• Newsletter Issue #290

    June 20th, 2005


    On June 16th, we continued coverage of the emerging Intel Inside saga. Macworld’s Jason Snell brought us up to date and separated the facts from the fiction on the subject. Andy Ihnatko, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and lots of other places, offered his typically unique and humorous slant on the state of affairs and what we might expect once Apple goes Intel. To get the IT person’s viewpoint on the matter, we called on our favorite computer guru, Pieter Paulson. We also presented that postponed segment with two representatives from Centurion Technologies, who discussed the company’s newly released security products, MacShield and MacShield Enhanced Edition.

    We’re still developing the guest list for June 23rd, but we’ve already scheduled MacCentral’s Jim Dalrymple, who was unable to appear on our previous episode. Stay turned for further announcements about the lineup for the upcoming show.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. Just last week, by the way, we offered a “Pot Luck” prize, meaning that we won’t tell you what it is until this week’s show.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.


    Hardly a day passes where I do not receive a letter from a reader about an unpleasant encounter with a company’s technical support department. While I’ve previously believed the situation couldn’t get any worse, it’s clear I was wrong. Not only is it worse, it’s tragic. The hope of getting knowledgeable assistance for anything ranging from your Internet connection to making your printer run properly is strictly hit or miss.

    Why this should be is pretty obvious. To save money, more and more technology companies have transferred large portions of their support staff offshore. While, in theory, it shouldn’t make a difference, so long as the staff is properly trained, it doesn’t work that way in practice. It seems as support is moved farther from the home office, the quality lessens appropriately.

    The scenario is similar. You wait for long periods on the support line before anyone answers, and even getting in the queue may involve navigating a confusing array of voice menus. Press Column, I mean Button 1 for this product, Button 2 for the next, and please don’t press the wrong button at any point while traversing this endless maze or you’ll have to just hang up and start from scratch.

    Finally, after enduring a selection of music that no radio program director would select even after losing a bet, someone with a deep foreign accent responds. You struggle to understand the words, and manage to discover that the dude calls himself “Dan,” which is clearly not his real name. Unfortunately, it only gets worse from there, a lot worse.

    Now I do not for a moment care about the nationality of the support person. But that doesn’t reduce the obligation of a company to make sure that the people it hires, regardless of location, should know how to speak the same language as the caller in a clear, understandable fashion. Proper language skills are a major step towards helping the customer, or maybe those companies just don’t care. But even if the person at the other end of the phone speaks your language properly, getting the right answer is strictly hit or miss.

    In many cases, the support person simply tries to get a vague sense of your problem, then reads a response from a prepared script. You try to interrupt with an additional question, and you upset the programming. If the answer has nothing whatever to do with your problem, you will feel orphaned real fast. Try asking the question again, and you’ll either get the same answer or another canned response that’s even less related to the source of your troubles. In many cases, you’ll be informed that it was all your fault anyway, and that, as they say, is that. Yes, if you can’t resolve the problem, just blame the customer and be done with it.

    But it’s not just offshore support that delivers wrong or even rude responses. Try getting knowledgeable help from your cable TV or cell phone provider, even if that support remains within the borders of your home country. Yes, you may understand the words, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get the answers you want. You may endure long minutes and sometimes hours on the phone trying to get to the root of, for example, a connection problem and never see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    When it comes to broadband Internet, getting help with the basics, such as why you can’t get your email or access your favorite sites, may end in frustration. You learn, quickly enough, that the first level of support can’t tell you much beyond rebooting your broadband modem, to refresh the connection. The process usually involves removing the power cord from the rear of the unit, waiting a minute or two, then reconnecting and giving it another 30 seconds to reestablish the connection. You should also expect to be told to take a trip to the “Start menu,” even though you made it perfectly clear you’re using a Mac.

