The Difference…

workOver the last week, my Honda CR-V (aka The Excelsior) had been starting up just a little more sluggishly with each trip.  Eventually, it got to the point where it just barely started, but as is human nature, I figured that it would last just long enough to get to get the battery looked at.

Of course, I waited one trip too many and eventually it didn’t start at all one night.  Click-click-click-click-click was all I heard.

After getting a jump-start from a neighbor (always have cables in your vehicle, folks) I went to the auto parts store where I had replaced the original battery a few years prior.  I had a strong suspicion that the battery was dead, but when the gentleman asked if I would like to have it tested, it placed just enough doubt in my mind to make me think that might not be the case.  I didn’t want it to be something else, because as far as car repairs go, replacing a battery is on the fairly inexpensive scale, and it can be done by one’s self, assuming the vehicle can be taken to a good battery or vice-versa.

The gentleman grabbed a tester and followed me out to my noble (if not currently unreliable) steed.  I popped the hood and proceeded to let the gentleman do his job.  He attached the clips to the battery terminals and proceeded to push some buttons on the device.  After a few moments he told me the battery was good and asked if I wanted him to test other ‘start the car’ parts.  I said yes, and he asked me to start the vehicle.  I made a crack about ‘I hope it starts,’ but much to my surprise, it started with no hesitation.  A few moments and button presses later, the man told me that the alternator and starter were probably okay, too.  I thanked him for his time and went on my merry (if slightly worried) way to the grocery store, where the car started again without issue.  What the heck was wrong with my car?

As folks are oft to do these days, I went onto social media to share my ambivalence over the situation.  Friends offered advice and their own tales of automotive experiences, both good and bad.  One friend mentioned that a similar problem had been caused by loose terminal connectors.  This idea sounded intriguing to me, as I had recalled my interior lights flashing during the process of having it jumped, and so I resolved to investigate them come the morning.  I didn’t park the Excelsior in the garage because I had a feeling I was going to need another jump-start.

The next morning, I hopped into my trusty steed to go have some breakfast and was greeted by the clicking noise again.  No big deal, it’s the terminals, right?  Wrong.  Nothing was loose and there was no corrosion to be found.  It has to be the battery, I thought, but what the guy last night told me it was good.  I frumped for a while as I searched for nearby mechanics and groused over the pile of money I anticipated I was going to have to spend.

Finally, I decided to get a second opinion.

I got a jump-start from a different neighbor, and observed that both times we had to let my vehicle sit for a while and charge up.  The thought of it has to be the battery kept bouncing in my head as I drove to a different auto parts store.  I walked inside and asked to have my battery checked.  This time around, the tech got a frumpy look on her face when she saw my terminals.  The connectors to the Excelsior’s battery have these plastic covers that were getting in the way of the clips, meaning she could only reliably attach the clips to the screws that kept the connectors attached.  “I don’t like taking a reading from the screws, the reading is sometimes wrong,” She said.  The tech did her best to adjust the tester clip, but was not completely satisfied with the result: “I’m not getting a good reading, can you take the battery out?” She asked.

I said sure, and proceeded to do so, with the tools I keep inside the vehicle.  I also had to borrow a pair of pliers, but eventually dislodged the battery and took it inside the store.  The tech did her thing, and sure enough, the battery was bad.  Fortunately, I had purchased the ‘three-year replacement’ battery the last time and I received a new one free of charge.  I installed it myself, which was only fair since I had taken the old one out, and now my trusty steed is trusty once again.

I figured that it would be a good idea to let the tech know about my experience the night before.  We both agreed that the other guy just didn’t know about the screws providing unreliable readings.

And thus we have the difference between somebody who only knows how to follow instructions, and somebody that actually knows what they are doing because they have learned how things really work.

Whether they are fixing cars or computers, a good tech will have more in-depth knowledge about the things that they repair than someone who is only taught how to fix things or is working off a script.  When the ‘usual steps’ don’t work, a good tech can think things though and improvise to find a solution.  A bad tech only knows how to follow instructions, and when those instructions don’t do the job, they’re stuck, and so are you.

More Than Words

writingI have two projects that I haven’t been looking forward to working on, but carry on I must.  The first is a fiction story that involves the death of a character and the second is the follow-up to “The Rules of Tech Support.”

The reason I haven’t been looking forward to working on those projects is that working on stories that hit a little too close to home or that are sad can have an effect on me.  It may have happened before without my noticing it, but while working on a short story named “The Best Job In The World” for “Nine To Five Lives,” I noticed that I began feeling increasingly angsty at work.  I was even more angry and bitter than usual and it wasn’t until I finished the first draft of the story that I got over it.

