Proactive tech support – further thinking …

Technical support has always been an oxymoron for most owners and users of anything electronic. The dreaded process of dialing an 800 number, navigating the voice prompts, and then being told there is a 45 minute wait before a person can help you has made tech support a universally deplored experience. The oxymoron part is the doomed belief that there will be no support at the end of the whole tedious affair. As someone who has been tangentially involved with the tech industries since 1984, and who has spent his fair share of time on hold, I can empathize with anyone who rants off on a blog about how vendor X’s products suck.

When my microwave died last month, there was no inclination on my part or my wife’s to dredge out the documentation and call Sharp’s 800-number. There was no way the machine was going to get fixed through the kitchen version of CTRL-ALT-DEL, one is not encouraged to pop the screws and start messing with jumpers, and the price point is low enough that in our minds, after a few years of hard use, its failure was marked down to old age and the cost of living.

But when a notebook or desktop computer dies, the stakes are incalculable for the profound reason that these things are our lives. Deadlines live in these things, works of immeasurable creative genius, MP3 collections stolen over years of Napster downloading; it all lives in these things. If the machine dies, that stuff dies with it, and I don’t care how obsessive you are, no one backs their stuff up enough.
I lost half a book to a dead Epson Equity I (8088 processor, 5 inch floppies) in 1986. HALF A BOOK! Gone. Toasted. Six months of work went away. Did I back up religiously after that experience? For a little while. Then I gave up on it until the next crash. Who did I blame it on? Epson? Microsoft? The forgotten company that made cheap floppies?
I begged the person at Epson tech support to help me find those lost chapters. I nearly burst into tears asking them to save me. They couldn’t. There was no hope. I was lost and had to start all over again.
I once read in Zachary Pascal’s account of the creation of Microsoft NT, Showstopper, that NT represented the most complex entity ever constructed by humans in terms of numbers of discrete elements. And if it’s complex, then the probability of it messing up rises with the complexity. We’ve all heard the mythic line that the documentation for a Boeing airplane outweighs the plane. Combine a PC, with an operating system, with applications, then with user usage and mis-usage and you have the perfect storm for potential problems. That’s stating the obvious, but to the user, it’s all one coherent package. My machine with my stuff doesn’t work and I am pissed.

The big question in the industry is who is the user pissed at? I watched a family member who is relatively new to PC usage tell me he spent three hours on the phone with Microsoft technical support trying to figure out why he was receiving spam. Why did he call Microsoft to bitch about spam and not, say, his ISP? Or Dell? He didn’t know, he just figured because it happened in a “window” it was Windows fault. He paid money for that call and came away with the suggestion buy a spam filter from Symantec.
The sad fact of the PC industry is that there are three, maybe four principles at play when it comes to failure and malfunction.

1. Hardware will fail. Yep, like pets, everything eventually kicks the bucket. Solid state stuff like CPUs and logic are typically longer-lived than hard-drives. If it spins. It will die. There is a 100% probabilty that if it is mechanical and if it spins, hinges, latches, etc. it will die. Some hard drives die faster than others.

2. Operating systems are hideously complex. So are so-called productivity apps. Ask a random user to get into their registry to remove some really pernicious spyware and you might as well ask them to remove their own appendix.

3. The forces of evil are arrayed against us. Don’t open that attachment! A visiting 12-year old with a penchant for file sharing can do more damage to an immaculate PC than any buggy OS or app.

For the vendors, tech support is an expensive, complicated but necessary cost of doing business. Some vendors follow what I call the shark-escape school of tech support. Just swim faster than the other guy and let him take the hit. Meaning, if you make your tech support so nasty and inacessible then no one will call it a second time, give up, and do one of two things: a) call another vendor or service supplier (which is why the Geek Squad exists in part) b) shut up, throw the thing in the trash, and invest in a new one (which is a very real phenomena in consumer computing now that the things cost under $400).

