Virtuality with David Schultz

Virtuality: the nexus between the virtual and the real, the place where the virtual becomes real and reality becomes virtual, a matrix of appearances.

The Tech Support Dance

April 24, 2000 - David Schultz

First, I want to thank all of you who wrote me about my experience with Apple Tech Support in my first "Virtuality" column. (Please note that when you write me, I will never publish your email address. We know better than that here at LEM. We may quote you though.) Let me say that I am still trying to discover if there is a problem with the trackpad button on the Pismo, and I will keep you informed. But after reading some of the replies, and then reading more generally on the web about tech support, I had some thoughts about getting results when you call. It seems some techs out there feel defensive, and some customers out there are fed up with them. Each brings this tension to the situation. So we have to be careful on both sides. A tech support call is actually an intricate dance of conflicting interests and viewpoints. Let me explain.

Someone who does tech support all day wrote me about my first article. He said, "So dealing with these kind of people [who don't know what they are talking about] all day makes one suspect any one callers (sic) knowledge or claim." In other words, techs get tired - and after listening to know-nothings all day one begins to suspect most don't know Jack! I completely understand this. After dealing all day with what we in the philosophy department affectionately call "grade mongering" (an attitude that a class, or college, is only about grades, and bugging your professor more and more will get you better ones), I tend to suspect all students have this attitude. They don't, and not all tech support callers are know nothings, and neither are all techs jerks. Obviously it is much more complex than this.

If you really are new to all things Mac and don't have a clue, then you have to play your cards right. There is one piece of advice we can adopt: Don't try to fool them. If you try to come off as if you know what you're doing when you don't, it will be brought to light during the conversation if the tech is good. Then you have lost him. The best policy would appear to be to state your ignorance up front. It's okay, you'll never meet him anyway! If you explain that you are confused or frustrated and need help, he may (I say may), hear you saying you need him, and everyone wants to be needed. You may have a better experience overall. The point is: Don't fake it. If you don't know something, don't act like you do.

If you do know your stuff, then try to drop clues that you are not a regular consumer. But you have to be subtle. I don't tell Apple techs I write on the Mac web when I call; it could come off as a threat and immediately raise the stakes too high. Don't say, "I really know my stuff, so listen to me, you idiot!" Not good.

You want to be on equal terms. So how do you get there? It is the vocabulary you use, they way you say things, how you describe the problem itself, which achieves this. Don't say, "I am having trouble with the thing next to the black object over to the kind of upper middle right of the other thingy. Ya know?" Imagine being the tech who hears this! What sense can be made of it? Before I call Apple Tech or any tech, I look in the manual to see exactly what is called what. I didn't want to say, "I have a hot button," since there are a couple of buttons on the machine; I didn't even want to say "the button under the trackpad." I wanted to know what the name of that button was. I found it's called the "trackpad button" in the manual, so that is what I used. I would then speak the tech's language.

The point is that sometimes you need to study before you call. Write out your problem on paper first. That always helps clarify the issue in your head, and hopefully it will be clear in their head, too. If someone sounds like a moron, he'll be treated like one. So don't sound like one. Bone up on the issue and vocabulary before you call. While you will never be equals with a tech unless you too are a tech, at least he'll see you differently than others, maybe.

But most of the time the first thing we do is call tech support. Then we can make fools out of ourselves. I understand the impulse, though. Our machine is down, and there are important docs on it. We have deadlines, and we want quick results. But we need to be careful in this Internet age of instant answers. It is always easy to pick up the phone for every little inconvenience. But resist the urge. I have found solutions to most of my problems by waiting before I call a tech. When I haven't called immediately, I have gained a wealth of information I can give the tech when I call. In fact, most of the time when I call I end up saying over and over again, "I did that already. I zapped the PRAM. I did a clean install," and so on. It goes a long way to getting to the real solution, and it may avoid the call in the first place. It also lets the tech know you have brain. Once we have danced this dance, we usually get to the meat of issue.

I might even give the procedure a name. In medical ethics we have the "principle of last resort," which says that the most drastic means should be left as a last resort. One doesn't immediately do surgery before he has tried medication (if the condition calls for it). Why cut when you can give a pill? So perhaps we could adopt a "tech support principle of last resort":

Do everything imaginable (to you, depending on your background knowledge) to fix the problem before you call tech support, if possible.

I say "everything imaginable" meaning "the basic counter measures for any problem," such as rebuilding the desktop, zapping the PRAM, running TechTool Pro and Conflict Catcher, disabling extensions, and trying to reproduce the problem. The last - reproduce the problem - is important. Two questions the tech will want answers to are (1) is the problem random, and (2) what where you doing when it happened? Immediately go back and open the same programs, and do exactly what you were doing when the machine crashed or did whatever it did. See if it does it again. In fact, try to reproduce it. If you cannot, then you may not have to call after all. If you can reproduce it, that will help the tech find the problem.

"Everything imaginable" does not include voiding your warranty, though. Don't call and say, "After over-clocking my new G4, I keep getting these crashes." Not good. And if you get into something that you really don't understand, or are dealing with some hardware issue, you need to be careful. A simple static shock can permanently disable your Mac. "Taps" is the only music you'll hear after that. If you rush into a hardware issue, then you might not need tech support. Instead, you'll need a salesperson from whom to buy a new machine. "Everything imaginable" does not mean "even the inane." Think, don't act.

I say do everything you can before you call "if possible," because you may need surgery right away and no medicine will help, e.g., your machine won't even start up, a processor is fried. Yes, some emergencies are real. Then call right away. But otherwise, there are plenty of resources on the Net that you can pursue before calling. On some forums you may find five or fifty people with the same problem, all trying to fix it. Their troubles can save you a lot of trouble.

Some people wrote me about the inherent conflicts in tech support. A business has budgets; the goal of tech support, some said, is to save the company money. So a tech will do anything to talk you out of the problem. Well, now that Apple has billions in the bank, that is not an issue! Maybe they'll be more ready to test and, if need be, replace something than they were in the dismal days several years ago. And not all companies are like this. I have found some tech support to be so fast in replacing products I almost feel guilty. This has been my experience with Iomega a few times. But there are real issues about the so called "click of death" with Zip drives, and this may account for the speed of the reply. After all, when the tech can actually hear the problem on the phone, that goes a long way to solving it! The point is not to paint with too broad of a brush on either side.

I have no doubt that there are bad techs everywhere. I have no doubt that some have bad days every day of the week. But not all. And this article is not meant to either defend techs or give tricks for manipulating them (I suppose it can be read both ways). Hopefully, it's common sense that will help both parties.

I have read over and over that one needs to be rude and loud to get good support. I don't think this is universally true. There are times we need to be demanding, but there good ways to do this and bad ways to do this. If you do get a bad tech or just have a personality conflict with one, then hang up and call again until you get one you can work with. Just end it. Don't cause yourself misery.

If you do get results from rudeness and anger, you may have a smooth running computer, but at what price? You have to weigh the options to make sure that when you hang up the phone you are not worse off in other ways.

The only thing you have control over when you call tech support is yourself, and this makes all the difference. You'd be amazed what can get done if this control is not given away. LEM

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