Friday, June 16, 2006

The joys and woes of customer support

Technology is a wonderful thing until it goes wrong. Most companies lack an understanding that poor customer support can destroy the loyalty of existing customers more quickly and lastingly than it is possible to attract new customers with good design and innovation. Some European companies are slowly beginning to learn that lesson.

British electricity and gas supply company Powergen, for example, have decided to close their call centres in India and serve customers calling for support from within the UK. Call centre operators in India may be cheap, but unless they have been sufficiently trained in a knowledge of British geography and customs they are of little use to callers from the UK. My own experience tells me that the companies who wanted to save in labour cost did not spend the extra money in training.

Amongst the worst culprits are telephone and software companies as well as internet service providers. I remember having been charged VAT during an online purchase on top an already VAT inclusive price when buying a software item from ScanSoft, now called Nuance. Naturally, I wanted a refund. When calling their support line I found myself having to explain to a poor chap in the Far East the concept of VAT and that prices can be quoted as inclusive or exclusive of tax. In the end I had to put my request in writing to the company's registered address.

To add insult to injury many companies make money from their inefficient customer service provision by insisting that enquirers call a high-rate number and thus part with their hard earned cash whilst navigating numerous automated switchboard options, being put on hold endlessly, or trying to explain their concern to someone totally incompetent to deal with the most simple of matters. Thankfully there is a website providing alternative standard geographical numbers for those high rated ones: Where a freephone number is also quoted, I always choose that one in revenge to make the profiteering company pay.

However annoying an unnerving it is to have to spend hours in trying to resolve a simple problem, over time one accumulates an interesting array of fireside stories during those encounters with inapt customer support departments. Here are some gems: I phoned an internet provider (Onetel) about a problem with their webspace only to be asked by the technical support staff answering my query what "ftp" stood for. When I translated it to "file transport protocol" he admitted never having heard of that before and promised to transfer me to a colleague. Whilst being put on hold I got conveniently cut off. It took a total of two days to eventually be told by somebody who knew their own company's procedures that in order to obtain web space for a Onetel broadband account you have to open a pay-as-you-go dial-up account first which you will never need again afterwards.

Or take Group 3 Technology Limited, a company who actually wanted me to review their new internet phones, but whose technical support was unable to release the pre-programmed phone numbers to permit actual calls to be made. Needless to say that the review did not go in their favour. Another favourite of mine are the people from Comodo Personal Firewall, an excellent product until they decided to mess it up with an unnecessary upgrade. Whilst everything worked fine before the upgrade, the firewall refused to let any traffic through after the upgrade was installed. The email answer I got from their support was: "Hope you are having problem with LAN, since we don't seem to be getting such an issue with any of other customers." Thanks for the good wishes I thought and reinstalled the earlier version, after which everything worked just right again, except for the occasional nag screen that there is a new update available. If only they tested these "improvements" before tormenting the unsuspecting end user.

I had a similar problem with Nero. Their latest update destroyed the compatibility with other DVD recording software. Others had similar experiences which they posted on the web. As is common for software companies, they always blame the software from another vendor first, but since uninstalling the update returned everything back into a working state, only the update could be blamed. To be fair to Nero they eventually admitted that it was their problem and promised to work on a solution for future updates. But then they are based in Germany, not England.

Anglo-American software companies seem to employ a strategy of putting customers off by insisting they first of all restart Windows, or even reinstall it, before addressing the concern you called them with. I'm no friend of Microsoft software, but reinstalling Windows is not the panacea for every badly behaving program, and if you do it whilst talking to them on a high-rate phone number they are probably making more money from support calls than from selling their software in the first place. Maybe that's the general idea. By the way, when the hosting provider very recently had a server outage for two days running - caused by a physical move of the server as later transpired - they put an automated tape on their support number blaming a Microsoft update and asking people who wanted to talk to a customer support advisor to go to their support website instead, forgetting that this very website was also down!


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