Support, which one would think would be the most horrible job in the world — I remember writing a story in Forbes about tech support hell where one tech support manager told me about a room where the reps could go literally take out their tensions on a punching bag — is probably the most crucial thing when it comes to getting someone to consider buying a computer. Does the the computer I want have a reputation for reliability (As stated by independent experts such as journalists, reviewers, rating agencies and most importantly other users), and second, if it messes up, will I get taken care of in a fast, decent fashion?

The speeds and feeds part — sure, we have big hard disks and our computers go fast, faster, and fastest — that’s an important part of the consideration equation, but I posit that the most important one is whether or not the product is dependable and backed up.

I can tell you that a thousand times, but the person you will believe will be the person who doesn’t work for Lenovo, but the guy in the next cubicle, in the next row in coach, or in the comment section of someone’s blog.

Tech support is part of the game. Vendors have to provide it. They try to reduce the need for it by doing a couple things. Some do a good job at it. According to Consumer Reports, Lenovo is one of the few.
1. Make great products. Great products, tested and retested, will fail less often than shitty products.

2. Try to get the user to help themselves. The web was a good first step. Post documentation, drivers, how-tos, videos, updates … anything to get the user to first attempt to solve the problem solo.

3. Push the user down different solution channels. Email the problem and we’ll get back to you. I did this with Verizon due to a weird pop-up that happens on this machine’s EVDO service (Lenovo X60S). Verizon waited a day, emailed back, made a suggestion, I tried it, emailed them back, then they said sorry, see the hardware vendor (Lenovo). I still have the pop-up, an annoyance I can live with.

4. Turn service into a profit center. Sell people on extended warranties, VIP service, pay-for-service, jump to the head of the queue types of programs.

5. Outsource the whole operation to a low cost operating center (aka India)

A month ago I posted a modest proposal of using blog monitoring to proactively deal with service issues rather than using monitoring as a paranoid defense against assaults by product haters. The game changed a few years ago when users began using forums — the classic BBS, thread discussion groups born in USENET — to bitch about their product woes. Then the game changed even more profoundly when free blogging tools let anyone and their dog light up a platform for screeching about their issues. The old days of setting up a hate site — “PRODUCTSUCKS.COM” — got a lot easier when one can fire up a Blogger account or WordPress.com blog in five minutes and start howling about how mistreated you’ve been at the hands of the Man. In the old days, vendors lived in horror of people who bought ink by the truck load. Now everyone gets ink for free.
So, on a daily basis, me and a bunch of people look at Blogistan to see who is saying nice and naughty things about us and our products. A couple interesting things emerge from this daily scan. First, sophisticated users like to help other users. I’ve solved some serious spyware infestations by following posted FAQs written by committed anti-spyware experts on how to get deep inside of the Windows registry to stamp out stuff that Ad-Aware can’t find. I received some good pointers on getting my Bluetooth to behave by reading other user’s practical accounts and not by using the internal search on Lenovo.com. I upgraded the harddrive on a Fujitsu P2040 Lifebook using the instructions and aftermarket drive recommendations posted by other users. When four users in a thread on hard drive upgrades sing the praises of a specific drive, you buy that drive. So, I think peer-to-peer community support is a great thing. We need to do more to enable it. I have some ideas of how to get that ball rolling.
In part of my proactive support experiment I reached out to two bloggers I happen to know — Rick Klau at Feedburner and Shel Israel at Naked Conversations — when they posted about problems they are having with their Thinkpads. I don’t reach out to all bloggers, I’m not equipped to become the blogosphere’s tech support guru of Lenovo, but I am working to make sure that any blogged negativity about our products gets read, gets responded to and get worked through to a positive conclusion for the simple reason that I joined this company for the very idealistic belief that it made the best laptops in the world. If they suck, then by extension, I suck.

The danger in making a public outreach to some bloggers (bloggers I know, bloggers who are “important” or “influential” and not to all bloggers) is that I could single-handedly create a two-class level of support: Friends of Dave and everyone else. That won’t hold water. On the other hand, we can equip some of my colleagues with the same simple tools to detect the voices in the wilderness and help them out.

And so we are with a plan in gestation, one we are working with some very smart people developing some very smart tools, to extend the kind of support we’ve shown to some bloggers to all bloggers. (and by blogger I extend that to people posting on forums).

