When Companies Outsource Support...To Mars!

Illustration: John Cuneo
Ah, 21st-century support! Thanks to state-of-the-art interplanetary communications, the person assigned to "help" you is always philosophically and sometimes physically located on Mars. When and if you reach a support person, the advice offered will be based on a script prepared long before the support company ever heard of your particular problem. Your mission is to avoid wasting time while gleaning possibly useful nuggets. How? Watch.

When Outlook Express began downloading my e-mail a few days ago, Windows popped up the dreaded message, 'Symantec Service Framework has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.'

Gee, thanks. If a single tear were shed every time Windows said it was sorry, the world's coastal cities would be underwater. But right now, my Net connection is dead.

I reboot. Same story. Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2008 dislikes something about one particular e-mail message, and when Norton crashes, it takes my Net connection with it.

I figure I'm fairly safe, since I've set Outlook Express to display mail as plain text so it won't inadvertently launch malware. I turn off Norton's e-mail scanning, reboot, and pull down the mail. Then I launch Symantec's Live Update and grab the latest Norton bits. But when I turn scanning back on, the problem persists.

When I request an online support chat, Norton Internet Security offers to install remote-assistance software. But that software merely produces another error message.

So I use Norton's chat system. "Please let me know when exactly happened this issue?" a rep named Santosh asks. I do. After a few back-and-forths, he declares, "First we need to delete temporary files from your computer."

Now, this is where the whole thing could have taken an ugly turn. This is where, had I obeyed blindly, I could have spent hours futzing with Santosh's instructions. Instead, I asked the one question you must always utter when dealing with Martian support reps: "Please tell me what you are going to have me do, all told."

Answer: "After delete temporary files we need to run Live Update."

"Anything else?"

"Then run full system scan."

"Then what?"

"After follow the above steps issue persist we need to uninstall and reinstall the product."

In other words: Waste valuable time messing with a product meant to help me avoid wasting valuable time.

I ask for details. Santosh has me look for a folder called NIS080015. I don't have that one, but I do have NIS

"Okay," says Santosh. "Please delete all folder and files except this folder." He means the temp files. But if I'm supposed to keep the Norton file, how do I know the others are safe to delete? Why do I have a different folder than the one he asked for? And why does the chat window disallow right-click copying, which would let me easily save his advice?

Norton products have a history of delivering messages that don't mean what they say. Yesterday, Internet Security 2008's history file said my backup program made 1455 changes to Windows startup files--highly unlikely. Today, it tells me similar changes were made when I booted up--but omits the event that supposedly happened yesterday.

After dealing with Santosh, I ended up running a system scan and turning e-mail protection back on--which seems to have fixed the glitch. But am I truly protected? Not, apparently, from Symantec's own failings--or its Martian support.

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