Traveling Heaven and Hell with Tech Support

Thursday Jul 29th 2004 by Drew Robb
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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.

Inferno

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.''

Purgatorio

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 years.

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.

Paradiso

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 Group.

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 running.''

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 files.' ''

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.

Support Salvation

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.

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