Someone posted at Shel Israel’s blog that he got handled the way he did out of paranoia on my part. Sure. There’s an element of truth to that, but there’s also the fact that our best support people are constantly reaching out proactively — without my involvement — and helping people find a solution through extraordinary measures.

Are we doing this because we’re trying to earn a halo? Look, it’s simple, Lenovo is the steward of one of the most premium and trusted brands in technology — the Thinkpad. Our users are fanatical about these machines. They love the keyboards, they howl at the slightest design change (the appearance of a Windows key, changes of color in the mouse buttons, intensity of the keyboard light) and they obsess about the details. They have been watching us for the slightest sign of cutting corners or letting down the standards established by IBM. That’s not going to happen. That cannot happen, nor will it happen.

So why is a marketing guy who is charged with getting the word out about Lenovo and Thinkpads getting passionate about tech support? Couple reasons.
One, I’ll never forget a speech by Guy Kawasaki when he talked about his love of Nordstrom’s and their no-questions-asked approach to customer support. I want to work for a company that is loved by its customers, not reviled. I believe a satisfied happy customer will have more of a positive effect on my sales than all the full page magazine ads and television commercials in the world. I either can get obsessive about search engine marketing and banner ad click-throughs (all very Web 1.0) or I can try activate some conversational marketing with the users and customers.

Second, I believe in the Cluetrain Manifesto. Thesis #1: “markets are conversations.” Well, this is where the conversation is happening. Not on the back cover ad of Fortune. Not in the email spam that just landed in my inbox. Not on the billboard on Highway 101 in Milpitas. It’s here. It’s on Shel’s blog. It’s on Jeff Jarvis’ blog. It’s on Thinkpads.com. I can either read it and do nothing, read it and post promises, or read it and post promises with action.
Third: I believe in Seth Godin’s “flip” scenario. Marketers like to talk about the “funnel.” Get people into the top of the funnel with advertising and promotions to consider your product and then push them down to purchase, and then have them continue on as a supporter and recommender. Seth says turn the funnel into a megaphone and get the customer to be your voice in the market, the person who says in the airport lounge to someone struggling to make a Wi-Fi connection: “Hey, if you push the ThinkVantage button there’s a Wi-Fi utility in there that will make life a lot easier.”

Fourth: I’m a former tech journalist. I was trained by some of the best bullshit detectors on the planet. It is not in me to sit at a keyboard on a nice Sunday morning and dissemble, b.s., gloss or mislead anyone reading this blog into believing that my company will make your whites whiter than white and your colors brighter than bright. I always preferred a good interview with an engineer than I did with a marketing suit, and now that I am one of the suits, I hope I don’t get sucked into the abyss of b.s.

Here’s my cell phone number. 508-360-6147. If you have a problem, call me. If I say I am busy, don’t be offended. I am busy. My main job is not taking tech support calls. But I am a semi-public face of a global corporation and I will follow the Scoble lead of putting my phone into the public domain. But I will ask you to send me an email (I won’t publish my address due to spam harvesters), describe the problem, and I in turn will forward that to the people who are experts at resolving the problem. In truth, if we’re good at what we do, we’d be in contact with the user before the user has to pick up the phone or send off an email.
Will you get a free laptop out of the discussion? No. We give review units to reviewers who take our products for a test ride and blog or publish what they will about them. Those units have to come back and are not gifts to buy good press. Robert Scoble got a review unit our tablet PC. Om Malik got one. Jim Forbes got one. If you are a blogger who blogs regularly about PC hardware and fit our criteria of a person who knows how to write about PCs, then we may put you on our reviewer list. We don’t pass out free laptops willy-nilly.

