Escape from Tech Support Hell
"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":
- Recordings remind you that the company knows how valuable your time is; i.e., less valuable than theirs
- At any time of day or night, the system auto-apologizes for "unusually high call volumes" (a blame-shifting euphemism for low staffing levels)
- Comforting messages periodically provide relief from the hold music to offer hope that someone will eventually answer, even if the office is closed
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:
- You can access tech support only if your broken device is working
- You can access tech support only by getting a special code that only tech support has
- Support is provided via a web forum, which lets you post your question to hundreds of other people who don't know the answer
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.
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:
- agree to fix the problem - often the easiest solution, compared to actually fixing it
- point the finger at another company
- promise that someone will call back
- provide a series of magic rituals to keep the user busy while the employee takes other calls (e.g., plug in the device, zap the PRAM, repair disk permissions)
- suggest a cure that's worse than the disease: reinstall your system, reformat your drive, return your phone for 4-6 weeks.
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:
- Curate customer web forums so users don't have to slog through hundreds of posts to find the one that might solve the problem
- Provide easy online access to solutions for common and uncommon issues
- Provide easy online access to downloads, including previous versions of software - trust that users may have valid reasons for downgrading
- Try following your own documentation - installation instructions and boilerplate emails seldom match the actual wording on the user interface
- If the installation process varies depending on the user's setup (for example, what router or email program they're using), provide separate step-by-step instructions (with words and pictures) for each situation, instead of generic instructions that will force them to contact support
- Each dollar you spend on providing thorough, pain-free documentation saves exactly nine dollars in support costs
- Avoid scenarios that make it difficult or impossible for legitimate customers to reach an actual person
- Please stop responding to tech support inquiries with solutions to distantly related problems
Product and process improvement
- Observe actual customers installing and using your product; make PowerPoint slides showing which steps evoke the most cuss words
- Encourage customers to provide written feedback (not just contentless numerical ratings), and act on the information received - customers may be reluctant to be candid on "How did we do?" questionnaires, because they don't want the support person to get in trouble for problems elsewhere in the system
- Provide a feedback path from tech support personnel to management and engineering, and make it part of the standard procedure, so that frequently observed problems get addressed in FAQ pages or bug fixes
- Empower support personnel to serve as customer advocates, not just in title or in a mission statement
- Treat your people decently
I'd like to thank numerous companies, especially Comcast (see http://www.museumofconceptualart.com/letters/comcast_letter.html) and, surprisingly, Google, for helping inspire this article.