April 25, 2019

Editor's Note: The Customer's Always Wronged

The good news: Windows users are suffering just as horribly.

  • July 30, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

Though it takes us a small distance away from Linux this week, it seems appropriate to revisit, for a final time, the issue of technical support and how generally awful it is everywhere.

Prior my most recent move, I had a DSL connection through Sprint in Virginia. I outlined the difficulties I had with them during what had to be the DSL install from hell. The most memorable part of that ordeal was being told that Linux probably wouldn't be able to cope with a 1.5 meg connection, which was fine anyhow, since there weren't any browsers available for it.

That was over a year ago, and some of the comments I heard at the time included reproach for not owning up to running Linux in the first place. The problem is, depending on the support outfit, you can find yourself faced with having to fib about what OS you're running if you want them to help you out. Take your business elsewhere? Sometimes the company in question is the only outfit in town.

My most recent tribulations involved my Dell Inspiron laptop and the forced removal of Linux as part of what should have been a routine hardware troubleshoot. Once again, people wrote back either commisserating with the pain of being treated like second class computer citizens or, more interestingly, general reports that it doesn't matter what you're running. One reader confided that he had a Dell laptop with hardware problems and a non-factory Windows 2000 install. It didn't matter that his OS was at least a cousin to WinME: off it had to come before the call could progress. Another reader noted (from personal experience working at one) that many support outfits are contracted by the companies they claim to be part of over the phone, and the workers there are likely less familiar with the product they're "supporting" than even the least proficient user. They have scripts and flowcharts, and any deviation from those can spell disaster. They're also under horrible pressure to move calls along as quickly as possible, since they're paid by the call: the quicker you're off the phone, the faster they can get to the next little bundle of money from the company they're contracted to.

Readers also pointed out that demanding escalation is always good if a given support person isn't being very supportive, which is a trick I've since tried to reasonable effect. In some cases, there's someone on the line in short order, in others they promise a return call in a "few days."

So I had a chance to approach the support issue once more this past week with the installation of DSL in a new home. I'm now convinced that it will take a supreme act of will to keep from braying like a donkey if someone ever says "broadband revolution" with a straight face in my presence. It's still a bit away. I've also come to realize that another group of readers who've written over the past few weeks are right: customer service and tech support are universally terrible no matter what, and it's a disservice to imply to readers that my use of Linux made me a target.

In the course of ordering my DSL connection, for instance, I had to choose which DSL modem I wanted to use. The choices were an internal PCI, an external USB, and an external ethernet unit. Since I've got a small network running, I wanted the external ethernet unit to spare having to install a second card in one of the machines. I'm now the proud (temporary) holder of three external units. During a routine confirmation call on the day my service was to be activated, I learned there were several headed to me via UPS, so I said "we ought to cancel two of those." The immediate response was "we'll cancel the one that's already in your town."


Because it nearly made it to me, of course. They were going to cancel the two closest deliveries and let the one furthest away from my home make its way to me a few days late.

I stacked the two extras (they came in the same box) in the corner with the two extras I got in Virginia, and the ISDN modem/router that helpfully and inexplicably arrived on my doorstep last year some time despite the fact I've never had ISDN. Thankfully, I didn't return the DSL modems immediately. The one that got to my house first was broken.

Since I had a self-install this time, when things didn't go quite right I had to place a call to the support line for my ISP, and learned that it didn't matter if I was using Linux, a Mac, an old Amiga, or Windows: all the answers in the database were for older gear that didn't do anything my current DSL modem/router does, which would involve using settings on the client computers that would guarantee things didn't work.

During my travels on the web to get a better answer (is there anything worse than having a live DSL connection and trying to get it working over a dialup? do any pages load slower?) I was also exposed to a "support" page that "advised" users wanting to play 'net games to set NAT forwarding such that every port on their machines was exposed to the 'net "to guarantee all the game data could come through."

Another call to another company about a router/firewall appliance I was using earned me a long session that ended with the technician saying "I'm on the last page and I don't know what to do next." I thanked him for his time, asked to speak to a supervisor, and was promised a call back some time in the next three days. I'm still waiting.

The lesson I take away from all of this (and I've spared readers having to endure all the stories I've collected in the past two weeks alone) is pretty straightforward: even if everybody used Linux, the support we'd get would continue to be terrible. It's tempting to believe that there's a quiet anti-Linux conspiracy at work in the farmed-out support houses, customer centers, and help desks of the world (some people seem to want to run an OS they perceive as likely to remain marginal in perpetuity), but it seems clear that there isn't: there's just a general problem with customer care and quality in general.

There is some good news, though:

In the midst of the unhappiness, I counted a few "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but's..." from fellow Linux enthusiasts, making me glad that I close my eyes and count to ten before initiating a call, just because I was sure starting off with a civil tone helped them remember some useful tidbits. They were in a lonely minority, but they were friendly, helpful, and quietly pro-Linux despite the Windows slant of the script they were supposed to follow. And in the midst of a general survey of technical and customer support that's pretty bleak, that seems like something to be happy about.

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