Stay tuned and please help us figure out how to use this medium to improve the conversation. I have a plan in mind and I’m not divulging the details here for competitive reasons, but let’s put it this way, I think the concept of OpenMarketing (insert hypocritical trademark symbol here) is at the heart of internet marketing, and that’s what I’m at Lenovo to do.
And also remember — these are not official Lenovo statements. We talk about this stuff a lot at Lenovo, but this blog remains my blog, not Lenovo’s, and I will blog about bike accidents, clamming and getting rats out of my roses about as often as I blog about Chinese approaches to banner ads, search engine optimization, and proactive blog support.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Proactive tech support – further thinking …”

  1. Thanks for being open and honest. My home PC hard drive crashed last week (no I didn’t have a recent backup) and on my other screen I have a customer satisfaction survey from Sage(.co.uk) because I spent 40 minutes on the phone with them yesterday. (I’m going to say nice things about them.) So this issue is at the top of my mind.

    It would be great to have good technical support, but I get my broadband from NTL, a cable company, even though their tech support is terrible, because the price is good. I’d happily recommend them to others, but I tell people that the support is bad. What I count on though, is that so long as I don’t change anything, it just works. And when it doesn’t, there’s no point ringing them up, because everyone else is, and it will be fixed by the next morning. So a good price, I suggest, will beat tech support, so long as you don’t expect to use it much.

    However, if I were to buy a laptop, I think I’d consider a Lenovo, just because you’re blogging about your users, and your thoughts on support, so it must be worth doing it. We (wycliffe.org.uk) recommend Toshiba to all our people, because they are going to the back of beyond, and they need reliable machines.

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  2. Found this via techmeme, and please *do* keep it up.

    You are totally right – we Thinkpad lovers out here are indeed quavering in our boots and looking for any hint that Lenovo will screw the pooch! I say this as I sit here waiting for the call from the onsite guy IBM should be sending out for my T42 who’s screen is dying. Just thought I’d toss that in there.

    One thing I would love to hear: what exactly is the plan to take care of the aging but still in-warrantee Thinkpads? I have a year to go on my (extended) warrantee …

    And yeah. I’d love to test drive a Lenovo Thinkpad. Y’all are working hard to get them into a Store Near Me, right?

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  3. Oh. Uhm … did I miss the link at the side of this blog that tells us who you are, and why we should call you?

    I’m not being flip. I just realized, I read this long thing by a guy who sounded authoritative for Lenovo, sorta … but I didn’t check to see who he is! You should save me and others a log trip through all your backposts, and put an ‘about’ link in a prominent spot. $0.02

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  4. You are an extraordinary brand ambassador because of your candor and passion. I teach digital marketing to MBA students and lecture on the subject. I plan to excerpt from your comments on tech support blog and the favorable response that follows it. BK

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  5. let me establish my “street cred” here before commenting: i worked for 5 years in technical support in one of the world’s largest technology companies. i did this in shanghai.

    the plain fact of the matter of *any* technical support is that customers are already experiencing high levels of DSAT long before they call. satisfaction can only be discussed in “recovery rate” – no customer is ever satisfied with the product/service as a result of the technical support they receive.

    every conceivable method of technical support – reactive, proactive, and retroactive – has been thought of and tried. the vast majority of technical companies don’t want to keep you in a phone queue for hours just to scare you from calling them – they want to pick up your call asap and fix your problem asap. for the most part, they all do a decent job (“discoverability”, however, is a major issue where the majority of customers don’t even know where to go for technical support, free or paid, and give up at that stage).

    the issue of bad technical support doesn’t rely completely on bad technical support itself – it always comes back to product development and instrumentation. technical support receives the blunt end of the sword in complaints about a company when in fact, if the product was simply developed better, technical support would be a moot point in most situations.

    all of this being said, however, technical support is the red-headed step-child of most technology companies. it is an underinvested in business unit (ever use Clarify? what a shit product!) and employee morale is ALWAYS the lowest of any other business segment (look at the high attrition rates in China and India alone). sales, marketing and other services groups pay it little to no attention because it is not a revenue generator – at best, it simply recovers costs.

    finally, lenovo, or any other company from china trying to sell to the world needs to place a heavy contingent of support staff outside of china. bless their hearts, the chinese do try hard – but they simply do not have the years of international experience to service the international community. up until recently, china was not (and most it’s West still isn’t) a market-driven economy. their was no need for customer service as people were expected to live with what they were given or bought and not complain. this attitude permeates the rank and file of every single support organization in china and no amount executive foreign bosses will change this is the short to medium term.

    lenovo would be wiser to spend its time on maintaining and building a fantastic product. build drivers that work ALL THE TIME. use hardware that doesn’t compromise the thinkpad reputation. focus on road warriors and durability. use six sigma to significantly reduce defects. build in instrumentation to both recover and report issues back to lenovo’s product groups.

    make all this work and tech support becomes a moot point – which is what it should be anyway with a great product.

