The Best Support is Human

I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d start to cry if I did

For the third time in a week, a company I deal with has given us passwords easily and securely enough but forgot to tell us the User IDs. 

The passwords were the usual random jumble of characters and letters. That had me laughing since they are the easiest to break. No one can remember them. Users end up as post-it notes on their monitors. Anyone with a camera phone had total access to the password files.  

This system was not made for the user, the people typing in the passwords. They might eventually memorize them since they had to type them in not once but twice.  

This was made for the support team to handle problems. All the customizations I want are usually rejected by this company because, at the core level, it makes me different than everyone else, and that’s harder to support. 

Sadly, with all their boxing us into a standard system, this company we spend a large amount of our IT budget on, don’t know who we are. When I put in a support ticket, they’ll be off fixing the wrong problem. When I got errors for improper login, I requested the user IDs I was probably missing. They wanted to get all the error messages to start a major diagnostic. When I wanted some help fixing a report, they sent back a report that was even buggier than it was two months earlier* 

They don’t listen, they assume. They throw us in their standard boxes. My company and I am not in a relationship with them. We are a mere source of income, the same as every other source of income. 

This is, of course, not Apple I’m talking about. I put in a ticket to Apple about an Xcode or Swift playground feature. Even when it is a beta version, it falls into a deep dark chasm. Betas are when I’m supposed to be doing this. I’m lucky to hear from them at all. 

Technical support has fallen in bad times. It is considered by many to be an afterthought. It isn’t. It is as much part of the user experience as the user interface. I started my professional life in technical support. My first job was as an account manager for Medic Computer Systems, a medical billing and insurance filing system vendor. Account managers at Medic might be called implementation consultants today, but we did not stop supporting the customer after the install and initial training. 

I worked in the midwest region, so I and a little more than half-dozen other account managers handled all the accounts between Pittsburgh and Omaha. We trained in Raliegh, North Carolina, at headquarters, but our training would be interrupted by alerts that the support call list had gotten too long, and Medic put us students on the help desk. While this was in the late eighties, we could look at data about the calls, and I often picked my own accounts from the phone support calls list. I remember the joy when I told them I heard they had a problem because I was in Raliegh, and I’d be the one helping them today on a phone support call. 

They had a human being who knew them as human beings. As medical billers, They would know the running joke about the then ICD diagnosis 569.42 – Anal or rectal pain. In their training, I would assign that diagnosis to myself as a patient as they learned the medical billing system. The small self-deprecating humor about being a pain in the posterior to them broke the ice countless times and made me human. I knew their systems and their medical practices like they were friends just around the corner. So when I got on the phone with them, they had a kind of friend on the other end of the line, and I solved those problems easily. 

On phone support, I did take calls from people I didn’t know. I’d been in enough medical practices to know what it is like when the system isn’t working and what stress. I treated those people as people too. Problems don’t get solved by stress. So As much as getting the problems solved was there, I was spending as much time claiming down people to do the right thing. 

Medic, if I remember correctly, over the fogginess of three decades had two support structures. For immediate issues, there was phone support. You got a call back from someone who would help you over the phone. For deeper issues, you called your account manager. Sometimes we’d tell them that they needed support from Raliegh for and the call got escalated quickly past the phone people. I followed up on those calls when I could. 

Even to a fresh-out-of-college kid, six days of traveling around a large amount of the US burned me out quickly. I only lasted a year there. It was one of the most formative years of my career. On the phone and in person, support is one of the most stressful jobs one could imagine. When a company throws an underpaid and overworked support person at customers for hours a day, they can get jaded and be nothing more than a mindless cog. Instead of personal phone calls, customers get impersonal e-mails. Instead of someone you know and interact with often, support is a random outsourced bank of workers half a world away.   

I don’t usually pine for the good old days. Indeed, Medic was no picnic for me. I had a lot to learn and in some things too young to learn it well yet. But I look back at the good support I saw at Medic, compared to what, as a CIO today, I’m subjected to daily. As the IT department tries to support people internally, I see the temptation of automated support. Every time I do, I go back to my time at Medic, about having a person I know and trust at the end of that phone call.  

No one wants to be treated like a number or a stamped-out product. Support to be efficient tries to do that, but it fails at User experience in doing so. For whatever we support, I’ve learned at Medic and over the years to remember these points. 

  1.  Ask questions and clarify the problem. Listen carefully to the answers. 
  2. Be friendly and calming. 
  3. KNow the system. if you don’t, see #1
  4. Explain what you are doing and when you will do it. 
  5. Explain what is wrong as soon as you know. 
  6. Even when nothing changes in a solution, remind people you are working on it. Repeat often. 
  7. It is a fantasy that any running system is the same as any other system, again see #1
  8. You don’t know it all and can’t read minds. Again see #1
  9. If you have to escalate, escalate but follow up to make the escalation worked. 

This I what people want and expect when they are in trouble. I think a lot of bad customers start with bad customer service. I believe that much of the user experience is getting the problems solved as fast a possible. We gained efficiency with more advanced ticket systems, remote platforms, and even e-mail. Like much of technology, we can choose the support department to dehumanize them and let customers see only technology, or have a friendly, caring face on the other side of a human relationship. 

Choosing a human is always better. 

Choosing a relationship is the best choice. 

footnote: I paid for work that they made worse, and had to solve it myself. That led to my “revenge videos” that explained how to do what I was trying to do in the first place. You can find them on a Youtube channel here.

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