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?