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  6. DD – smart points. Indeed — engineer the heck out of a product, insure its longevity, and that, right there is as proactive as one can hope to be.

    (Thinkpad support is provided in the U.S. out of Raleigh and Atlanta, Lenovo products sold in China are supported from China).

    Thanks for the insights — I especially agree with your point that no company wants to put its customers through tech support — my modest proposal is that one tactic is to use “instrumentation” in the form of blog and CSAT monitoring to determine what is happening before the phones ring.

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  7. absolutely – monitoring blogroom and newgroup chatter is a great way to see what’s going on before something explodes. for a group with fiercely loyal users like users of thinkpad, i would think this is a must. but this is not exactly the same with the majority of consumer products where postings can be inaccurate and emotional – thinkpad users, i reckon, would take a more unbiased, or at least studied, approach to reporting problems. kind of like the apple users of the pc world, but without all the blind fanaticism and violent behaviour.

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  8. The question begged is whether consumer support behavior can ever be modified away from the phone to blogs, or indeed if that is an oxymoron as a consumer with a severe issue may not have acccess to make an online complaint.

    It comes back to your insight that good products, engineered not to fail, will result in silent phone lines and happier customers faster than any new approach to support.

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  9. I just bought a Thinkpad T60p (moving from a very broken brandless laptop with useless tech support) in the USA, although I am generally based in the UK.

    When it arrived the fingerprint reader turned out to be faulty (it simply wasnt recognised by the OS and the software wasnt installed: a QA issue?). A certain amount of trepidation preceded phoning tech support, but all was well – short wait time, helpful person who got an engineer to call me back within an hour, and a replacement part with easy to follow instructions arrived in the post in less than 24hrs. I was impressed.

    The warrenty is international: great.
    It’s not immediately clear who to call, however. Clearly it is sensible to have different numbers for different countries, but nowhere does it say if you should call your geographically local number if you are on the road, or the number in the country of purchase. Laptops travel internationally with their users more and more, and don’t descriminate as to where they may develop problems. A small complaint, perhaps, but not trivial.

    But even so (I took a guess, called the UK), there is no one number: The numbers listed in ‘Support Information’ (right clicking on My Computer, etc) are different to those on the website, and different again to a number a google search supplied. I do not know if they all work – I would almost think they probably do. But it put me off, it worried me, and it made me nervous, where I didnt have to.

    I ended up calling the UK number, but they had issues finding my serial number on the Lenovo/IBM database; they seemed confused by it being purchased in the States. In the end, I forwarded my purchase confirmation email to them, and this helped them find it, but not everyone has immediate access to this information (or even keeps it), and I don’t know how helpful they could have been without this.

    Finally, it was all a happy ending, and I came away impressed: The entire process was a far sight better than anything else I have experienced.. But nevertheless, there were minor bumps along the way, and I hope these can be smoothed…

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  10. Pingback: The TekTag Blog
  11. I sent this e-mail earlier tonight. For what it’s worth, I’m posting it here too.

    Dear Mr. Churbuck:

    I’m writing to follow up on a brief voice mail message that I left on your cell phone number tonight. I assumed that you would eventually ask me to provide some kind of written communique, so I decided that I might as well do it now.

    The reason I contacted you is because you had the courage to place your personal cell phone number on your blog. I happened to find it in March when I was first having problems with a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 that I purchased in January. The fact that you understood that customers expect to buy a functioning product–regardless of whether “functioning” means hardware, software, operating system, or whatever–really impressed me. I’m only just now contacting you because I am only just now reaching the end of my rope.