I talked to a psychologist friend about it after the fact.  I asked him:  if reading fiction affects people in some way, wouldn’t writing it have an effect on those that write it as well?  He agreed, saying that something similar had happened to him when he was writing.

In all honesty, I think I am going to have a harder time writing the second tech support book.  While I can easily disconnect myself from a fictional character, I live tech support forty hours a week, which means I can probably look forward to being full of piss and vinegar for the next few weeks.  I could stop writing about work, but the insanity that the general public brings to the table is too rich of a vein of material to ignore.  I guess I’m stuck!

“De-empathized”

square coverTech support folks are often accused of not caring about customer problems.  Most of you won’t want to hear this (and the rest of you will nod your heads in agreement), but the unfortunate truth is that yeah, many of us in tech support really don’t care about your problem.

A tech support person hears so much wailing and gnashing of customer teeth over the course of their job that it eventually fails to have any meaningful effect.  We eventually become ‘de-empathized’ and thus lose our ability to feel empathy or sympathy towards our customers.  Most of us don’t start out with much to begin with so it doesn’t take very long to reach that point.

Why?  A few reasons:

First, a tech can interact with a lot of customers, particularly if they do phone support. Let’s assume a tech talks to 20 customers over the course of a day:  That adds up to 100 people over the course of a week, or 5,200 people in a year.  Considering that the majority of them of them are calling because something is not working, a fairly high percentage of them are going to be angry, upset, and frustrated.  While most people are civil, many are not, and of course, there are a few jerks, to put it politely.  I submit to you that it is very difficult to hear all that negativity (to say nothing of the stupidity) and not have it affect you.

Secondly, techs get the same paycheck regardless of how many problems they fix or don’t fix.  If a tech puts in extra effort its probably because you’re being nice, or at least civil, but there are usually no consequences for not being able to fix a problem.  As much as I hate to admit, there are some problems that we can’t fix.

Finally, there is the repetition of hearing the same cries/pleads/screams for help day after day after day.  When you hear every customer tell you their problem is a matter of life and death the phrase becomes meaningless.  There is a saying that sums this attitude up best: “A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”  The constant exaggerating by customers only aggravates us further; are we supposed to believe that a customer just sat behind a computer for three hours on a stuck install?

Don’t confuse indifference for laziness, though:  Those jaded-don’t-give-a-crap support people are still going to do their jobs, but they are going to do it without a single shred of touchy-feely-ness.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when I stopped caring, but I haven’t cared about my customer’s problems for quite some time, now.  Unfortunately the lack of empathy and concern can be heard loud in clear in my ‘phone voice’ at work, and I’ve been called out on it on occasion.

But just like I do when I hear the cry of ‘it has to be done now’ or ‘it was working yesterday’ or ‘its your company’s fault.’  I sigh, fix their problem or tell them it can’t be fixed, and move on to the next person.  Its just water off an apathetic duck’s back.

Upgrade or Die!

YOU GET NOTHING! YOU LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR!

There are many common terms that have different meanings when put into the context of computers.  To most people, “monitor” means to keep an eye on something, but to us IT Guys, its a display device.  “Legacy” is another one of those terms; in the computer world, it is a nice way of saying “obsolete.”  I learned this at a previous support job where the company pushed and pushed for its customers to upgrade (and spend more money on) the Latest and Greatest version of their software, but there were plenty of hangers-on that were content to use older versions.  That’s the way it was, it worked, and they liked it.

Eventually, a new service pack or new version of Windows would come along that would completely break the software, and there wasn’t much else we could tell those guys besides “well, you need to upgrade.”  The customers would get mad and stomp their feet and demand that we fix it right away, but 95% of the time, that wasn’t going to happen.  If the customer didn’t upgrade, they were out of luck.  On a certain level, I can understand the desire to not change something that works (heck, I still use Microsoft Money 2000 and WinAmp 2.9), but at the same time, nearly all computer software will eventually go off into the night of obsolescence because eventually the developer will decide that it isn’t worth the expense of continuing development and support.

One common customer response I would hear (and still do) to this situation was that we were awful people that wanted them to spend more money.  To that, I say: I’m sorry, but this is a BUSINESS, it exists to create a product, provide a service, and make money.  If we don’t make money by releasing new products and lose money by devoting too many resources to old software, we go out of business and all lose our jobs.  Yeah, it royally sucks for users (I myself had a printer that was ‘orphaned’ when Windows Vista came around) but it is a necessary part of the software “circle of life.”

At least that’s how it should work, but instead, many companies insist on continuing to support outdated software, and continue to sell it in many cases.  The end result is that tech support gets driven bonkers trying to support the old stuff on top of all the new stuff that comes out and it can get overwhelming.  It also results in poorer customer service because techs have to take extra customer time to dig into knowledgebases and ask senior techs about programs that were written for Windows 95.

