Why Tech Support Sucks: A Look Behind the Scenes

Why Tech Support Sucks: A Look Behind the Scenes

I sacrificed several months of my life, sanity and dignity working in tech support to amass the dark knowledge I share in this article. I may have even helped you with a computer problem at some point. If so, I'm sorry.

Now, it probably seems like every time you call tech support you're playing a game of dipshit-roulette that by and large you can't win. You probably spoke to one of three people:

The outsourced guy in India who, as best you can tell, is either explaining how to reset your BIOS or reading you amateur erotica;

The mouth-breather who refuses to believe that you've already power cycled the modem and that you are fully aware that a computer needs to be plugged in for it to properly function;

A level two tech support assistant, which is kind of like winning the lottery since there's actually a chance that he knows how to fix your computer, though he won't do much besides talk to you like you have mittens pinned to your jacket and need the tines on your fork filed down so you don't stab yourself when you eat.

If these three characters sound familiar, you're not unlucky. Based on my experience, these are pretty much the only three types of tech support people that exist. There are reasons for all of this. Terrible, nonsensical reasons. Let's walk through a typical call, from the beginning.

On Hold

The Suck:

At some point in time while furiously fapping to some hentai on a venture through various East Asian thumbnail galleries you may have had the unfortunate luck to run afoul of some kind of virus that completely crippled your computer. Desperate for some more pictures of Sailor Moon pleasuring Pikachu, you call up tech support. You'll likely notice the phone rings and rings again before finally a pleasant recording will let you know that your call is important. That's nice.

Around the 15th time the recorded voice assures you of your importance, you begin to imagine what you're certain is a faint whiff of sarcasm in her voice. Your eye begins twitching ever so slightly.

The Reason For The Suck:

You may have heard one of those messages say you've called during "peak" hours, when everyone is fucking up at the same time, and to call back later. And you've probably noticed if you call at 2 AM you may get through right away, but if you call at 5 PM the next day, you'll wait an hour.

It seems like the solution to this problem would be simple: shift some of the staff's off-peak hours to the time when, you know, people are actually calling. But predicting a rush of calls is like trying to predict a traffic jam; you know its more likely during certain times of day, but you still can't predict when 50,000 customers all download the same virus-encrusted clip off of DirtySanchez.org at the same time.

You may be asking why they don't just say "better safe than sorry" and staff the call center with extra support just in case of a problem. It's the same reason your yard is not full of unicorns shitting gold coins; that's just not the world we live in. In this world, where support staff are paid by the hour and everything is sacrificed for the bottom line, the company thinks having too many staff sitting idle is worse than not having enough. They even sell special scheduling software intended to make sure call centers have the exact minimum of staff on hand at all times.

So while Tech Support agents tend to be nocturnal cave creatures who use sonar to feed on field mice, that's not why it's easier to talk to one at night. Well, at least it's not the only reason. Somewhere there's a stressed-out manager who'll catch hell if he's got guys "sitting around."

The Level 1 Tech Support

The Suck:

When you finally do get through to an agent, you'll hear something like: "Welcome to DSL technical support, my name is Larry how can I help you today?" You give Larry your account number and begin to explain your situation, knowing all the while that this is a formality. As soon as you stop talking he'll begin the same dance you've danced every time you call tech support.

You conclude your exhaustive rundown of your case history. There's a beat, and then Larry responds, "I understand sir. Can you tell me. Is your computer plugged in?"


Reason for the Suck:

Every call Larry takes is subject to quality control which means he's being monitored. And the Big Brother in this particular situation requires he ask you if the computer is plugged in, if the power is on and if the monitor is on as well. If he gets caught doing something else he'll get fired. He doesn't necessarily think you're borderline retarded, he just has no autonomy whatsoever. Larry is like a CSI: Miami cast member: a now-soulless abomination with a script that he must follow against his better judgment.

Most tech support agents you've spoken with are sitting in a giant, cubicle-strewn mess of a room with hundreds of other agents, all at their computers with headsets on, all running the same tech support software. Most don't actually have any computer expertise. By and large they're recent high school grads, single moms or social malcontents who refuse to wear anything that doesn't feature a character from a Tim Burton children's movie on it. They're trained for 30 days on the software and are encouraged to just read along with the computer for each call. So in most cases, Larry's bosses aren't exactly wrong for discouraging any off-prompter improvising.

That's why every time you call with a different problem they ask you to do the same thing. It's not that they don't know what they're doing (though they very likely may not), it's that they only have one thing to do and this is it. It might help you feel less frustrated to think of each tech support call as a horrific fall down a set of stairs. Fight as much as you want, but there's only one way that this can go, and each step leads to banging your head.

Level Two: Getting Mistreated By Someone Who Kind of Knows What They're Doing

The Suck:

If it's your lucky day and your computer is especially fucked in such a spectacular way that the first guy you talk to actually realizes that he can't possibly help you, you may achieve what few mortals have--elevation to Level Two. Like the Yeti and child Disney stars who don't grow up to be train wrecks, the Level Two tech is a hard beast to track down. Even when you're promised a glimpse of one, you may still be left empty-handed as elevation to Level Two means you once again go into queue and are placed on hold.

Generally, Level Two tech associates are the elite crew at any given tech support center. They are like Iceman and Maverick, only with worse skin and probably not as bogged down with homoeroticism. By and large this doesn't mean they have an abundance of technical knowledge, it means they're literate and can retain basic information better than 95 percent of their coworkers. This is also why there is only one tech support agent at Level Two for every 100 or so at Level One. So sure, you may need advanced help, but that doesn't mean you'll get it within the hour.

