True tales from tech support. Reed 'em and weep. Probably with laughter.
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by Michael Froomkin
Laurie Silvers & Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Miami School of Law
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Some more strange but true tech tales.
I did a stint as a senior telephone tech support for one of the large computer manufacturers (and coincidentally also did a stint at the small ISP where the userfriendly author worked, that was shortly before he started the strip), if the regular techs couldn’t figure someting out they’d call me or patch the customer through to me, and when it was quiet techs would phone me with assorted weirdness, so I heard about all sorts of strange calls. Some of the following actually happened elsewhere, I no longer remember which, but…
This first one happened to me and wasn’t ha-ha funny, just weird. A call was passed on to me, I no longer remember what the problem was, but I determined that the machine would have to be returned for bench repair (we’d Fedex out the proper box and have it returned at our cost when under warranty) and then either fix it or replace it. While talking to the customer I heard this series of tones in the background every few minutes, it sort of sounded like a musical doorbell (though it was just a few notes and I didn’t recognize any tune) so I assumed there might be various visitors or something, though I heard no other sounds. Eventually I discovered from something the woman said that the notes were coming from her computer tower. This was with the machine turned off, and even after it was unplugged. I determined that it happened about every six minutes, just the same 4 or 5 notes. I was baffled what it could be and when further questioned the woman said it had done that since they’d bought it a few months earlier (the problem she had called in about was a recent and common one so I didn’t think them related). I said I could understand how that might be annoying but the woman said she and her husband had gotten used to it going off 24/7 and didn’t mind it at all.
Nevertheless, I wracked my brain trying to figure out what could be causing it. One would think it would have to be powered somehow and the only thing I could think of was the CMOS battery on the motherboard which allows a machine to remember the time, basic config info, etc, they’re now normally similar in size to a watch battery. I wondered if it was some sort of alarm like if the CPU was overheating, but checked then and later and that wasn’t it. The only other thing I could think of was those greeting cards that play tunes, perhaps someone had put such a mechanism in the machine (though every 6 minutes for months seemed a stretch).
So I had to file a report on our intranet for the repair folks a thousand miles away detailing what troubleshooting I’d done, etc. and I also asked them to pass on to me (normally once the repair folks had it that was the last we’d here of it, we didn’t get updates) what had been causing the notes. They never did get back to me. Then a few months later I got an email from another one of our techs in another city. The customer had had their computer fixed and returned and had called back with a new minor problem. The tech had read my file notes and wanted me to know that the woman reported that the machine was still playing the notes every six minutes. I never did figure that one out.
The next story didn’t happen to me, was just passed on. We didn’t, or weren’t supposed to, provide software support beyond the installed OS and any bundled software, so we’d normally ensure that the hardware and OS/bundle weren’t the problem and refer them to the software co. There were a lot of cases of software co’s referring them back to us claiming it wasn’t their problem and customers would often be justifiably upset about getting the runaround. I don’t mind saying that AOL was by far the worst for this, and was probably the single largest source of problem calls. So often we’d just try to fix the software problem anyway to save later bother and keep the customer happy. So this guy phoned up and couldn’t get his fax software to work. His faxmodem checked out, everything worked fine, the fax could even be received elsewhere but always came out blank. After the tech ensured a few times that what the customer wanted to fax could be seen on the monitor and he would press send, still nothing but a blank page came through at the other end. It eventually turned out that the guy was holding up a paper page he wanted to fax against the monitor.
Of course the next one is so old it’s probably apocryphal, but there are no shortage of calls from people who just haven’t plugged their machine in and wonder why it isn’t working, so it may well happen often. A customer calls up and asks where the ‘any’ key is. The tech says, approximatey, Huh? The customer says: there’s a box on my screen that says ‘press any key to continue’.
One woman called about her new computer not having a mouse. From something she said the tech figured out that she was able to move the mouse pointer around on the screen, though she found it difficult, it moved slowly and wasn’t very accurate. The tech confirmed with her that she wasn’t using the keyboard to do so. This had the tech baffled, until again from something the woman said (it was surprising how often the most direct question would lead nowhere and the most innnocuous question would lead to the solution for the wrong reason), he was able to figure out that the woman, new to computers, was no stranger to sewing machines. She had the mouse on the floor and was using it like a foot pedal. -g
And still more strange but true tech stories.
Slashdot points to an article in Salon regarding how tech support really works (or doesn’t). The link following the obligatory ad (unless you’re a Salon member) was apparently slashdotted as it was inaccessible for a few hours today. I still keep in touch with that part of the industry and have acquaintances involved in it and the article isn’t as overdrawn as it sounds. This idea of outsourcing tech to third parties is a recipe for disaster, as the article points out it’s all about cutting down call time to make money, not actually fixing a problem. I really feel for latecomers to computers and the internet, both of which have the potential to be such powerful tools but which seem increasingly to be governed by money/greed.
I did have another funny as in weird story on my previous post on this thread but apparently MT is smart enough to truncate my trend to verbosity, as when pressing the preview button it went down the memory hole. In shorter form then, to show how little the length of time of a call used to matter, I once took a call from a woman (she said she was over 80 years old) and with a MicroSoft tech also on the line in a three way conference. She had already been on the line since 9 am New York time for 12 hours (and the MS tech was the second, replacing the first who had gone off shift). What had started as a minor question regarding Windows Media Player or some such had gone from bad to worse, with each change a newer, more severe problem cropped up, so by the time I got involved the machine wouldn’t boot to Windows, and by the time I was done 3 hours later (with a third MS tech having come on shift to keep me company) the machine wouldn’t even power on.
I had to inform the poor customer that she’d have to return the machine for repair. She took it graciously and was in good spirits throughout, even cracking jokes (I also sometimes experienced the other extreme where customers acted like I had personally built their machine, badly and probably intentionally so, just to ruin their day). The MS techs had already tried reformats and reinstalls at least a couple of times (and stayed on the line, even we would have told a customer to call back as that would take perhaps an hour each time) so the customer (and perhaps the techs) had had free time to eat, etc. A 15 hour phone call, that was more the way things used to be done (although that might have set some kind of record), it was all about fixing the problem (or trying to) and satisfying the customer. We would have been fired on the spot for pulling some of the stunts in the Salon article. Now there’s poorly trained folks in the equivalent of McJobs (in terms of wages and turnover) trying to solve often complex hardware/software problems in under 12 minutes. Sigh… -g