Sunday, September 07, 2008

support hosed

Racism and xenophobia are so repugnant. And yet it’s naïve to imagine we’re all free and clear on this one. Especially those of us who are cultural minorities and think ourselves politically sensitive. There is a thin, blurry line that separates racism from the acknowledgment of cultural differences. We often avoid mentioning the issue in order to never step over that line. I am going to attempt to navigate this morass.

Tech Support and Outsourcing. It’s a problem. I spent the better part of the week talking to, what felt like, most of the Indian Subcontinent and half of Southeast Asia. I had a problem that wasn’t on the list. A weird DSL configuration that I could. not. make. clear. Swear to god, I must have talked to 30 people. 40, maybe. I was escalated up to the next level. I was transferred. Double-transferred. Call back in 4 hours. We’ll call you back. Talk to the installation department (in Myanmar? Thailand? What does it mean that the tech support is mostly in India but the Installation and Customer Service is in Singapore? Why?) With each call my irritation mounted.

Years ago when I was in school, I worked at the public university library. I am a total research, book, info-junkie nerd. I LOVED working in the library. I went through months of training to work at the reference information desk. Helping students and professors find the answers for their research. Back when there was (jesussaveme) NO internet. We were phasing out the card catalog, starting to use some very clumsy databases…and the dinosaurs had just stopped roaming the earth. Anyway, the information desk was a source of great anecdote. A public library is just that—any crazy-ass fool can walk through the door and come up to you and ask a question. We were all about information, even though we couldn’t always help the ones with the tinfoil hats. We actually helped tons of people find sources for their research or papers. But we were taught that one of the more important aspects of that job is diffusing.

When people feel frustrated or dismissed or just stupid about a thing, they tend to get defensive. And angry at the person embodying their real or imagined ignorance. My daughter pointed this critical skill out to me when I was talking to her about tech support. When I worked the gay-lesbo-bi-trannie switchboard, I also tapped into this training. You need to be able to listen to a person, empathize, help them let off steam and assure them you will truly try and help them solve their problem.

That is, no shit, all most people need. Listen, empathize, convince them you’ll do your best (and of course, back that up by TRYING to do your fucking best).

However. This is hard to do. (Some of our crusty librarians were scathing. Their disdain for the requester's ignorance threw gasoline on the insecurity fire. It was, I’m afraid, quite funny in anecdote…but rare enough.) And this was basically within a culture and face-to-face. Cross-culturally and over-the-phone it is very hard to do. Not impossible, but quite hard. When you deal with a society weaned on leftover British Empire language/manner skill set, you end up with very polite and at times, overly formal responses to anger. This, I feel safe to say, drives most United Statesians completely bonkers.

And that’s just the social niceties part of the challenge.

So, people, outsourcing tech support may be here to stay but I’m pretty sure that this problem will come to a head someday. I’m afraid when presented with two comparable services, the one with the local help line is going to get my vote. And you bigots out there, can not count me in your club. This is all about expediency. We certainly don’t speak the best English in the world and our slang is prolific but we probably understand each other a little better than not.

One last note. When I was trying to get the brand name and model of the DSL modem that my ISP supported, the customer service person said what sounded and spelled out like SpeedCREAM. I said SpeedCREAM? No, SpeedPREAM? No, SpeedSCREAM? How weird. She kept spelling it out but I could not distinguish her t as in thomas from her p as in pomade? pumice? Swear, I couldn’t. She got fairly impatient (couldn’t blame her) and I finally understood that she was spelling out SpeedSTREAM. Oh. Well, that makes sense. She’s probably blogging right now about the illiterate, idiotic American woman she spoke to this week.


Arial Ray said...

What I try to remember (and it's hard sometimes) is that the person on the other end of the phone was hired and trained by the company with whom I do business. And that company deliberately chose to locate their support people in that particular country because they could save money, by paying their employees far less than what they would earn if they lived in North America.

I still get angry - when I can't make a phone call because my line isn't working right and I can't even communicate with the service rep because his English is so bad that he's unintelligible (and I've worked in ESL for a few years, I have learned to understand broken English very well)- I get very angry indeed. At the company who outsourced, at the company who can't be bothered to properly train or adequately pay their employees.

StevensVox said...

I don't care how this makes me sound, I keep trying to blog on the subject of 'customer service', but I get so irate and homicidal I have to walk away from the computer to keep from throwing at the imagined face of some of my customer service reps.
Bottom FUCKING line, the number one requirement of customer service for me is speaking to me in clear, to the point English, no exceptions.
The only way it could be any worse if it was a video conference that was pantomimed or done with shadow puppets.
Every time I deal with a horrible customer service experience over the phone, I do take the time to write a letter to their home office.
This has to change, it is unacceptable and it is not customer service.
Also I only want to speak with one person; I am only going to explain myself to one person. If I have to call a second time, I apologize first for my frustration (very kind if you ask me) and ask to speak with a manager. When they ask what it is pertaining, I say ‘customer service regarding _________.’ When they come back with ‘let me see if I can help you’, I simply say, ‘No, thank you. I have already wasted ___minutes and I am only explaining myself one more time, period. Please get me a supervisor.’
It may be nasty, it may be wrong, but wasting my time as a customer is far worse in my book.

Ok, I am done for now….