Let me begin with the disclaimer that there is no foolproof way of getting exactly what you want from technical support. The tips I'll give will help. However: sometimes you'll win, sometimes you won't. The trick is to enjoy the fight.

"Wait a minute," some of you are probably asking, "doesn't tech support usually just give you what you want?" Well, yes, I suppose, usually. However, there are times when knowing a few tricks can help you get troubleshot faster, hardware shipped quicker, or just the chance to interrupt some techie's game of Quake.

The most important thing to know when dealing with tech support is you have all the power. True enough, if they have good reason to not help you (like you took your laptop in the shower with you) you're not going to get anywhere. But a crucial fact to remember is that almost all tech support calls are monitored. Even if they don't ever get heard, your tech is still wary of the possibility that his boss will someday hear your conversation.

Tip #1: If you ain't happy, escalate.

Unless you've got Premier Support, the first person you talk to will be a low-level tech. Note: Some very large call-centers have "screeners" who decide which pool to drop your call in. Just answer their questions, not much you can do at that point. Anyway, at first, you're talking to the lowest guy on the tech support totem pole. Now, this doesn't mean you're dealing with a moron, but it does mean the only way to go is up. If you're being told anything you don't want to hear, ask to speak to a supervisor. Whether they won't ship you a new one or the guy's telling you there's no fix for your issue, tell him you want the issue escalated and you want to talk to his supervisor. In most call-centers, this is a request the tech must honor. Keep in mind, however, if you get his supervisor on the phone without a valid concern, he's going to be annoyed that he had to waddle over and listen to your whining.

Tip #2: Expect satisfaction

Your happiness is what's most important here. You can be a complete asshole, but your tech still has to do his best to help you out, don't forget that. If you're not getting what you think you deserve, say so and make a fuss. You'd be amazed how well this can pay off at times.

Tip #3: Don't hang up until you're happy

This is more like Tip 2.1, but I think the phrase deserves it's own space. In fact, let me say it again: DON'T HANG UP UNTIL YOU'RE HAPPY! Your tech will almost definitely not hang up on you. Like I said, you're in control; the longer you stay on the line the more likely it is you'll get what you want.

Tip #4: Miscellaneous Tips:

I've got just a few more things:

Don't accept that "ship it to us and we'll ship you another" crap. Tell the tech you want your new hardware cross-shipped. IE: they ship you the new one immediately as you ship them the broken one.

Never pay for the shipping! Tell them you want a prepaid sticker through whoever they want as a carrier. It doesn't really matter how they pay for it, but they should always cover it.

If you're calling on behalf of a corporation, call your sales rep and ask for the Premier Support number. If he won't give it to you, ask him if there's anything you can do to get better support (there's usually not, but it at least shows you're serious). There's a part of me that's dying to include Dell's Premier Support numbers in this W/U, but their mean lawyers scare me.

Most importantly, don't try to be an asshole. Most of these tips are last-resort type ideas, most of the time you can get quality support without much hassle (my best experiences have been with Compaq).

And finally, enjoy the fight. Don't get stressed and annoyed, have a little fun with it. Consider it an exciting challenge. And if all else fails, and you've gotten nowhere, hurl your favorite insult, (here's mine), followed by a polite "Thank you" and the immediate click of an ended phone call.

In the belief that knowledge is power, I recommend reading how to talk to tech support (for the techies' side of the story). Not everything they say agrees with what I've written, but I'd rather everyone see both sides than wrap myself in a fuzzy blanket of denial of the validity of their points.

General Tips

Remember the golden rule: an annoyed or frustrated tech is a tech who will be more focused on ending the call than on fixing your problem. It doesn't matter if the call is monitored or not: a pissed-off tech can still be unflinchingly polite but working 100% on getting you to go away.

Sometimes, fixing your problem is the quickest way to get rid of you. But if your problem is complex and you're a rude, irritating pest, forget about it. If you have to seek help from others, the people with the knowledge are the people with the power, not you.

So if you want your telephone tech support experience to go smoothly and produce positive results:

  • Speak your name, username, and account numbers clearly and slowly. Don't just rattle off a string of letters and numbers and expect the tech on the other end to understand you. If the tech asks you to repeat the spelling of your name, for God's sake don't speak even more quickly. This means the tech will have to ask again and already be a bit annoyed with you.

  • Give the tech salient details about your computer and the malfunction it's exhibiting. The basics include your operating system, the amount of RAM you have, the name and version of the software that's been acting up, and any changes you or others have made to your system since it started malfunctioning. Don't just announce "My computer won't work right!" and wait silently for the tech to magically know what kind of computer you have. The more you make the tech drag information out of you, the more annoyed he or she will be.

    By the same token, try not to natter on about a bunch of extraneous stuff: "Well, I got this computer last year and my cousin really said I should get a Mac not a Dell but she wore a red dress at our aunt's wedding and that's just really not done so I figure what does she know and anyway ...." Don't make the tech do verbal archaeology to sort out what's going on.

  • If the tech asks you to try something, or for more information, don't act all huffy and impatient. This is for your benefit, not the tech's.

Special Advice for Staff and Faculty at Universities

You can be a complete asshole, but your tech still has to do his best to help you out.

If you work at a university, be very wary of being a demanding jerk when you request that your call be escalated if the tech support isn't going as you think it should.

I work in the call center at a very large university; most of the techs are pretty jaded because they've run into a phenomenal number of people who have no interest in learning about and taking responsibility for the machines they use. However, we try to rise above and do the best job we can with each call, as long as the customer is willing to work with us. If you, the customer, want to talk to a more advanced tech, or a specific tech, all you need do is ask.

