Datamation's Drew Robb compares tech support to the stages of Dante's Divine Comedy -- heaven, hell and purgatory. Which one is your company in and how do you get out of it if you need to?
Vendors regularly ask their customers to rate the quality of service,
typically on a scale of one to 10. That concept of different levels of
experience isn't new. In The Divine Comedy, for example, 14th century
Italian poet Dante Alighieri describes the afterlife as consisting of
heaven (Paradiso), hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio) each
divided into further levels. Perhaps vendors should adapt a similar
system to describe their ''after sales'' experience -- the heaven of
perfect service, the hell of failed repairs or the purgatory of
endlessly waiting for help.
''While you can't manage your customers, you really can manage the
customer experience you deliver to achieve business objectives, like
growth in customer acquisition, improved customer satisfaction and
loyalty, and increased customer profitability,'' says Mitchell I.
Kramer, senior consultant for the Boston-based customer service
consulting firm Patricia Seybold Group.
Some companies take his advice well to heart and others don't. Let's
take a trip in Dante's footsteps and see what we find along the way.
The first stop on the journey is hell.
Dante informs us that the lowest reaches of hell are not fiery, but
frigid, and so this is where we find the frozen screens of failed
applications. This is not a pleasant place to hang out, so we won't
spend much time here. A quick glance, though, at some of the software
boxes sitting on the shelf may bring back dim memories of failed
projects that started out with high hopes.
My worst experience was with a handheld two Christmases back. I wanted
to play with wireless email and bought a Palm. After four weeks of
trying to open a wireless account and countless calls to tech support, I
finally gave up. If I'd lived in Podunk, Ia. or Wheatfield, Wy., poor
connectivity might have made sense. But in the center of Los Angeles?
Nobody at tech support could do a thing for me.
''A customer experience is not something you set and forget,'' says
Kramer. ''Rather, you should continually refine and improve it.''
The next stop is purgatory, that area of endless waiting. It is a more
comfortable location than hell, but it still isn't where we want to be.
''Time is your customers' most valuable but most limited resource,''
says Kramer. ''Don't make them wait unnecessarily.''
Few companies, however, follow that advice well in the real world of
tech support. Sometimes they are kind enough to at least provide a
recording, letting you know that the average wait time is 30 minutes.
Occasionally, the wait is not measured in minutes or hours, but in
Alan Rice, tech services administrator for Manatee County, Fla., relates
what began several years ago when the developer of one product he uses
was bought out by a larger firm. (He requests that the company remain
unnamed since he still has a working relationship with them.) The
network management software he used should have imported data from the
other software, but that application just gave him an error report. Tech
support told him they found a special character in the URL information
the management software generated that the application did not like.
''This call took place in the summer, and they told me it would be fixed
in the November version,'' says Rice. ''Come November, I downloaded the
new version and it was still broken.''
Rice called the company back. They told him they had closed the case out
without checking with him or verifying that the software bug had been
resolved. The back and forth on this dragged out for more than a year.
And then he gave up.
As far as Rice knows the problem still hasn't been fixed.
''The people were friendly, but they never got anything fixed,'' he
says. ''It is a good product and we use it a lot, but I am disappointed
that a company that big couldn't solve it in a more timely manner.''
Continue on to find out what it actually means to be in tech support heaven... and how you and your IT department can get there.
Finally, we reach heaven, where support goes beyond the expected.
''We can't think of a better way to improve loyalty and satisfaction
than through personalized customer service,'' says Kramer of the Seybold
Robert Johnson, IT manager for FKP Architects in Houston, Tx. tells of
the support he got one time from Westlake village, Calif.-based
CaminoSoft Corp. when an operator error corrupted the mirroring server
at FKP's branch office in Dallas.
''I went up to Dallas and it was a hornets' nest,'' he says. ''I called
CaminoSoft and got a hold of two different engineers who stayed on the
phone with me for eight hours that day. They made sure I was able to
recover all the volumes, and before I left that night the server was
He then returned to Dallas the next weekend with the now repaired
primary server. He put it back into the tree to get it to mirror, but
there were still some problems.
''Although it was the weekend, they called me back within 15 minutes and
stayed with me till the end,'' Johnson adds. ''Tech support walked me
through what I needed to do to get it fixed and they've been running
rock solid ever since.''
Dean Atkins, president of Timeless Images in Olympia, Wa., tells of what
happened when one of his employees deleted 4GB of photos from the
National Gymnastics Championships.
''I was up all night, sick to my stomach,'' he says. ''How do you tell
over 40 competitors and their parents that all of the photos that
they've already seen and picked from are now lost?''
At 6:30 that morning he was poking around in the program file folder of
the recovery bin software and noticed a sub-folder called ''Emergency
Delete.'' He called the vendor, Executive Software, Inc. based in
Burbank, Ca., for help.
''Lance Jensen in Tech Support very patiently, very meticulously walked
me through the steps of trying to recover these precious files,'' Atkins
says. ''Out of 2,149 deleted files, I successfully recovered 2,132. I
only lost 17 files and of those, only 14 were images.''
But top notch vendors don't wait for there to be a problem before they
provide help. Rice says that, unlike the large vendor mentioned earlier,
the company that created his network management software -- Somix
Technologies, Inc. of Sanford, Maine -- provides superior service. He
has a service contract and once a year a technician comes on site to
update the software and do any other work needed.
But Somix' support efforts aren't limited to solving problems that Rice
or his crew asks the technician to address.
''One time, the technicians asked me how I backed up my routers,'' Rice
says. ''We were doing it manually, so he said, 'Here is a little program
I wrote that backs up all the router configurations and stores them in
Using that piece of software, the county now backs up all its routers
automatically at 3 a.m. every day. Then, when one goes down, they can
just download the configuration and copy it into the new router.
According to Dante, new arrivals in hell are greeted by the sign, ''All
hope abandon, ye who enter here!''
But, like any morality tale, the message of this story is not about
abandoning hope, but of seeking salvation. As Johnson's, Atkin's and
Rice's stories illustrate, there are companies out there which do
deliver decent service.
So, when stuck in support hell, or made to wait far too long, there is
another option. Instead of abandoning all hope, abandon the vendor and
find someone who wants your business, and shows you via their tech
support department that they genuinely care about your concerns.