Obstacles to Successful Support

Why is it that so many users have so many bad tech support experiences? Through long experience, I have discovered that there are several stumbling blocks that hinder support success:


  • perception errors
  • misconceptions
  • confusion
  • lack of preparation
  • poor communication between user and support personnel

Perception errors occur when a users has noted a particular behavior in a PC system, believes the behavior to be improper, and seeks help in resolving the perceived problem. Often, the behavior in question is by design, but the user is not aware of that when seeking help. If the perceived problem is then miscommunicated to the support person, an unsatisfactory experience will result. A good example of this is the client who called, asking why his Win98 notebook PC showed a floppy disk drive A: even though the drive was physically removed from the system. He had tried numerous “fixes” for his “problem” including some that had been suggested by the manufacturer’s support techs, and others from various computer help forums. After hearing him out, I directed him to a Microsoft Knowledge Base (MSKB) article (Q205942). This article explains that such behavior is exactly in accordance with the wishes of the Win98 authors. The user perceived a problem, but in reality did not have one.

A misconception is the effect of a user incorrectly believing that a certain action will have a certain result. As an example, a common misconception that I have encountered is the fairly widespread belief that “a computer that is protected by an antivirus utility cannot become infected by a virus.” This is patently false, as the antivirus utility will at best reduce the likelihood of an infection, but it cannot absolutely prevent it.

Confusion most often occurs when the support person assumes a level of knowledge or experience in the user that does not in fact exist. It will also occur whenever the user is faced with an unexpected result when performing a task as directed by the support person. Suppose the support person wants the user to execute some basic DOS commands. The user is brought to a DOS prompt, and is then instructed to “Type cd \windows, and then type edit win.ini. Press Enter.” The user types cd windows edit win.ini and then presses Enter, only to be returned an error message reading, “Too many parameters – edit”. By and large, confusion is usually the end product of poor communication.

Lack of preparation is not necessarily a death sentence for the support session. What it can do is lead to lengthier sessions and/or multiple sessions being needed, which in turn will degrade the overall level of support available to both you and other users. It is astonishing how many users will call for help without being at the PC, without the PC being up and running (when operational), and even without being able to get to the PC with the phone! I recently had a call from a user who was having dial-up problems. As a preliminary question, I asked if she could dial out via modem and talk on the phone at the same time, which of course she could not do. She had her phone extension on her desk plugged into the modem, and thus sharing its line. That may be necessary if the user only has one line, but such was not the case in her situation. Without being rude, I instructed her to call me back when she had the phone connected to its own line.

Poor communication has probably led to more failed support sessions than any other single cause. As long as communication is good, all of the other obstacles can be overcome. If however there is a lack of effective communication, it will difficult indeed to solve any problem, real or perceived. Communication is more than just saying and hearing words – it is understanding what is said, and saying what is meant! In the example cited above in the paragraph about confusion, the user did exactly what the tech instructed. Did the tech assume that the user would know to press Enter after typing in the change directory command?

Some Observations

You may have noticed that all of the obstacles mentioned above seem to be fairly one-sided – that is, that it seems like the blame for failed tech support is being laid at the feet of the user. That is simply not so! What is so is that the user only has control over those aspects of the support experience. There are surely other factors involved, and I will point some of them out as we go here, but I will focus on the things that the user can do to enhance the support experience.

For example, the user has no control over the levels of knowledge or experience on the part of the support tech. Often, the first-tier support techs are little more than call screeners, whose purpose it seems is to solve the easy problems and let the rest go on up the ladder. From the user’s point of view, that system is frustrating at best. Sometimes the support techs can do nothing more than attempt to match the reported problem symptoms to existing entries in a knowledge base (KB). So what happens to that unlucky user who just happens to be the first to report a new problem? If it is a new problem, it may not have any KB matches at all. If it does have matches, the recorded fixes probably will not work, as the problem itself differs from the one for which the fix was developed.

The user also has no control over the overall product support hierarchy of the company involved. As I said earlier, many companies consider support to be a necessary evil. Providing user support requires the expenditure of money – an investment with no visible return. Even in those companies that impose a per-incident or per-call user charge for support, those charges will probably not cover the costs of providing support. All of this can lead to techs who are not really well-paid, and who are trying to handle more calls than is practical. One reason that support techs sometimes seem too busy to listen is because sometimes they are!

What seems like a major problem to the user is, in reality, just one in a long string of similar events to the support tech. To each and every user out there, the problem at hand is the most important one, right? However, to the support tech, it’s just another call.

Sometimes the tech’s knowledge and experience are great. Sometimes the opposite is true. Unfortunately, the user cannot possibly know beforehand which tech will get the call. In some cases though, even the least knowledgeable support tech is more computer-savvy than the user, but often these folks don’t want the user to know how little they really know! I am constantly amazed at some of the things that I have heard from support techs. With one major PC manufacturer, it would seem that the standard fix for almost all problems is to do a restore to factory-shipped condition. Yes, sometimes that is the fix, but it should be a last resort, not a first step!

Many users have had bad experiences with carry-in service as well. Virtually anyone can start up a PC support business, so the fact that a business exists means nothing at all when it comes to the quality of their support offerings. I know a young lady who works as on on-site tech for a local PC shop. I have received numerous pleas for help from her when she gets stuck. These calls invariably come from the customer’s location! That’s a real good way to instill faith and confidence – call for help with the customer sitting there. At the same time though, I have to be fair – she could have blundered her way through, making the problem worse as she went. The saving grace here is that the customers knew less than she did, and were impressed by how resourceful she is. I wonder why she doesn’t call her boss for help?

For many users, community support is rapidly becoming the support method of choice. This method is one in which your problem is presented to a group of people for the purpose of getting their suggestions for possible solutions. It has the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of having the problem considered by any number of people. There is no way of knowing how long it will take to get an answer, or even how accurate the answer will be. At the same time, because of the community environment, there is a built-in system of checks and balances, wherein a blatantly incorrect or dangerous suggestion will usually be corrected by another community member. One major advantage of this type of support is the sheer number of participants. It’s simple numbers – the more people who consider a problem, the more likely a solution will be.

It is no accident that many manufacturers host user forums. In fact, some companies even assign people to “sit in” on these forums. Look at it this way – if the users are willing to provide support to each other, that’s that much less that the manufacturer has to do. Sponsoring a user forum is considerably less expensive than the salary of even one support tech. You would probably be surprised at how many fixes published by manufacturers were “discovered” by an employee lurking around a user forum.


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