In April, I touched on the topic of “Geeks and Communications Skills.” Reading through some of David Berlind‘s (over at ZDNet) recent blogs about poor customer service via call centers, I am following up my original post with this series. This series refers specifically to communicating with call centers, a potentially unpleasant task that most IT professionals need to deal with on a regular basis. This post discusses how to get maximum results from a call into the support hotline, and the next post in the series will show how to provide quality phone support.

Getting quality support over a phone for a technical matter is not the easiest thing in the world to do. As someone who has been on both sides of the phone call, I know that it can be frustrating both to get help and to be helped. As IT professionals, making contact with phone-based support is part and parcel of our jobs, and it is inevitable. Chances are, when you are calling the support hotline, you need help now, all too frequently with a mission critical problem. While we should not need special skills just to deal with phone support, it is the unfortunate case that without being prepared and knowing how to effectively communicate with call centers, it is hard to get the best support possible.

Be prepared before calling

If at all possible, have any relevant logs or error messages handy. Telling the technical support person “it told me something about an interrupted communications with something or other” is not going to help them resolve your problem. Have the exact error message (particularly any error code or status code numbers) will cut the time needed to get help significantly. Also, make sure that you have a paper and pen on hand, to take any pertinent notes. If the problem is with a piece of equipment in another room, have a way of “walking and talking,” and make the call from a cell or cordless phone if possible, in case “hands on” troubleshooting is needed. For pieces of equipment like networking gear or headless servers, make sure that you have a laptop and the correct console cables nearby. If you have to put the support technician on hold for ten minutes to dig for your tools, you are not helping the call go well at all. And of course, always have the serial number and support contract number, or previous ticket number in your hands before dialing the phone; many support technicians must reject your call, even a “quick question” without that information.

The first few moments

Make sure to get and record the technician’s name (as well as the spelling) or ID number as soon as they answer the phone. Also try your best to pronounce the technician’s name correctly. Do not be dismayed if the technician requires full details on you and your unit even if it is a brief question, this is the process that the support person is required to follow. If the technician sounds harried or insincere with their greeting, let it slide. Chances are, the technician is harried, and it is difficult to make “good afternoon” sound genuine when it is the 78th time you have said it that day. Keep in mind that you are calling to get technical support, not exchange pleasantries with a complete stranger. When the technician asks “how may I help you?” do not tell a long story. Describe in as few words as possible what the immediate problem is. The technician will determine if they need to hear about the preceding events. Here is an example:


Technician: How may I help you?

Customer: We got this unit about seven months ago, I think we bought it from a place we found on the Internet, but it may have been through our local reseller. It has worked great up until a few days ago, but lately it has been a bit flaky. It was making some odd noises like the noise my brakes make when the pad is worn out, and I think I may have smelt something strange in the server room near the unit, but the other technician who works in the server room did eat chili that day, so it might not have been the unit making the smell. Well, today it was down, and when I powered it back on, it sent me an email about having a bad hard drive in it.


Technician: How may I help you?

Customer: The unit was not powered on this morning, and when we powered it up, it sent me an email about having a bad hard drive.

Technician: Did you hear it making any strange noises?

Customer: Yes, it make some grinding and clicking noises yesterday.

Technician: Yes sir, that is definitely a sign of a bad hard drive. I see that you are still under warrantly for parts and I will be delighted to get a replacement drive sent out immediately. Are you able to access the unit’s Web-based administration system so we can find out which drive is bad?

See the difference? The first conversation fed the technician a lot of information that seemed relevant to the customer, but was not relevant to resolving the problem. The second conversation was short and to the point. By the time the first customer got done telling his, the second customer was nearly finished with getting a replacement part.

Respect the technician

When calling into technical support, always be respectful the technician, no matter how frustrated or upset you may be. Remember, the support technician did not cause the problem, create the design flaw, write the manual, write the code, assemble the hardware, perform your configuration, or have any other part in the problem when you call in. They are there to resolve your problem. If you vent your frustrations on the technician, they are going to quickly put you in the “jerk customer” bucket and the quality of your support will likely reflect that. The technician who may have been willing and ready to go the extra mile or provide support above and beyond contractual obligations will barely meet the bare minimum if you are abusive to them. Under no circumstances should you use foul language or raise your voice.


