Escape from Tech Support Hell

Escape from Tech Support Hell
Earl Vickers

"Any sufficiently automated tech support system is indistinguishable from torture"
- a snowclone of Clarke's Third Law

As companies grow larger and technologies become more complex, access to someone who can understand and fix a given tech support issue approaches zero. To maximize efficiency, support departments rely increasingly on automation and artificial intelligence to give the illusion that someone cares deeply about your problem, but is too busy to talk to you right now.

Efficiency experts have discovered an optimal way to reduce the cost of tech support: get the user to go away. Ideally this is done by solving your problem, if it fits into a bucket the system can easily understand. If not, the fallback is to make the experience so frustrating that you'll go away of your own accord.

Companies traditionally manage support costs using automated phone systems that employ transparent "politeness strategies":

When support seekers won't take a hint, companies often find creative ways to forcibly eject them, while making it look like an accident. These strategies are the tech support equivalent of a shaggy dog story: they lead you on a rambling path through a seemingly endless maze of pointless choices and irrelevant questions, ending with an abrupt anticlimax - a busy signal, a "404 not found" page, or a loop that takes you back to the beginning. Some "trouble ticket" systems apparently wait for a pre-programmed period of time, then auto-respond to inform you that your ticket has been closed, neatly bypassing the troublesome step of solving the problem.

To streamline the process even more, companies have devised ways to prevent you from accessing tech support in the first place. The most obvious method is to make the experience so painful that customers will actually read the documentation, contacting support only as a dreaded last resort. Those who are determined to obtain support may encounter the Catch-22 paradox, which has many variations:

Customer Support Team


After a great deal of trial and error, you may find a back door that lets you reach an actual human. This will not be the person you want to reach, but it's a start. If you need support, it will be easier to reach the billing department, and vice versa. That department should be able to transfer you to the voicemail of someone who can solve your problem.

The quickest way to reach support is to ask to cancel your account; this will immediately take you to a customer retention specialist, whose job is to wear you down until you agree to keep paying for something you don't want. Make it clear that you will cancel your credit card, if necessary, unless you can talk to a human who can fix your problem.

If you do manage to reach an actual support person, be polite. Most tech support employees are genuinely trying to solve your problem, despite daily abuse from other frustrated customers, not to mention management. Support engineers are just cogs in the same machine you're stuck in - don't be the person who makes that cog cry.


Don't make that cog cry


Support staff are routinely overworked, underpaid, and undertrained. Schedules are scientifically designed to keep a bare minimum number of support personnel on site at all times. Management closely watches how much time is spent on a single problem, so employees are pressured to keep calls short. Even bathroom breaks are monitored.

Management typically provides scripts designed to solve each anticipated issue without any unnecessary thought. Improvisation is discouraged. The support engineer is reduced to the equivalent of a fast food cashier whose job is to press a series of hamburger and french fry buttons, a teacher whose job is to give standardized tests, or a student whose job is to take those tests.

The script may instruct the tech support person to:

The role of automation in scaling tech support

Once the customer base reaches a certain size, tech support can easily become an afterthought, an expense to be minimized. The customer becomes an abstraction. Even otherwise great companies, who change the world with their miraculous inventions, are not immune to the difficulty of scaling tech support to service a growing number of customers.

For large companies, tech support automation is not something to be avoided; it's essential, and the more it can be used to solve routine problems, the more it saves money and frees up support personnel to focus on more difficult issues. The problem arises when automation is used to block, instead of supplement, personal contact. When companies treat tech support as an unwanted cost, they essentially automate customers and support personnel alike, treating them as part of the machinery.



Following are some suggestions for management and support departments:

Online support


Reaching support

Automated replies

Product and process improvement

Support management

I'd like to thank numerous companies, especially Comcast (see and, surprisingly, Google, for helping inspire this article.