Tech Support: Life on the Other End of the Line

Do you hate calling tech support? Guess what--it's no picnic for the people on the other end of the line either. Tech support reps say their job description includes occasional death threats, tedium, possible hemorrhoids, low pay, and sporadic moments of job satisfaction.

The faceless army of computer telephone tech support workers can save your bacon by bringing your PC back to life. Or they can ruin your day, sticking you on hold endlessly and requiring you to do the same mindless diagnostic tests over and over until you just give up.

I spoke with many tech support professionals for "Support Tips From the Pros," a brief article about how to get the most out of your tech support call. My goal was simple: to create a tip sheet on what it takes to get your PC fixed over the phone in the shortest amount of time.

Be Nice--Or Else

I learned that if there's one tip that's more important than any other, it's this: Be nice.

Like it or not, the tech support person on the other end of the phone is judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to recovering your PC, sending you a replacement part, or forwarding you on to another technician.

"Being nice can get your PC fixed quickly," says Steven Kok of Texas, who handled tech support calls for a large computer maker in his home state. "Be rude and we might just put you on hold and take a cigarette break."

Job Hazards

Vinny Aceto, a Boston information technology specialist, is a 12-year veteran at helping fix people's PCs over the telephone and in person. Aceto says he has preferred telephone tech support over on-site service calls ever since he was attacked by a rabid PC owner.

"I was trying to explain to this sales manager [that] his hard drive was dead and I couldn't recover his presentation," Aceto says. The customer turned beet red, picked up his PC, and hurled it out his office window, Aceto says. The PC fell three stories and smashed to pieces in the parking lot. Next, the man jumped over his desk and tried to assault Aceto. Luckily people rushed into the office and stopped the attack.

But even with the comfort and anonymity of the phone, Aceto says, there are still hazards. His life has been threatened three times by frustrated PC owners over the phone. "One PC owner told me: 'fix my PC or I'll fix you'," Aceto says. "You get used to it." But the only actual on-the-job bodily harm Aceto suffered working as a telephone support technician, he says, could be cured with a tube of Preparation H.

Tech Support Squeeze

One inexorable trend in tech support is cost cutting. As margins have thinned on PC profits, companies have reduced the amount of free tech support they offer. Dell, for example, used to offer a three-year standard warranty for many products, but has cut some down to one year and a few to just three months.

Companies have also tried to make support centers as lean and efficient as possible. Today most PC manufacturers outsource much of their tech support to save money. Some third-party tech support firms are based in the United States and others in Canada, the Philippines, and India.

According to interviewees, entry-level jobs at U.S. tech support firms pay about $7 an hour. Workers for a third-party tech support firm in New Delhi, India, make less than half that.

Akanksha Chaand, who holds an advanced degree in computer science and had a job fielding calls for Hewlett-Packard at Business Processing Outsourcing in New Delhi, India, made the equivalent of $13,000 a year working in tech support--significantly more money than many less fortunate people in India earn.

In contrast, a tech support pro who now lives in Arizona says she was barely scraping by on her $7-an-hour salary with no benefits. The rep, who asked that her name not be used, said it was only a bit better than her previous job--delivering pizzas. She said she received two weeks of training before taking calls from the public.

I was alarmed at how many U.S.-based PC tech support workers told me they received relatively little training before they started taking calls from frustrated PC owners. One third-party PC tech support firm tried to compensate by keeping a gigantic diagram of a PC prominently displayed in the call center with key components--like the hard drive--labeled.

Some Bright Moments

Not all the tech support personnel I spoke with had horror stories to share. In fact, all had at least one unforgettable call in which they were able to make the person on the other end of the line squeal with glee when they fixed their PC. Chaand remembers helping a small-business owner in Florida fix her PC's network connection so she could send the company's monthly business report to a printer.

"Who would know fixing such a small PC problem would mean so much to this person?" Chaand says.

Plenty of techies told me they loved their job and took pride in helping people solve their PC problems.

"There is a certain sense of satisfaction you get when you help someone who is close to tears return their PC to working order," says David Hill, tech support pro with Stream International.

"It's a chance to make someone's day," Kok says.

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