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Why can’t technical support be good?

In separate articles, I wrote about hosting providers’ technical support, and about my web-hosting technical support improvement ideas. Since I have a lot of experience both as a user, and as technical support employee, here I’ll talk about technical support in general – having mobile phone operators and Internet service providers primarily in mind, but applicable to any product, or service where technical support is offered via phone, or the Internet (using emails, or ticket systems).


Table Of Contents (T.O.C.):

  1. Introduction – defining the terms
  2. Top-class technical support employee
  3. Cheap technical support employee
  4. Users
  5. Stupid questions
  6. Company policy
    6.1. Good manuals and documentation
    6.2. Tech support levels
    6.3. High-quality equipment
    6.4. Tickets
  7. Conclusion


1. Introduction – defining the terms

Because this article is intended to be rather universal, a few notes in order to make it clearer and shorter:

  • Product, or service = service
    I’ll be using the term “service” to describe both products and services.
  • Person providing technical support = tech. support, or just him.
    Regardless of whether the support is offered by a woman, man, or an alien, and regardless of whether their job title is a common sense one (“technical support technician,” or “engineer,” “level 2 tech. support” etc.), or a marketing nonsense one (“happiness engineer,” “superwoman/man” etc.), I’ll be using just plain old boring terms “tech. support” and male singular noun (colour me conservative).
  • Infrastructure
    By this term I mean everything needed for a service to run. For a taxi company this encompasses road network, traffic jams, local drivers’ habits etc, while for telecommunication services this includes electrical supply, but primarily connections and communication device networks, as well as customer software and hardware (Windows, Linux, MacOS, laptops/tablets/phones, drivers etc.).
  • User
    Client, customer, person using the service.

– T.O.C. –


2. Top-class technical support employee

A top-class technical support employee is a person with the following skills:

Technical knowledge

  • Excellent knowledge of the service from a customer’s point of view.
    Which options are used for what, what is the most common way of using the service, what are the less usual (“exotic”) ways of using the service – basically, a level of a very, very advanced and experienced user.
  • Good knowledge of the service from the technical side.
    How exactly it works “under the hood.”
  • Full understanding of the service’s underlying infrastructure.

Human-relations skills

  • Eloquence, and being able to explain even the most complicated technical stuff so that a layman (or a child) can understand them.
  • Patience for working with users who are nervous, upset, panicked, or unable to clearly explain what the problem is.
  • Tact, “feel for the people” to put it like that – knowing how to communicate with various types of people in order to get the info needed for figuring out the problem cause and fixing it.

There aren’t many people who possess a high level of technical knowledge. Fewer of those are also good at working with people. Because of the technical support job downsides, out of an already rather small number of people, there are even fewer of them who want and enjoy doing that job.

Even if you use cheap Chinese Serbian workforce, you’ll have to pay relatively high wages for people who satisfy the here noted criteria.

– T.O.C. –


3. Cheap technical support employee

By this, I mean people without enough knowledge and experience, who also aren’t very good at working with people. They can follow instructions for asking questions, and for solving simple and common problems.

Most tech. support employees fall somewhere between the two extremes – between the cheap, and the top-class (described in chapter 2). It’s up to each company how the talents are used, but those with good people skills are generally better at communicating with the users, while those with greater tech. knowledge are better at solving problems once they get a minimum required info (from the formerly mentioned colleagues 🙂 ).

Digression:
It’s interesting that, if you are offering tech. support in a language that isn’t your native, many users will consider you to be closer to the cheap, than to the top-class tech. support employee, regardless of your level of competence.
I wrote more on this in the article: “Prejudice and technical support.”

– T.O.C. –


4. Users

It is ideal when a user has enough technical knowledge and patience to clearly explain exactly what kinds of problems they are having and when those problems occur. This is often not the case.

Users usually contact tech. support when something isn’t working, and they are often frustrated and unprepared to clearly communicate, much less to put in some effort to diagnose a problem (“what are they paying you for!?”).

Digression:
For some reason, most people think it’s normal for stuff to just work, even though chaos and entropy are the natural state of the elements towards which everything is inclined – i.e. it’s normal for stuff to break down.

That’s understandable: users are paying for a service, and when it isn’t working, they want it fixed – and it is the tech. support’s job to fix it. Also, in my experience, even with the best documentation and tutorials (including video tutorials), a certain number of users still won’t spend a second to “Google,” but will rather contact tech. support right away – and they don’t want to be bothered with some stupid questions… which leads us to the next chapter:

– T.O.C. –


5. Stupid questions

I’ve had experience with people who (during the daytime) had an electrical power failure and called to report problems with their computer (“nothing’s working!?!”). How can you ask an already irritated user to check if they have electricity in their office, without them taking it as if you are considering them to be an idiot? 🙂

Depending on a user’s level of technical knowledge, some questions may seem stupid. I sometimes get that even from (the inexperienced) colleagues when writing working procedures: “but that goes without saying!” Well, if you start looking for a problem cause/solution with a wrong assumption (that you hadn’t checked), you’ll have great difficulty.

