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.