News/Trends, Tech/Engineering

The Joys of Remote Tech Support (for Low Values of Joy)

September 3, 2014, Carol Pinchefsky

Have you tried turning it off and on again? Yes, I’ll wait right here.

Tech support is already an annoying job, what with users sullying your pristine computing environment. But just add a few miles (or a few thousand miles) to the task of troubleshooting, and the next thing you know, a problem you can fix with a few well-placed keystrokes becomes a lengthy Sisyphean struggle. Soon you find yourself praying for the blissful release of an embolism.

The good news is, you’re not alone in your struggle against people who think a shell is something you hold to your ear. Other techies are out there supporting users in remote offices, fighting the good fight against computer- and user-related mishaps – or at least tolerating user frustration with a modicum of grace.

You can laugh at their pain. And maybe you can even learn from it.

Names are obfuscated because, well, you wouldn’t want your name used, would you?

#1. In my earliest networking job, a client called and said her computer wouldn’t power on. I asked if there was a green light on the monitor, and she said yes. I went through everything I could think of on the phone. I finally drove over to discover that the PC was on — but the monitor was off. – Lee H.

What you can learn

Sometimes the most complicated problem has nothing to do with pesky code bugs; Anthony P. always assumes, “PEBKAC: Problem exists between keyboard and chair.”

It pays to double-check even the most obvious problems before moving to more complicated explanations. And sometimes that solution is so simple that the answer will cause your palm to instantly slap itself to your face. In other words, you really do have to ask the user to turn the computer off and on again.

Pro tip: Sometimes the user may give you wrong information, even without meaning to. If you can think of multiple ways to check the same fact—how much memory the computer has, for example—you can sometimes spot bad information and find a simple problem without the need for an on-site visit.

But even though your job is remote tech support, sometimes the answer really does involve a house call. Anthony P. has encountered such physical problems as, “keyboard was jammed up underneath the monitor” and “one of the buttons was pressed down, causing the computer to fail boot.”

Don’t forget to ask the user to check the fuses, plug in the computer, and make sure the power strip is actually plugged into the wall… and not itself.

#2. Remote tech support is better these days with tools like GotoMeeting and whatnot, but often I’ve had to work with reporters who are in a place without sufficient connectivity to use those tools. I’ve had to talk reporters through re-installing VPN software over the phone in Baghdad. – MCC

What you can learn

You think Dave from Sales needs help when his computer tells him, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that?” Try supporting people in Iraq, where the situation can turn explosive. (One of the reporters MCC works with was caught in a firefight. She and her Panasonic Toughbook’s hard drive survived. Her LCD screen and keyboard did not.)

Luckily MCC has taken steps to make sure his kung-fu is the best.

“In my case, since we have a standard set of tools that we give our field people, I have a limited set of possibilities about what is going wrong to work with. I’ve taken the time to know what all of them look like when they’re working. That’s a step that not many people do, but it’s saved me a lot of headaches.”

Alan D. has made remote tech support easy for himself by “…setting up so I could dial in directly and not have to deal with the ‘locals’ if their internet broke… and giving them a script to run through to identify where the problems were, instead of calling and saying ‘the Internet is broken.’”

In Sales they say, “Know your customer.” In tech support, that becomes, “Know your customer’s kit.” That’s why they’re paying you the big bucks, right?

#3. While managing a system for an American company, we were alerted the NY office could not remotely connect to the servers in Brazil.

Unfortunately, this was during Carnival. The local phone company did not answer, and the local employees did not answer their mobile phones. After two days we got someone from the phone company on the line — and they were too drunk to understand us.

We had to wait more than a week for the locals to sober up enough to reconnect the line.

In the end, I had to walk a tech (who did not know the system) through the process step by step via an interpreter. Of course, the interpreter was not technical. So it was kind of like explaining to your mom to tell your grandfather (who is hard of hearing) how to do something while she is on the phone and he is across the room from her. – Eric K.