    So is it all just hopeless? Must you just fend for yourself, even if the company is at fault? Not necessarily. If the first line of support can’t help you, insist on speaking to a supervisor. Broadband ISPs and other technology companies often establish support in multiple tiers, and the entry-level people can only hope to resolve simple problems. You should insist on having your concerns escalated to “Tier Two” and beyond to get someone reasonably knowledgeable. Be firm and unemotional, although that may seem a contradiction in terms when all you want to do is tell that dumb support person what you think about the treatment you’re getting.

    It’s also important to understand the ground rules. For many companies, customer support is an afterthought. If the technical person is kept on the line too long, the profit earned from the product or service you called about turns into a loss. Imagine paying, say, $100 for a printer. After deducting the profit margins for the dealer and distributor, the manufacturer may receive only 50% or 60% of that amount. Now consider what it costs to, say, field a 10 minute support call. Just add up the salary for the support person, the cost of maintaining the call center and other expenses, and you can see how it may seem a no-win situation to the corporate bean counters. No wonder support is jettisoned to an offshore provider where employees may earn a mere fraction of what they receive in a developed country. And don’t forget that technical support is almost always an entry level position, one that seldom provides enough income for someone to support a family.

    Now it’s perfectly true that some companies to manage to deliver friendly and knowledgeable support despite the costs. Although it has occasional missteps, Apple Computer typically rates far above other PC makers in customer service. Among software companies, you can expect to get stellar support from the likes of Adobe and even, on occasion, Microsoft. Small software developers, including shareware companies, may not have the budgets to field phone calls, but you can usually get great service via email if you’re willing to wait a day or so for the response.

    In the end, if you’re not getting the support you want, respond with your feet and, where possible, go and spend your hard earned money elsewhere.


    Call me old fashioned, but I remember when the stuff you bought at the local supermarket was packed in paper bags. Today, if you ask for a paper bag, the clerk will look at you with disdain, and point to the recyclable plastic bags as your one and only choice. If you dare ask to have the clerk tie the bags so your groceries don’t spill across your car’s trunk on the way home, you may seem, well, a little anal, but the real complaint ought to be directed to the people who invented those silly bags in the first place. In case you’re wondering, they first went into use way back in 1977.

    But the real source of my complaint is the people who devised those horrible blister packs. You know what I mean. Those horrible pieces of plastic used as packaging that are usually impossible to open without a scissor at hand. Now I can understand the logic behind them, since a large package lessens the possibility of shoplifting. But sometimes it gets a little absurd.

    Consider, for example, the memory card I purchased for a digital camera a few weeks ago. The card itself is wafer thin and measures a mere 1-1/4 inches in length and less than an inch in width. Yet the thing was embedded within a thick 11×14 blister pack! It boggles the mind, and I just wonder how much I had to pay for that extra packaging. Worse, it was thick enough to require a large scissor to separate, since it wouldn’t just split apart.

    I ran across a similar situation when I bought a package of black ink cartridges for an ink jet printer. While the individual packages are usually sold free of such encumbrances, the manufacturer must feel that bundling a pair of them in a single container requires excessive protection to avoid having them separated by a greedy storekeeper.

    Talk about waste.

    Now I suppose you could attribute this inconvenience to a grand conspiracy on the part of scissor makers to sell more of the wares. This seems to make sense, for there is no other reason to make it so difficult to open those hellish packages. As I said, I understand the risks of theft and all that, but most of these products usually come with a special chip that will trigger a store’s theft warning system if removed from the store without being deactivated at the checkout counter. So why do they need the extra protection?

    Or maybe it’s just a conspiracy on the part of these companies to assert their dominance over regular people.

    It might, in part, also be the result of a wrongheaded decision of the marketing department to make the packaging as large as possible to earn a more prominent display in a store. I can see where there might be competition when it comes to memory cards, but how many companies are vying to sell, for example, genuine Canon BCI-3eBK black ink tanks? I’m just asking.

    In the end, of course, the companies who make those blister packs are no doubt laughing all the way to the bank. That is, until their employees have to open some of those packs themselves.


    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis

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