Technician: Thank you for calling Servers Express, my name is John. May I please have the serial number of the unit?

Customer: Sure, the serial number of this piece of junk is I-A-M-B-R-O-K-E-N, I mean, 55-66-1212. Listen, this thing is the worst purchasing decision I ever made. Just get me my money back and I won’t have to drive over there and knock some skulls.

Technician (rolls his eyes, puts the phone on “mute” and curses the day his was born, then take the phone off of “mute”): Sir, I understand that you are frustrated and upset, but I am here to help resolve your problem. However, I will request that you not be abusive towards me. Let’s try to resolve the problem first, it may be something simple that can be immediately resolved. I am here to help you sir, and if a refund is needed, I will be happy to help you with that.


Technician: Thank you for calling Servers Express, my name is John. May I please have the serial number of the unit?

Customer: Sure, the serial number of this unit is 55-66-1212. We have been having a lot of problems with this unit, and I would like to work towards getting a refund.

Technician: Sir, let’s try to resolve the problem first, it may be something simple that can be immediately resolved. I am here to help you sir, and if a refund is needed, I will be happy to help you with that. Could you please describe exactly what the problem is occurring, so that I may determine if I am authorized to get you an immediate refund?

If you feel that the technician is not treating you with due amounts of respect, do not yell or curse, request to speak to their supervisor. If the call heads south, do not hang up and call back in hoping to get to a different technician, get the supervisor on the phone. Most call center employees need to work very closely together, and are in close contact with each other to find out what happened on a call or to ask each other for advice. This also means that when you call back in, the next technician you speak to is quite likely to be already aware of the argument that you have had with the previous technician, and is now expecting confrontation. Also remember that the notes in the ticket often contain more than just details of the technical problem. A good support technician immediately documents any kind of problem with the customer and alerts their supervisor (whether or not they are truthful is a separate matter) when a call goes wrong. This means that the ticket notes may have a warning such as “customer was extremely abuse and dropped the call” in them. Finally, keep in mind that you do not have to enter every fight that you are invited to. Again, if the technician is indeed being rude or abusive, you simply need to request to speak to a supervisor. After all, you are a customer.

It is also important to remember that the technician is doing a repetitive, thankless, and probably underpaid job. That technician spends eight hours a day taking phone calls from people who vent their anger on the technician, who do not have the technical knowledge to be trying to resolve the problem, and has a boss breathing down their neck about “hold time” and “average talk time” and “average number of escalations.” In addition to handling your phone call, they may be simultaneously trying to help their fellow technicians via email or instant message, as well as supporting some customers through email or online chat. Although that is no excuse for the technician to deliver less than excellent service, it is something to keep in mind when talking to the technician.

Also keep in mind that the technician frequently has a script or process that they must not deviate from. If the technician gets away from that script or process, and there is a problem, they are the ones who get in trouble. Support technicians quickly learn that they keep their jobs by following the script. If the technicians will not budge from the script or process, do not blame them. That does not help you at all. If it is obvious that the technician’s script or process prevents them from helping you the way you need to be helped, request an escalation to a higher level of support or to speak to a manager, depending upon the problem.

Stay focused

For a variety of reasons, try to stay focused on the problem at hand. Many outsourced call centers get paid by the ticket. This means that when you roll four different problems into one ticket, they are losing money. In fact, some call centers will request that if you have any separate issues, you must call back in. If this happens, do not get angry. Remember the technician is just following the process and procedures laid out for him by his management. Instead, write a letter or email to customer service complaining about this policy. Also remember, when you pack many issues into one call or ticket, the notes get very confusing very quickly, and follow up calls will take longer than needed since the technician who answers the later call will need to wade through pages of notes about related issues. The support technician’s performance metrics suffer when you put them on hold to answer a call or chat with your boss or otherwise stray from resolving the problem. When the technician is worried about their boss coming over to find out why they have been on the phone for so long, they are not thinking about helping you anymore, they are thinking about ways to get you off the phone.

