordings documenting the utter apologetic embarrassment of what until then had been an abusive, condescending customer. Second, because tech support is almost always flying blind and relying on user feedback, they need to make sure at every step that they themselves know where they are. If they can’t see (or detect) that your modem is plugged in, they’re going to ask you for confirmation.
Why You Must Comply
The first and most important lesson about dealing with tech support is that you must give yourself over to the tech support process, whatever it is. If you need to fill out an online form to queue for support, that’s what you do. If you call tech support directly and they want to know how many bananas you have in your fridge, you count your bananas.
Trying to bend any tech support process to your own will is not only an exercise in futility, it’s a mistake regardless how certain you are that you know the source of your problem. The reason — and I know this may come as a shock — is that the first person you contact (if you can get through to a human being) may have no more, or even considerably less, tech knowledge than you.
How can this be? Well, let’s take a step back. Imagine you’re a massively successful software or hardware developer. Your products are available world-wide. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, your products break down or ship with problems built in. Given the scale of your success, what’s the likelihood that you’re going to find a ready population of tech-savvy job applicants steeped in the minutia of your products? Right: none.
So your job as a manufacturer is to make it possible to take minimum-wage workers (including minimum wage workers in places like India, which currently seems to be handling tech support for the entire planet) and turn them into effective tools of your tech support operation. How you do that is by creating flip books and flow charts that:
- A) Solve basic brain-dead problems quickly.
- B) Identify issues that require more attention.
At the first level of tech support for most large companies, you’re literally talking to someone who is doing nothing more than following someone else’s troubleshooting process. This is why it’s futile to buck the system: the person you’re talking to probably doesn’t have the knowledge or authority to skip ahead. They’ve been told — by the people who write their checks — to do things in the order specified.
For these reasons, tier-one tech support will ask you questions they’ve been trained to ask, each one of which will lead to other predetermined questions. Until, that is, either your problem has been identified and hopefully resolved, or, all such questions have been exhausted. At that point, if your problem persists, the tier-one rep will probably have no choice but to escalate your issue, and that’s what you want.
Escalation: the Holy Grail
This is second most important lesson about dealing with tech support. The people who might actually know what’s wrong with your faltering product are going to make you prove something’s wrong before they talk to you. Only after you have demonstrated that the issue is not your own fault or the result of some absurdly common problem will you be able to make your case with people who actually know how the product works.
Typically these second-tier (or third-tier) people are called engineers in order to emphasize the fact that they are more concerned with gadgetry than customer service. Not only are these the people who solve anomalous problems like yours, but they’re the ones who know where the bailing wire and chewing gum were applied prior to a product’s release. If an issue was baked into the cake, they’ll know about it. If an issues is becoming more widespread, they’ll know about it. If an issue is rare but documented, they’re the ones who did the documenting. (In fact, they’re the people who created the flip books and flow charts being used by the tier-one reps.)
To be clear, compliance is no guarantee of escalation. You may be told that your problem can’t be reproduced or documented, and that possibility increases drastically with the age of your product. Too, even if you have a legitimate complaint, the tech support department you contact may have been infested with marketing weasels who see each trouble ticket as an opportunity to up-sell. Instead of helping solve your problem, they may hit you with questions, requests and procedural roadblocks designed to motivate you to make a new purchase — on the compelling logical grounds that doing so will solve your problem. (If that’s the case, there’s nothing you can do except persevere and hope that the company you’re talking to actually intends to stand behind its product.)
Upping the Odds
Knowing that your objective is escalation (assuming the problem can’t be resolved at tier one), and assuming you are dealing with an honest resolution process, here are a few things you can do to help your tech support process along:
- Don’t call at the first sign of trouble unless the problem is catastrophic. If your Xbox is flashing the three rings of death, yeah, you need to contact tech support. But if your DSL bandwidth seems like it’s running a little slow, hold off.
- Document and quantify the problem you’re dealing with. Not what you think the cause is, but what you’re actually experiencing. If your site hosting seems to be slowing down (a problem I’m currently resolving, which prompted this post), take the time to document the lag. (Tools like Firebug can be useful for this, and for pinpointing where the hangup is in the data stream.) The more data you have, the more likely it is that you’ll be taken seriously — after they make you double-check that everything’s plugged in.
- If you’re dealing with a well-known company, and the tech support rep asks you to allow remote assistance — meaning the rep will access your computer directly in order to detect and check various settings — do it. Letting tech support answer their own questions without going through you only speeds the process. And you can always change your password(s) afterward.
- If you really are baffled by tech, don’t apologize. Instead, ask a friend or relative if they’ll tackle the issue for you. Every tech-support rep is used to handling cases by proxy, and is usually thankful not to have to explain where the Run dialogue box is in Microsoft Windows. As long as you don’t present yourself as a know-it-all, of course.
The goal, always, is to be clear and assume nothing. If you’re calling back and have already double-checked various settings, feel free to speak up, but also be prepared to comply all over again. Why? Because many tier-one tech support reps don’t trust their minimum-wage peers, for good reason. (If you were being paid nickels to help crazy, desperate people solve their problems, how meticulous would you be?)
Tech support will not solve all of your problems. If you paid a thousand dollars for a piece of tech with a one-year warranty, and that piece of tech drops dead 372 days later, you’re probably out of luck. If your thousand-dollar piece of tech is still in warranty, but has been run over by your car or thrown out the window by your kids, tech support is not going to solve that problem. Even if your geeky friends convince you your tech isn’t doing what it should, or isn’t working as advertised, or doesn’t compete well with something else in the marketplace, tech support doesn’t exist to help you resolve a bad purchase or tech envy. (That’s customer service. And good luck.)
On the other hand, if, like me, you notice a general increase in the response time of your web site, to the point that 20-to-30-second lags are not infrequent, tech support is exactly what you’re looking for. In my case I first had to change a few settings as detailed in an email response, but after doing so, and following up with a phone call, my issue was escalated. (It turns out my site is hosted on a block of shared servers that have been causing problems for other customers.) Currently the issue has been passed on to engineers, who will hopefully either fix the problem or move my site to a server block not similarly afflicted.
As noted in the previous post, being an independent writer on the web involves maintenance obligations. Knowing how to interface with and satisfy tech support is simply part of the job. I hope this post makes the inevitable a little easier.
Update: I received the following email late last night from my hosting provider:
I am sorry to hear that you are having issues with website latency. I have scheduled your database to be moved to a faster MySQL server. Your database will be migrated within 1 to 3 business days.
Hopefully that will resolve the problem. If not, I can either continue to pursue the issue or start looking around for better hosting.
In defense of my hosting provider, I should have noted in the original post that the configuration changes they first asked me to make did in fact improve the overall load time of my site. They simply didn’t resolve the considerable lag occurring after the initial request to the database.
Later update: As often happens in such instances, a fix in one place breaks something elsewhere. In my case, migrating the database to a new server seems to have caused trouble with Akismet, WordPress’s semi-built-in, sort-of-free spam trap. I sent a new tech support email in this morning, which was escalated this afternoon.
On the plus side, the site does seem to be loading faster, on average. I think it may take a little while for the new server address to propagate throughout the internet, so hopefully there will be a bit more performance gain down over the next few days.
— Mark Barrett