Digression:
If you have enough sense and tact, humour can be a great way to break the tension and get the user to answer even some “stupid questions.” Unfortunately, when you aren’t speaking face-to-face with people, it’s very difficult to assess what the right measure is – so humour is out of the question for most tech. support employees.

The cherry on the top of the cake is the legal “catches” (including, but not exclusively related to the GDPR). On more than one occasion I’ve had to confirm in writing a request regarding which I had contacted tech. support in the first place – and that’s after having clicked some menu options regarding that request.

The bottom line is that users often can’t really tell whether they are talking with a top-class or a cheap tech. support employee – and, if troubleshooting isn’t super-quick, they are likely to conclude they are dealing with the latter.

However, often, very often, users have every right to be upset. More about this in the next chapter.

– T.O.C. –


6. Company policy

We are living in cruel, competitive capitalism. People are trying to save money when possible. That’s why lower prices are what attracts a great number of users. Cutting costs is important.

Technical support is a cost that is proportional to the number of users. If you have more customers, you need more tech. support employees.

Since top-class tech. support employees are expensive, how can you offer good tech. support without having your service cost more than the competition?

– T.O.C. –


6.1. Good manuals and documentation

This is very important, I think that every company worth their salt should have a high-quality knowledge base.

Having said this, know that manuals & docs are of relatively little help – because most people don’t want to bother. It may sound rude, but that’s how it is.

Still, since writing/recording manuals is a one-time cost, and they serve for years and years, there’s no excuse for skimping on this, even if it reduces the tech. support load (and costs) by only 5%.

– T.O.C. –


6.2. Tech support levels

It makes no sense to pay an engineer to solve basic problems. Smart companies have tech. support tiers, or levels. Complicated problems will be relayed to the experts, while the basic problems get solved by the “first line tech. support” – the less experienced and less paid people.

At this, it’s important to have good manuals for the personnel, good work-procedures and organization, and good software for tracking and noting all the information, so users don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again to the first, second and third-tier tech. support.

While it is understandable that companies won’t hire top-class experts for their first-level tech. support, many companies inexcusably fail on the second step – good inter-colleague communication and work organization. Why is this the case with a vast majority of the companies? Here are my guesses & assumptions:

  • It costs a lot.
    People with enough knowledge and experience to organize and lead tech. support, as well as good second and third-tier tech. support personnel, require relatively high wages. And you need a lot of them, compared to the number of users (depending on the type of service, it could be as much as two or three employees for every thousand users).
  • People don’t think about this when shopping.
    Everyone is looking for the low prices and high performance. Would you pay twice the monthly rate for a service just because they offer good tech. support? Didn’t think so. 🙂

So it is like a vicious cycle – a company that tries to stand out with great tech. support will end up being most expensive, and run out of business.

– T.O.C. –


6.3. High-quality equipment

Using equipment of high quality that doesn’t malfunction as often can reduce tech. support load and costs.

But high-quality equipment costs a lot, so it’s a tradeoff – and it depends on what the competition is doing.

– T.O.C. –


6.4. Tickets

What tickets? You know – when you log into your account and write a tech. support ticket, stating your problem in writing. Then get a reply (maybe even a problem solution) within 5 or 35 minutes. Many users don’t like this, they prefer calling via a phone. Why are tickets the next best thing since the 3-phase electricity invention?

  • Writing a ticket gets a customer to calm down, focus, and explain the problem.
    Not always, not completely, but often a lot better than is the case with phone calls.
  • Tech. support can read about 10 times faster than a person can speak.
    So they can get more work done in one shift. And reading is a lot less stressful than talking with people, regardless of how eloquent, people loving and communicative you are.
  • Tickets and replies to them are saved for later reference.
    So both the users and tech. support colleagues can re-read them. If a tech. support employee gets stuck, he can ask a senior colleague to look at the ticket #7689239 and help. Likewise, a user can refer tech. support to a potential additional problem related to the ticket with this-and-this number.

If a service is such that it’s possible to offer tech. support using tickets, they can save a lot of time, hassle and money.

People think that a problem is solved faster when they make a phone call, but in practice that takes longer and is less practical. How long does it take for you to introduce yourself and give your customer ID to confirm it’s you, before you even start describing the problem? How long do you have to wait on hold until the person you talked to conveys the problem to a senior colleague if they can’t solve it themself? Tickets rule! 🙂

– T.O.C. –


7. Conclusion

Just like finding a good bicycle mechanic, it is difficult finding a service with excellent technical support. In both cases, the root of the problem is how much people are willing to pay.

For stuff that isn’t of crucial importance for the business (putting the bread on the table), I’m happy to use services that are of high quality, but lower price and with slower and lower-quality technical support.

In order to improve things in this matter, it is important that a critical mass of people start looking for more expensive services with excellent technical support. I don’t see such services beating their competition that comes with a “super sign-up discount for the new customers.” Before any of us starts complaining about the poor tech. support quality, we should just ask ourselves: “are we willing to pay double the monthly subscription for the mobile/Internet/cable etc?” Because that’s what it boils down to, in my opinion, and experience.

– T.O.C. –

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