Level Two Tech Associate.

If you've spoken with a Level Two tech, you may have noticed that he seems just as socially maladjusted as his lower level counterparts with an added layer of arrogance that comes with a position of power and responsibility.

You may start wondering why it is that the agent you're speaking to seems to be treating you like you just shat into the phone and are forcing them to taste it every time you speak. Maybe it's you. Is your problem really so stupid? Not really. If it seems like the level two tech is barely even able to feign interest in what you're saying, it is because he's barely able to feign interest in what you're saying. But it's not you. They just hate their jobs and, by the transitive properties of unfocused job place hatred, they hate you too.

Reason for the Suck:

In addition to being bombarded with complaints all day, your call center employee is also bombarded on all sides by the kind of corporate shitheadery many of us are sadly familiar with.

Employees at some centers face rampant and ceaseless harassment when they go off and do foolish things like use the bathroom during their shift or read quietly between calls. Like the set-in-stone script agents must follow when answering calls, so too must management follow its own set of completely arbitrary rules. This often includes no books in your cubicle because they're "distracting" (agents are encouraged to use any free time to read over notes on how to better serve customers or brush up on company policies). And your bathroom breaks will be timed; often companies monitor their computers for idle time and if your computer shows you haven't answered a call within two minutes of ending one, someone comes looking to see why you're slacking off.

Sometimes I call myself to look busy.

You may one day be randomly told to stop wearing blue jeans to work because your client, being the company your call center has contracted service out to, wants to portray a more professional image. Which is to say a company that may actually be located in another country has decided that you can't wear jeans while talking to customers who may also be in another country, because it's unprofessional and they may have super-sensitive phones that can detect the sound of denim being worn.

Yet, since the work at a call center is done entirely over the phone, the actual conditions of the call center itself can fall by the wayside. As an employee, you're left to wonder why wearing jeans is unprofessional but an overflowing toilet that hasn't been fixed in five days is kosher. Or why none of the lights in the last three rows of cubicles work. Or why you have to share a cubicle with a day shift guy who gets it covered in corn nut dust and leaves the cushion of the chair smelling like a wicked case of acrid swamp ass.

The center itself is also pretty much a buzzing hive of people talking non-stop in a headache-inducing slurry of white noise and random snippets of repetitive banter which can and does lead to a lot of health issues for the agents. As much as 10 percent of working time at some centers is lost to sick days due to the various job stresses one faces when working in such an epic shithole.

Factoring in what is generally a fairly low rate of pay given the amount of work one is expected to do and the stress they're under, it's not too hard to appreciate just why some agents' phone manner makes it seem like they're dragging their scrotum across a cheese grater with every word they speak.

There's also the problem of you. Namely, you just got patched into the middle of a retarded game, and you're frustrated because you don't know the rules.

The Part Where You Get Kicked Off the Call

The Suck:

As frustrating as it was to wait half an hour for Level One and another half hour for Level Two, your worst tech support experience probably came when, after all that, you either got put back on hold, transferred to yet a third agent or, worst of all, got disconnected and had to start the whole motherfucking process over.

But it's not so bad for the Level Two tech, and might in fact be exactly what he wants.

Reason for the Suck:

It's entirely possible you did get transferred because the guy wasn't in a position to help you, or may be new to the job and needed to transfer you to someone with more experience. But it might also be that the guy you're talking to can help, he just doesn't want to. And why wouldn't he want to? Metrics!

"Great! Hey, listen, fuck off for a second, alright?"

Metrics are the monkey on a tech support agent's back that tell them what numbers they must achieve on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. They need a certain percentage of all their shit to go right or the job gets lost and one of the things they need to do is maintain a handle time, maybe around 15 minutes per call.

So if your agent has already had three calls that lasted an hour each, fucking up his average for the day, he wants you off the phone quickly. So any time an agent has offered to transfer you to another agent and you mysteriously got sent back into a queue or the phone just disconnected, it wasn't an accident. He just needed his call to end quickly.

The best thing to happen to a tech support agent in a day is a "ghost" call, where no one answers after the agent says hello. After saying hello once or twice more if there's no reply, the call gets disconnected and the handle time is clocked in at 15 seconds or so, bringing the day's metrics well into check. No ghost calls in a day means every second he talks to you is like a kick in the teeth for him.

If transferring you doesn't work, the agent may escalate you or tell you it's a problem that he can't help you with. So if you call your ISP with a connectivity issue, the tech might say it's hardware and tell you to call HP. HP will tell you it's connectivity and tell you to call Verizon again. And when you call Verizon you'll get a new agent who will tell you none of those things. The merry-go-round of clusterfucking starts all over again.

But again, that's not to paint the support agents as the villains here. Like all of us--well, the ones who are employed anyway--they're just helpless little apes vainly struggling to ride a unicycle so their cruel overlords won't beat them. Or make them wear khakis.

Now that you've learned about the assholes on the giving end, it's time to check out the ones on the receiving end, in 8 Customers Everyone Hates. Or checkout Gladstone's own tale of surviving the dredges of customer service, in Mac vs. PC: Either Way You're Screwed When It Breaks.

And visit our tech support in the Top Picks section. And by "tech support" we mean "glorious titties."

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