A completely impractical idea for making phone tech support better

Hanging out with geeky friends Nate and Beth, we got talking about technical customer support experiences. I had a horrible, then excellent service experience recently with Verizon. I needed to know what address Verizon’s DSL service wanted me to use as a DNS nameserver. The first person I spoke to insisted that Verizon wasn’t required to tell me an address for a DNS server, that she didn’t know any DNS server addresses and that DNS was a special feature of Apple computers and that Apple would need to help me with a DNS problem. My (not very patient) explanation that Apple did not, in fact, run Verizon’s DNS nameservers and insistence that she let me talk to someone more experienced went poorly, and I spent half an hour on hold before I got to speak to a third-level support person.

He promptly apologized for his colleague, gave me the information I needed, then worked with me for ten minutes to write a script for Verizon tech staff to support Macintosh users on DNS issues, so that other folks wouldn’t have the bad experience I’d had. The last thing he said to me before we parted amicably: “I’m going to change the first-tier script so that anyone who knows the word ‘DNS’ gets escalated. If you know enough to know about DNS, you shouldn’t be talking to our first tier people.”

I used to run a pretty big customer service department for Tripod, supporting 15 million web users. We didn’t use a tiered support system out of some sort of collectivist sense that everyone should suffer equally and even our most experienced customer service reps needed to stay true to their roots and answer basic emails. But most tech companies do: most calls or emails are handled by less experienced CSRs, who rely on scripts – tough problems get “escalated” to higher tiers of customer support, where they’re answered by more experienced engineers, who often have more authority to solve problems for a user.

Tiered support makes some financial sense to companies who’d prefer to pay a few geeks well and many CSRs poorly… or outsource their jobs overseas. But it tends to lead to a pretty bad experience for customers, especially technically knowledgeable customers. (“Is your computer plugged in?” “Why no, I never thought of that. Does it need to be?”)

(Then again, there are companies that use scripts all the way up the tech support chain. After making it to third tier tech support with DirectTV’s Direcway satellite service, I had a wonderful dialog with a CSR which began: “I can’t believe I have to ask you this question: do you have a voltmeter handy?” Why yes – I always have a voltmeter handy!)

So here was our idea: use the time when a caller is on hold to figure out the caller’s level of technical expertise. Perhaps a trivia quiz: ask the user a couple of multiple choice questions and escalate based on her answers. Answer “What does IP stand for in TCP/IP?” correctly and you pass the first level of CDR responders. Get the next one – “What’s special about the address 127.0.0.1?” – and we’ll give you a third tier CSR. Get the advanced questions – “Who’s Paul Vixie?” – correct and get connected directly to the engineering staff.

We’d need to change the questions frequently or people will be passing around answer keys they way they pass around cheat sheets that get them through interactive voice response systems. And perhaps once you established your geek cred by answering one quiz correctly, you’d get a free pass through the system the next time. (Nate wants these passes to be transferrable – establish yourself as a tier-3 user for Earthlink and you’ll automatically make it to tier-3 when you call Dell…)

Is it unfair to less technically knowledgeable users to give a free pass to the more knowledgeable users? Possibly – you could argue that it simply gets the users to the right person to answer their question. But what a great incentive for users to learn more about the tools they’re using – I’d happily spend a few more hours getting smart about the tech I use if it would help save me from tech support hell.

It’ll never happen. But wouldn’t it be fun if it did?

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4 Responses to A completely impractical idea for making phone tech support better

  1. jer says:

    I’d be happy if the information that is currently gathered vie the PBX could be used in a helpful way. For example, evey time you call T-Mobile, they ask you to input your Social Security number to verify who you are, and then are asked it again by any person that picks up.

    Also, it irks me to no end when I call my internet provider to report an outage and the helpful recording suggests that customer service over the internet is much faster and easier, giving me the address “eh, tee, tee, pee, colon, slash, slash, doubleyoo, doubleyoo….”

  2. I think this is a fantastic idea for an innovative and hungry company.

    I also doubt that there are enough people in the world that have the technical background and customer service skills to service the customer service lines around the world. I hold that outsourcing lowel level skills enables those with rare skills to serve existing demand.

  3. Cos says:

    One of my biggest annoyances with tech support and customer service in general, is when the first tier person refuses to pass me up a level or tries to dissuade me from doing so, when they clearly can’t help me and they know it. But, it’s not always a matter of technical knowledge.

    For example, I recently had trouble with a package being delivered to me (oh, the fortune to be made by whoever can start a package delivery service that does not suck!!!). I knew it was going back to their warehouse later that night, but was getting ambiguous answers from customer service about whether requesting the package to be held there for me to pick up would prevent me from being able to request that it be delivered the next day. And because it was a holiday, chances were the package would return to the warehouse *after* window service hours at that site were to close for the evening, so it wasn’t clear if I could pick it up that night or not. I knew I could cut through this idiocy if I could just talk to someone at the warehouse, but first tier customer service apparently is only able to communicate with them through an internal emailish system, and has no way to get me directly in contact with them – and insists they can’t ask them to call me at a number I provide.

    It took me a long and frustrating argument to get the first tier person to pass me up a level, because she insisted they couldn’t do anything beyond what she could do, and could therefore not help me. I suspected that they could actually pick up the phone and call the warehouse site. It turns out I was correct. Once I got bumped up a level, the problem was quickly solved. I got to talk to the person who would hold my package, and she told me how to come pick it up after the window was closed, and I left her my pager number to let me know when it arrived.

  4. MIkey says:

    I am the manager of a smaller business ISP and let me tell you, quality techs are not available at the pee pay companies want to pay them. I have multiple duties that take lots of my time and when I can answer a customer question with the same knowledge of the issue of the guy picking up the phone I wonder.

    Me: Techies are few and far between anymore. True techies know what they are worth. For support roles we hire off the street. Body to fill a phone/chair. Train them…but they lack what they need. And the JOB SUCKs at that.

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