Tech Support – Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter

Meeting the Needs by John Adsit
Advocates of technology in education, especially those who, like me, advocate for online education, need to consider the problems that the modern concept of tech support can cause. Tech support within a school campus is very different from tech support for the student or teacher working at home. If I were either an online student or teacher during the past year, I would have had serious problems due to technical difficulties, and the nature of these is such that it brings me real concern for anyone in such a situation in general. Online programs will have to consider processes to deal with this.

I am going to provide a very brief summary of what was really nearly a year of agony. During that year I replaced some aging equipment. I bought a new laptop, cable modem, wireless router, and wireless printer. As I write, only one of those four purchases is in operation. The failure of each of the others was accompanied by endless hours with tech support agony.

The first problems I had was so pervasive and hard to diagnose that I did something I thought I would never do — I paid for personal in-home tech service. The problems baffled two different techs over nearly two full days of work. In a moment of inspiration, I figured it out after they left — the new top-of-the-line router I had purchased was defective.

I thought I was out of the woods until I turned on my new laptop one day and got the dreaded blue screen of death, followed by an endless loop of failed attempts to restore the operating system. It took a full day on the phone with tech support to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the solution was an illusion, for the problem repeated itself on a monthly basis. Each occasion would result in a day or more on the phone with tech support. They were quite imaginative, coming up with new solutions almost every time. (“I apologize for the inconvenience. I realize that the last solution provided did not work, but I assure you that this time your problems will be solved.”) I had to reinstall the operating system three times, with all the problems accompanying that process.

The problem was that Microsoft sent monthly updates that crashed the computer. The computer was set to install only updates I approved, and the techs told me to accept only updates that would not crash the computer. Unfortunately, Microsoft was not very helpful, refusing to label the updates that would render my computer inoperable. In addition, Microsoft overrides that manual decision making process for certain updates. I never once approved any of the updates that installed themselves and slammed me each month.

Eventually tech support told me that the problem was not with the computer but with the Microsoft software. The computer was fine so it was not their problem. Apparently all computers using Microsoft software need to reinstall their operating systems on a monthly basis. Eventually the retailer intervened, and someone higher up in the system contacted me and agreed to send me a new laptop with Windows 7. He was not happy about it in the slightest, and he told me he would make a notation in my file that the next time I had a problem like this that was really a software problem I would not get any support from them.

When my new computer arrived, I learned that the printer software was not compatible with Windows 7. I downloaded the new software from the web site, but it did not work. I decided to try the tech support online chat function. That chat tech apologized for the inconvenience and, after a two hour chat, decided that the installation was corrupt and told me to reinstall the software.

That began a process that was even worse than the computer experience. After three  chat sessions of several hours each and two more installations of the software, I was no better off than before. The second chat session include a determination that the printer was defective, but that decision was overruled by those who felt that if we just did exactly what had been done before, the problem would be solved.

Tech support within a school campus is very different from tech support for the student or teacher working at home. If I were either an online student or teacher during the past year, I would have had serious problems due to technical difficulties . . .

After the third chat failure, I decided to try the telephone. I told the tech the whole story and summarized what had been done. Our four hour session included several times in which he took control of my computer and tried to fix things directly. He re-installed the software. Eventually, facing total failure, he told me he would have to hang up and research the problem. He would call me, he said, in two days with the correct solution. My computer experience told me that tech people almost never call you back when they say they will, and I told him that. He seemed hurt that I would doubt his honor, and he assured me he would call me faithfully in two days with the solution — he even told me what time he would call.

I waited eight days before trying again.

This time I decided to try email. I sent a detailed description of what I had gone through and sent transcripts of the chats. They gave me the solution — reinstall the software. I pointed out that I had tried that solution four times so far without success, but I was assured that it would work this time.

It didn’t.

When I sent an email telling them this, they apologized for the inconvenience and gave me a list of steps to follow that would fix my printer. The steps looked all too familiar — I had done them all several times so far.

I finally rebelled. If time is money, I had spent enough of it. If I had just recycled the printer when it first wouldn’t work, I could have bought two very nice printers with the time and money I had wasted trying to fix it. I let them know I was not going to waste another second, and I was going to toss the printer and buy a new one from a more reputable company. And I was going to make sure people knew about it. That finally got me out of the tech support loop, and I got a call from someone who really did seem sorry for the inconvenience. My new printer should arrive tomorrow.

In my first draft of this article, I named names. I decided, though, that there was enough universality in the issue to leave the names out. The problems were so persistent that I cannot believe others are not having them to some degree. If this is the new model for tech support, keeping the customer in an eternal loop of failed solutions, then we need to consider the effects on education. I lost a month or more of productivity in less than a year, lost time that could be fatal to an online student or teacher.

Things have certainly changed. When I taught and administered online, I never encountered a single problem that was anything remotely close to this level of frustration. If I were administering a program again, I would expect participants to have such problems and set up a system to keep it from destroying the instructional process. People in these situations need support, and they aren’t going to get it from the companies that sold them their products.

2 Responses

  1. I used to have problems like those John has described. Sometimes, I had to call tech support repeatedly. Too often, the Indian accent and the “reading word by word” cadence told be that I was talking to someone half the world away who was reading solutions from a script and knew nothing more than what was programmed there.

    I’ve been immersed in computer technology since 1960 and have even been in charge of designing and building computers. If I cannot solve a computer problem, it’s not a trivial problem. Yet, I always had to spend a long time with tech support convincing them to escalate.

    Then, I switched to a Macintosh. I’m on my second such machine now. I no longer have to reboot my machine daily. Many more problems have vanished.

    It’s not perfect but then nothing is. Some applications occasionally hang and must be restarted. That’s an issue for the application writer. The worst offender was not written by Apple.

    I’m using Mac OS X now Previous versions of the Mac OS weren’t quite so good. I ascribe the current good behavior to the use of a Unix-like underlying OS. The first version of Mac OS X, 1.0, had some serious problems, but since 1.1 all has been excellent.

    My partner and I have both experienced these support problems. That’s why when we started our own computer-based business (online science labs), we decided to make good support one of our goals. It works. Why then don’t printer manufacturers, modem manufacturers, and companies like Microsoft do the same? I’m not sure.

  2. I wrote my article a little too soon. In it, I wrote the following:

    “During that year I replaced some aging equipment. I bought a new laptop, cable modem, wireless router, and wireless printer. As I write, only one of those four purchases is in operation.”

    The one that was still in operation when I wrote that was the cable modem.

    I had to replace it today..

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