Data Sheet: Help!

A problem with an app or a piece of hardware? Help is at hand. Well, at least in theory…

Manufacturers will always offer support desks with their software and hardware. Apps from small companies and individuals will sometimes, but not often enough, provide directions that connect the user up with a support team.

Big outfits like Google and Amazon typically prefer to run the user through the gauntlet of an FAQ (frequently asked questions) database before granting you access to the valuable time of their real-life employees. But somewhere, once you’ve managed to wrangle your way through the maze of Web-based obstacles, you should manage to find a link that leads to real flesh-and-blood staff.

You’re now in a position to lodge your issue formally with the company, a process known as “opening a ticket”.

But your troubles are not yet over.

Tiers Before Bedtime

Why are support desks, when you finally manage to track them down, so generally frustrating?

Really small companies, perhaps run by a single developer, can be a joy when you’re seeking solutions, asking advice, pointing out bugs or offering feature suggestions. With no tiers, typically you’ll get a really helpful and swift email response from the single proprietor.
Engineers who really know stuff are expensive, so support desks are arranged in tiers. Tier 3 is where the brains are—in smaller companies these may well be the actual developers of the software. But the customer initially interfaces with Tier 1.

Tier 1 staffers may not be employees of the company you think you’re dealing with. This might be a generic third-party Help Desk, working for multiple different manufacturers. A Tier 1 assistant may not even know the product, but in any case will be operating from scripts prepared by others further up the information chain. The response you get will almost certainly be in the form of boiler-plate paragraphs, delivered either verbally or as chat text or email, in the hope that they may meet your needs.

I’ve had the most ridiculous exchanges with Tier 1 personnel. However succinctly and accurately you phrase your statement of the problem, the chances of it being answered by an appropriate boiler-plate paragraph are pitifully low.

In my experience, Tier 1 operatives are working so fast, with so many queries, that they seldom have time even to read your initial submission properly. And there is a good chance that their native language may not be the same as yours.

None of this matters too much to the company, however, as the primary job of a Tier 1 staffer is to fend you off from the two tiers above.

Riding without a Ticket

If your query is simple, it’s possible that the boiler-plate response from Tier 1 might hit the spot. But in that case you could probably have saved more time by scouring through the FAQs. If there’s a community forum, you could join and put your question there. But make sure to search first to see if the issue has already been raised and answered.

Forums are unlikely to respond kindly to sloppily phased entries. “My app just died and now it won’t run. Help!” isn’t going to encourage anyone to throw you a lifeline. Describe your problem as fully as you can but don’t be shy to admit to being a newbie (an inexperienced newcomer) if that’s what you are.

You may not even need that dedicated forum. You might try sticking the key words of your query (product name, error code and something that describes the issue, like “fail”, “freeze” or “reboot”) into a Web search.

Your Loaded Question

Even if the FAQs or the forum or the Web search can’t answer your question, this approach may leave you with enough ammunition to advance to the next tier of the support desk. By “ammunition”, I mean enough technical knowledge for you to phase your issue in a way that indicates as clearly as possible to Tier 1 that you’re swimming at a deeper end of the pool than they dare venture.

So instead of something like “When the red light flashes, the app just freezes and nothing happens,” you might now be able to say “The red LED is flashing error code 7, indicating a Bluetooth connection failure, and power-cycling the device fails to put it back into pairing mode.”

If Tier 1 reads this properly ( I did say “if”) there’s a reasonable chance you might get passed up to Tier 2.

Another way of ascending from Tier 1, recommended by a veteran colleague of mine, is to respond to the company on Twitter. Sharing a particularly crass Tier 1 boiler-plate response on social media has been known to kick the PR company controlling the account into action, producing a swift acceleration up to the next tier.
If you’re lucky enough to commune with Tier 2 you should now find yourself in at least the realm of competency.  Your issue will be intelligently studied by company employees (or perhaps interns). They may not have useful answers at their fingertips, but they will have the common sense to know what they don’t know and the logistical connections necessary to ease you towards a solution. In extremis, they’ll have the authority to pass you up to Tier 1.

These two upper tiers are not necessarily Nirvana. Tier 2 on one occasion directed me to a company Web page that supposedly held my solution. The Web page was riddled with technical errors and fundamental misunderstandings and I then found myself having to open a new ticket about the Web page itself. It’s not at all uncommon, in my experience, to find one ticket leading to another like this.

And even if you wiggle your way through Tier 3 to the upper echelons, tickets can still take months to resolve. Some never do.

But that’s technology for you.

Chris Bidmead

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