Personally, I have been in situations where I was supporting a NAS device over the phone, troubleshooting a frame relay connection on the computer, clearing and investigating SNMP alerts, helping other technicians via IM, emailing customer service to have an RMA filled, and writing documentation regarding tape drives simultaneously, while being the only technician on staff and not having had a bathroom break in nearly three hours. The technician is doing more than talking to you on the phone, so try to be respectful of their time.

Know the lingo

Call centers have a unique language all to themselves. Knowing this jargon helps significantly in resolving problems and smoothing the call. It is also extremely helpful to know the “military alphabet” for spelling out words.

Escalation: Referring the call higher up the chain. A call can be escalated on a technical level (involving a more experienced technician for a hard to solve problem) or the business level (involving a manager or supervisor in order to request something outside of the process or contract).

T&M/Time and Material: When service outside of the contractual obligations is requested, it is a “T&M Case,” meaning that the customer is responsible for paying any labor or parts charges involved in the resolution. If you are told that a service request is under a T&M basis, find out what the T&M charges will be before authorizing service. T&M charges can be surprisingly high, and there is often a minimum charge as to the number of labor hours, regardless of how long the repair actually takes.

RMA: Return of Material Authorization, the process (as well as the ID number) of getting a replacement part sent.

Advance RMA: Most RMA processes will not send a replacement part until they receive the defective part. An advanced RMA allows the company to ship the replacement part before receiving the defective part. This often involves putting a hold on a credit card for the cost of the part for a period of time which will be charged to the card if the replacement part is not received within a certain amount of time. Make sure that you clearly understand the exact terms of an advance RMA before agreeing to it. If you require a replacement part immediately, ask if an advance RMA is possible, even if the technician does not tell you about the option for it. Many companies have an advance RMA option that they do not widely announce.

Supervisor: Be very careful when requesting to speak to a “manager.” A technician may be truthful in stating that a “manager” is not available, meanwhile a “supervisor” is sitting right next to them. When escalating a call for business reasons or to lodge a complaint, request a “supervisor,” not a manager.

Technical Lead: A support technician within that level or support with more knowledge and experience than the average technician, but not at the next level of support. If you have requested an escalation for technical reasons and are told that they will call you back or they are unavailable, try requesting to speak to a “technical lead.” They may not be quite as knowledgeable as the next full level of support, but they may know the answer to your problem.

Level X: Most call centers have three tiers of technicians: Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. Level 1 technicians typically must stick 100% to a script, and often (but not always) do not know anything outside of their support database of common problems. The Level 2 technicians are much more knowledgeable, and they know things that are not in the Level 1 database. Sometimes Level 2 support is needed for particularly difficult or potentially damaging procedures. A call is escalated to Level 2 either because Level 1 is unable to resolve the problem at all, or because the procedure takes some time to perform and Level 1 needs to be available to answer immediate calls. Level 2 escalations often have a longer hold time than the initial call to Level 1, and frequently Level 2 will return your call instead of having you wait on hold for them. The Level 3 technicians are usually the highest level of support. They nearly always have direct contact with the engineering team or actually are members of the engineering team. If Level 3 cannot resolve your problem, chances are you will be getting a refund or full unit replacement. Because Level 3 problems are often “one off” issues or reveal an entirely new problem that has never been encountered before, it can sometimes take days or weeks to resolve a ticket that has been escalated to Level 3. My experience has been that Level 1 tries to cap a call at 10 – 15 minutes, Level 2 tries not to hold onto a ticket for more than a few days, and Level 3 can take days or weeks to resolve a problem. Remember, the higher you go, the more difficult the problem is to solve. Some upscale contracts allow you to request immediate escalation to Level 2, or immediately direct your call to Level 2. Depending upon your needs and ability to solve minor problems yourself, this contract option may be perfect for you.

Technician Dispatch/Technician Roll: Physically sending a technician to resolve a problem.