    First, just a bit about me. I’m a graduate student, which means I’m poor. It was very important to me to purchase a ThinkPad because I loved the product (having owned one before when I was a lawyer and had much more disposable income!), even though the purchase meant falling behind on my rent and utility bills. I figured it was worth it and that I would eventually thank myself for making the difficult decision to part with such a big chunk of money.

    Unfortunately, the computer was a dud almost right out of the box. Less than two months after the item was shipped, I started having some serious audio problems, accompanied by extreme delays in getting Windows to shut down. After speaking with a series of fairly unhelpful service representatives and eventually demanding that the problem be escalated to someone with the authority to give me a replacement or a refund, I was referred to a supervisor named “Amazing”–amazing was exactly what he was. He told me that replacement or refund would be options to pursue if he escalated the problem to another level, but we agreed that the better solution was simply to FIX the problem. He put a superb service representative in touch with me and told me that I should contact him again directly if I continued to have problems in order to discuss replacement or repair. The service representative’s name was Xoese (but he goes by “X”). He stayed on the line with me for nearly two hours to try to diagnose the problem. Eventually, his recommendation was for me to reinstall the operating system, but he offered to speak with me again after I had done so if I needed further help.

    Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. This was in March, the computer was less than two months old, and I was being told to do something that I knew from prior experience did not bode well for the future–I’ve only been told to reinstall an OS when the problem was SERIOUS, and the only times I have done so signaled the beginning of the end for the computer in question. However, given X’s kindness, patience, and expertise, I went along with his suggestion. As I’m sure you know, this was a tedious and time consuming process, even without taking into account the fact that I had to reload all of my software applications and re-tune them to my preferred settings.

    Immediately after reinstalling Windows XP, I began to experience new and different problems. I contacted Amazing and left a voice mail–I never got a response. The same thing happened with X. Once I had accumulated a list of 13 new problems, I contacted customer service again and spoke to James Armstrong, who was basically useless. Nothing that he suggested worked, and he wasn’t even able to communicate with me effectively because he didn’t have access to a machine running Windows XP. A few weeks later and I tried again–Jason Adams gave me some advice, which essentially involved running anti-virus and anti-spyware software while in Safe Mode. If there is a way to enter Safe Mode on the ThinkPad T60, I haven’t been able to find it. So basically I gave up.

    Until tonight. ThinkVantage Access Connections has been dropping my wireless connection regularly, and I haven’t been able to run ThinkVantage System Update for weeks–it always says that it is unable to connect to the proxy server, whatever that means. The representative I spoke to tonight told me that the problems I was experiencing were really software-related rather than hardware-related, and that all he could do was to recommend reinstalling a few drivers in a certain order. He said that Lenovo’s policy about its warranty service had recently changed, and that service representatives were no longer permitted to walk customers through software problems–apparently not even if the software is ThinkVantage.

    So that’s where I’m left tonight. I’m out to the tune of about $2,000 that I could ill afford in the first place, I have a computer that I’ve never really been able to trust or rely on, and Lenovo customer service either won’t respond to me or tells me (albeit very politely) that I’m just S.O.L.

    Can you please help me? All I want is what I paid for–a computer that works reliably. If that means spending eight hours on the phone with a service representative who can actually help me get the computer fixed, fine; I’ll do it. If that means turning in this computer for another T60 or some equivalent item and starting over from scratch, great; I’m willing to do that too. If that means just returning the computer for a full or a partial refund so that I can go buy another item from another company, I can even live with that. Whatever you can manage to do–during your no-doubt very busy schedule–in order to take care of just one, single customer who feels that he has been abused and abandoned by a brand he loved, I would surely appreciate. You’re basically my last hope. Please don’t let me down.

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  12. Hi David,

    Nice to see this. I fell through the famous ‘bezel’ problem when the new lenovos with centrino duos came out, and actually cited ‘marketing doing tech support’ in the MBA class I teach.

    My web site (and new blog) has more on tech support, and my quest to help support folks earn and demand respect on behalf of their customers.

    I welcome people who are interested in making service the heartbeat of a company join in the conversation on my blog. You can also find links to a number of organizations that are in the space and are doing interesting research.

    http://www.verghisgroup.com

    Peace,

    Phil

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