We really can "go the extra mile" here; we don't have quotas and time limits imposed on us like techs in the commercial world. Our bosses won't come down on us if we spend an hour on the phone with an undergrad who got the CoolWebSearch trojan off a porn site.

We are here to help you, and we have to be polite no matter what you say to us, but you do not make our jobs appealing by copping an unpleasant attitude. We're not paid enough to take abuse. If you get rude with us, we won't be in a frame of mind to walk that extra technical mile with you. We will seek ways to get you off the phone instead of seeking ways to solve your problem.

Callers are not anonymous to us; we have access to a truly scary amount of personal information. Maiden names. Social security numbers. Home addresses. Forwarding email accounts. Passwords. Logs of every call and email you've sent to us.

We take pains to keep sensitive personal information secure. But because we're a publicly-funded institution, every ticket you open with us becomes a public record.

Don't think we keep the most 'entertaining' calls to ourselves; the rude and outrageous get printed and posted on a call center Wall of Shame for all to see. There's no editorializing from the tech who logged the exchange; these calls and emails speak for themselves, and they speak volumes about the people who sent them.

But getting your email on the Wall of Shame for 30 or so techs to shake their heads at isn't the worst that can happen if you get downright abusive.

Because remember: if you work for the university ... so do we. We are your coworkers.

One day, an untenured faculty member called up in a profanity-spewing rage about a piece of university-supplied email software. He told the level-one tech who answered the phone, "I want to talk to the shithead who made this piece of crap!"

The tech knew the senior admin who in fact had coded the software in question. He put the instructor on hold, and called up the admin and explained the situation. The admin told him to go ahead and transfer the call over.

The admin answered the phone, "This is the 'shithead'. What can I do for you?"

The instructor backed off the verbal abuse a little, but not nearly enough. The admin sent a letter of complaint about the instructor's unprofessional behavior to his supervisors.

As a result of this little episode, the instructor didn't get tenure. And once you try for and fail to get tenure here, you're pretty much done. He completely wrecked his academic career because he thought he could treat tech support as subhuman lackeys.

I'm not entirely sure how useful these 'tips' are. I've done tech support for a while, and I've seen new techs go through the same phases as they become more experienced in dealing with the 'quality' calls.

- Overly helpful
- Still willing to go the extra mile
- Quite helpful
- Professionally helpful
- Cautiously helpful

When I get a call from anyone, they have about a one in a hundred chance of actually waking me up from a techie coma - a self-imposed mental defense state where technicians don't have to listen to what their ears are hearing or their mouths are saying, because otherwise we'd go insane and start strangling people.

Firstly, they have to convince me that they have, in fact, managed to call the right number and aren't like that guy who refused to hang up until we took his pizza order.

Secondly, they have to convince me that the problem they think they are having is, in fact, an actual computer problem and not a training problem. If the photocopier in their office on the other side of the country is out of paper, that isn't a computer problem.

Thirdly, they have to convince me that the computer problem they are having is not one that their office management, office administrator or (if supplied) office computer technician should be looking at instead. This also comes under 'training', as in 'why were they not trained to talk to their local people before phoning the other side of the country'?

Fourthly, they have to convince me that the computer problem they are having which does not fall under the purview of the local office staff isn't one for which they were given the solution yesterday or earlier this morning, or for which the solution was actually read out to them while they were on hold.

Fifthly, if the non-locally-fixable, unknown computer problem they are having is one of the common ones in our extensive databases, and the solution is on our website, they get navigated there and advised to print and/or read the solution.

Sixthly, if the problem is recorded but is not listed on our website, I fix it with phrases, keystrokes and phone calls which have become so routine I don't need to wake from the technician coma. (If I did, I'd start ranting about the fact that these problems haven't been fixed in FIVE YEARS, ARGH.)

The reason for all this seeming callousness and uncaring attitude is twofold. It stops me attacking nearby objects and people out of sheer frustration, and by getting people off the phone as quickly as possible, I can free up those minutes to attend to:

Seventhly, the original reason I took this job. Very occasionally, perhaps once every few days, there will come a call which requires actual genuine analytical thought. It may take a second or two to wake up from the technician coma, but if someone calls with one of these they will have my full attention and interest. I'll do my best to help them, because it's (a) such a novelty to have to dust off the brain cells, and (b) it's usually not their fault in any way. Caller, your bad luck has turned, and I am now your personal guardian angel.

So what does this have to do with how to act when calling tech support? Well, check the above. See any entries for 'asking for a supervisor' or 'expecting satisfaction'?

No. This is because, contrary to people's expectations, I actually do have a lot of freedom. If they ask for a supervisor, I can (and will) tell them 'no'. If they ask for a refund of any kind, I will tell them 'no'. If we're not running our operation to their satisfaction, that's just too bad - unfortunately our contracts and policies are not based around what they personally think our jobs should be.

I pride myself on my patience and an even temper, but I can and will hang up on conversations I consider unproductive. It's not so much that they're wasting my time - after all, I'll have to pick up the phone and answer another question in 20 seconds anyway - but they're wasting the time of the people who are backed up in the phone queue and who have genuine issues.

I won't pretend that my situation is standard. The pushy techniques described above may well work on less experienced techs, or on call centre staff who have been primed to bend to a caller's every whim. But try something like that on me or my ilk, and you'll be cut dead or cut off in short order.

The caller has all the power? Don't make me laugh. The power resides firmly in the little red button on my phone marked "Release".

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