This is one of the few things I love about Apple.  Instead of letting software linger around and stink up the place like old cheese, they have the cojones to tell their customers that the bar is closing, its lights out, so go to the newer nicer bar down the street or go home.  They did it when they nuked support for ‘classic’ Mac applications in Leopard, and again by no longer supporting PowerPC applications in Lion.  In both cases they waited until four years until after the product was discontinued before pulling the plug and did not hesitate to do so.

In the short term, yes, some customers will be upset and some will go to competitors, but in the long-term, the company can continue to move forward as opposed to having the dead weight of zombie software hanging around their necks like an albatross.  I guess we can put this in the “painfully obvious observation that senior management never gets” file.  I can’t wait to see what happens when Windows XP support goes away in 2014…or maybe I can.

Tales from the Tech Side: “Bubbles in Cement”

My coworkers and I get to talk to a lot of people during the course of doing our technical support jobs.  While there is much humor to be found in interacting with people who probably shouldn’t even be in the same room with a computer, some of the anecdotes our customers tell us while we wait for files to download or installers to run are pretty funny in themselves:

Laurie works in a hospital as a psychologist alongside her good friend “Bubbles” who is a counselor.  Bubbles is a nickname she has earned because according to Laurie, she fits the ‘ditzy blonde’ stereotype.  In their jobs, Laurie makes the kids cry, and then Bubbles makes them happy with soothing words and lollipops, so they have something of a “good cop/bad cop” thing going on.

Laurie and Bubbles often walk to a nearby donut shop for coffee and conversation.  One fine day as they were walking back to work, Laurie noticed that there were some orange traffic cones on the sidewalk ahead of them.  Laurie walked around the cones, guessing that they were there to keep people from walking on the sidewalk for some reason.  Bubbles, on the other hand, kept on walking and took two steps into wet cement.  Bubbles was able to get out of the cement with some help from Laurie.  Laurie helped Bubbles clean off her feet with a nearby water hose.

Laurie continued walking, taking care to avoid the sidewalk once again, but Bubbles immediately took another step into the wet cement, much to Laurie’s chagrin.  Laurie has no intention of letting it go and asked us to post their story, so here we are.  While Laurie may let it go eventually, the concrete dust footprints Bubbles left on the hospital’s dark carpet will probably serve as a more permanent reminder of the event.

Bubbles, indeed!

Randomizer’s 5 Rules of Tech Support

This is just a start, I’m sure that more will come to me as time goes on:

Rule #1 (People Suck rule): Customers are filthy liars. They change things, screw up their system, and then call you and insist that “it just stopped working out of the blue.” Okay, yeah, sometimes Windows or Visual Studio will randomly goof something up. The only thing that truly happens “just out of the blue” though is hardware failure. Everything else is either the result of something a customer screwed up or an new update that was automatically installed (or wasn’t installed in some cases). Customers will almost NEVER fess up and say what they did to goof up their system, though. Instead, they will make something up or just answer “Yes” because they think you’re working from a script.

Rule #2 (Sherlock Holmes rule) If all possibilities are eliminated, the impossible has to be the answer. When dealing with Windows and Visual Studio, sometimes weird stuff does just happen (see above). Hell, we’ve had Microsoft tell us: “Yeah, we know about that bug, but we aren’t going to fix it.” No matter how much a customer insists your suggestion will not work, insist that they do it. Even if it sounds obvious or weird to you, give it a shot, IT JUST MIGHT WORK.

Rule #3 (Mr. Rogers rule): Customers are like little kids; they want the newest stuff, they whine when it doesn’t work, they threaten to tell your parents (supervisor) if you don’t do something for them, you have to hold their hands and walk them across the street, and you also need to pat them on their head and tell them they’re special every once in a while. Always keep this in mind, especially the head-pat bit.

Rule #4 (Time Warner/Comcast/your cable company rule): If you are unable to help the customer (or cannot), always give them the illusion that you are trying. Every support team has certain customers that “cry wolf” and specialize in making mountains out of molehills, or that want help with somebody else’s product (usually Windows). Fark ’em. Give ’em what I call the “cable company” answer: “We’re working on it.” Wait, and then give ’em the bad news. If they think you tried, they will be less likely to get angry when they get the bad news.

Rule #5 (Lion King rule): EVERYTHING IS YOUR FAULT. Its your fault that the customer spilled tea on the keyboard. Its your fault that the power supply on their database server blew up and they have no backups. Its your fault the head programmer left and the source code for the app was on his machine that has already been re-imaged. Learn to live with this. Water off a duck’s back, baby.