Vendor Meet: Some problems (particularly networking issues) require a technician dispatch from more than one company. When this is needed, a “technician dispatch” becomes a “vendor meet” and the different companies arrange the arrival time of their technicians so that they all arrive at the location of the problem simultaneously. A vendor meet typically eliminates any response requirements, because each company has a different SLA with the customer. For example, if Vendor A’s SLA is a 4 hour response time, and Vendor B’s SLA is an 8 hour response time, Vendor A cannot be held to their 4 hour response time if Vendor B cannot arrange the vendor meet within 4 hours. A vendor meet though often carries its own SLA, where a vendor that is late for the vendor meet is penalized.

Response time: The amount of time that a technician has to arrive on site. Some contracts measure response time from the moment the initial call is placed, other contracts measure response time from the time at which it is determined that onsite service is required.

X by Y by Z service: This is a shorthand way of describing SLA obligations. “X” is the number of hours that service is provided (24 meaning all day, 8 or 9 meaning “9 to 5” or business hours only), “Y” is the number of days (5 for weekdays only, 7 for all week long), and “Z” is the response time. A “9 by 5 by 4” contract means that the response time is four hours from the time of call in during business hours in the week. A 7 day contract typically requires service on holidays, while a 5 day contract typically does not count holidays as days of possible service.

Military alphabet/phonetic alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu

Being transferred

All too often, your call needs to be transferred to someone else. A common problem is that a transferred call gets dropped. Especially during a call that has been less than perfect, it is tempting to think that the technician dropped you entirely. This does indeed happen on occasion, but it could be any number of problems. Sometimes the person on the receiving end drops the call when they pick up. A frequent issue in a call center is that a call is in the queue, and a technician goes to hang up a call that they are on. Just as they push the button to drop the call that they are on, the customer drops off and their phone automatically picks up the next call. As a result, instead of dropping the finished call, the drop the new call. Although this can be very frustrating, particularly if there is a long hold time, this can be a less frustrating situation if you get the direct contact information for where you are being transferred to before the transfer attempt is made. Never assume that you were dropped on purpose, no matter how bad the call may have been. For the years that I worked at call centers, I only met a small number of technicians that would deliberately drop calls. Since the phone system would record how the call was ended and by whom, after more than one or two customer complaints, they were terminated. If your call is dropped more than once (especially if it is by the same technician), request to speak with a supervisor immediately; you may have hit upon the bad apple in the bunch.

Ending the call

At the end of the call, do not forget to thank your support technician. If you were particularly impressed or disappointed with the level of service you received, request to speak to a supervisor and make your thoughts known, or send an email to customer service. Kudos to technicians is particularly well received, as it is rare that a customer lets the company know of a job well done. Appropriate compliments on service to a supervisor have a funny way of percolating through a call center, helping to ensure top-flight service in the future. If you are given a ticket number, do not forget to write it down, even if the problem is resolved. It is always easier to refer back to a previous ticket for a recurrent problem than to try to describe something that happened weeks or months ago, if the technician needs a full history of the problem.

Following up

Some tickets, particularly chronic problems, may require follow up. If the technician said you will get a call back, and you have not received one, do not get mad or panic. They may be under unusually high levels of calls that day. Simply call back and let them know that you were expecting a callback and did not receive it yet. If you repeatedly do not get a call back by the promised time, escalate the call to a supervisor. Repeated failure to call back is unacceptable, regardless of contractual obligations or reasons for the failure. If the technician provided you with an email address to send log files or other troubleshooting information, do not treat this as your direct pipeline to that technician! That technician may no longer be on duty, or may be unable to accept support requests via email. Try to make follow up calls through the same path (online chat, email, phone, etc.) as the initial contact; some companies separate different groups of technicians that may not be as familiar with your problem, or may not even have access to each other’s systems. If a ticket has been referred or escalated to another group, find out how to contact that group directly if possible. Following up with Level 1 for a call that has been escalated to Level 3 or talking to Level 2 to get the status of an RMA just wastes time.

I hope these tips help you to get the best possible support from a cell center! My next post will provide advice for call center technicians looking to provide the best possible support for customers.