What you can learn

Steve W. said, “Tech support is like being a veterinarian. If you’re a human doctor, you can ask the patient what’s wrong, and they can tell you. But if you’re a vet, you have a human that comes in and describes what’s wrong with the animal. The ability to directly get information is limited and you’re relying on the human to interpret things.”

Steve said that in cases where language is a problem, it helps to visualize the user’s experience; by that, he means putting the emphasis on the visual. He uses non-technical words, such as, “What you need is on the left-hand side. A box with a triangle on it. Three red circles.” Then he coaxes a graphic description from the user.

If it sounds time consuming and frustrating, that’s because… it is. If you didn’t already know it before, you know it now: Tech support is not for the weak.

#4. We have several challenge questions we need the customer to answer, like mother’s maiden name, the city you were born in, your favorite movie. One woman’s answer to all of her challenge questions was “Jesus,” because, as she said, “Jesus is the answer to all things.” Right after that, another woman called, and we started chatting. I told her the previous caller’s answers were all Jesus, and she got upset: “That’s sacrilege!”

But then there’s the option to create your own challenge question. A man asked the question, “What is your dog’s name?” But he couldn’t answer it, because as he told me, “How the [expletive] am I supposed to know my dog’s name?”

You just have to put them on hold and hope your shift ends. – Ed E.

What you can learn

By the time users are calling you, they’re already annoyed with the strange magic glowy box in front of them.

And soon, that annoyance transfers to you.

HM said, “There’s a particular class of user who thinks any problem they encounter must be a common problem, and other people must be encountering it; therefore you should already know about it. This means they’re not only unhappy they have a problem’ they’re unhappy with you for not knowing the answer instantly.”

Tech support is an underappreciated profession because you need both technical skills and empathy. You need to be patient and detail-oriented. You also need to resign yourself to the fact that not one person will call to give you a solution.

Take comfort in knowing that you’re both smart and sympathetic and that eventually it will be Beer O’Clock.

#5. I do support for an interactive developer environment (IDE), and so the tech support questions I get are from programmers. I have, on more than one occasion, had a user email me a copied-and-pasted error message. But actually it contained instructions on what to do if they received this particular message. It didn’t occur to him to read the text he was copying. – EH

What you can learn

EH said that pointing out the error message can be either funny or awkward, because it’s difficult to find a way to politely explain the text that’s right in front of them. “Remember, these are programmers,” said EH. “It’s not like your grandparents, who wouldn’t be expected to understand an error message and to act on the instructions. These are people whose job it is to use these tools.”

But people deep in the tech support trenches recognize that even computer-savvy people become as easily frustrated as the unwashed masses. You may expect them to know better, but leave that expectation at the door. Recognize that even the brightest coder can have off days.

However, you can take comfort in knowing that you can always post the most ridiculous programmer problems to The Daily WTF.

(When it comes to general tech support, the most important thing EH has learned can be summed up in this XKCD cartoon.)

#6. I answered a call from an employee whose laptop wasn’t downloading the necessary updates while out in the field on a VPN. Normally, it should work, as he had Admin rights. I remoted into the system and took control. Lo and behold, the problem was readily apparent: He had loaded up torrent software, a huge no-no. It was logged, removed, his Admin rights taken.

He called the next day, asking why he no longer had Admin rights. I explained that I had basically saved his job, but that’s how it has to be. One hour’s arguing later, he still didn’t understand.

Finally I responded with two words: “Terminable offense.” He kinda got it. – Paul S.

What you can learn

What Paul S. learned: “Sometimes the most advanced users only understand the simplest answers.”

Remind the people you support, “This is the company’s computer system, not yours.” In the worst-case scenario, it can be taken from them at a moment’s notice. And do they really want the IT department—and therefore the entire world—to know they’re running a business on the side selling items on eBay during work hours, using their work e-mail IDs and laptops? (True example, that.)

That’s the stories I heard about supporting users in remote offices. I bet you know others that’ll put mine to shame. Tell me your own in the comments.