Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

Extract from xkcd comic about tech support

Have you tried turning it off and on again?


I work in an internal IT support team for a large-ish organisation. I say large-ish because your definition might vary: it’s a global business with a headcount in the low thousands. One of the ways in which our users can contact us for support is by email, which is convenient for them but means that we have tickets appearing in our ticket logging system with users’ own descriptions of what’s wrong. Looking at the level of detail that people include, I’m sometimes left wondering how much they actually want us to help them.

I’m not talking about people who fail to mention whether they’re running the very stable Service Pack 2 release 3 of WidgetWinder(tm) or the somewhat suspect Service Pack 2 release 3a. I’m talking about people who send an email along the lines of “I’m getting an error in Word, can you help”, or perhaps “I can’t print”, failing to mention that (a) it’s because there’s a jam on the printer and (b) they’re not actually at their normal desk, they’re in a different office 300 miles away.

People should be punished for that. But then they probably feel that in having to contact their IT department, they’re already being punished.

We don’t help ourselves by falling back so readily on “Have you tried turning it off and on again.” Yes, there are some circumstances where that might help. There are plenty where it’s not going to do anything except give you five or ten minutes to make a quick coffee before the user calls back again.

There are other stock answers. When the analyst says “It’s working for me,” what they mean is that they’ve not been able to reproduce the error on their machine and so they’ve concluded it’s not a system-wide problem. A useful troubleshooting step, but what the user hears is “It must be something you’ve done.” And perhaps it is, but we shouldn’t really be saying that. Another is “That’s a known issue”, which sounds like “It’s broken and we don’t care” but hopefully means “It’s broken and we’re working on it.”

From the inside, it’s easy to see the reasons why we do some of these things. It makes sense to us and (believe it or not) we are actually trying to fix as many people’s problems as we can in as short a time as possible. No one like a long queue of open tickets on their system. But the way the user perceives our behaviour might be different.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been in contact with three other support teams – two IT companies and one utility company. None of these experiences was good.

The first one was – and I’m just going to blurt out their name here – ManageEngine, who make the ticket logging system we use. I’d spotted a bug in the way their web application worked if you were using Google Chrome as your browser. It was a minor bug, but I thought they’d want to look into it. They responded by saying that they weren’t having the problem (red flag number one), and then suggested I delete the \extracted folder on the web server and restart the web application (which is the ManageEngine version of “turn it off and on again” – red flag number two). I politely pointed out that as the team works nearly 24/7 and as this would kick everyone out for about 5 minutes, I’d have to wait until Saturday morning at 6am my time to be able to test it.

Saturday came. I tested it. And it made no difference.

I replied back on the Monday and the response was “Oh, did you clear the browser cache at the same time? You need to clear the browser cache. Delete the extracted folder again, restart the web application, clear your browser cache and try.”

The feeling I got was that I was being worn down. We both knew it was a minor issue. All I wanted was for them to acknowledge it and put it on the enormous issues list they hold, then I could move on. Instead it felt like it was a competition to see who would give in first.

I re-did the test, installed Wireshark, and sent him the HTTP POST messages going from the browser to the server and showed how they were different in Chrome and IE. I think that’s as far as I’m going with this one.

Issue number two was setting up this blog. This is the third website I’ve set up with Hostgator, and whatever the strengths they have, none of the setups have gone smoothly and I’ve ended up having to contact their support team. As Hostgator are based in the US (and I’m not), that means an international phone call that starts with 20 expensive minutes of listening to the same two minutes of music. They now have a Chat support service, which is much more useful for me.

To be fair to Hostgator, the analysts I’ve spoken to or text chatted with have all been very pleasant and professional. So what am I complaining about? Well, they just didn’t fix the problem — or rather, their first responders couldn’t fix the problem. They created a ticket, they passed it on to their billing team, and there it sat for a day or so, and then when they fixed the billing issue, all the signs were that they hadn’t completed the site setup properly (even allowing for the fact that I have no patience for DNS propagation!)

But we do exactly the same thing at work – issues that can’t get resolved at First Line are logged on the system and assigned to someone who, hopefully, can fix the issue. From the user’s point of view, the ticket then disappears into the darkness that is the interior of our IT department, with no timescales for resolution and little or no progress information.

Finally, I’m mired in an ongoing complaint with Npower, our energy provider, over an issue with the way in which they bill. I called the customer helpline in the full understanding that the First Line team would not be able to assist.

An hour later, I was still speaking to their First Line responder, who having given me the company’s stock answer to my question was repeatedly refusing to let me escalate my complaint. “My manager won’t be able to tell you anything different” was one line I heard about a dozen times. When I finally got him to go and speak to his manager, after five minutes on hold, the First Liner came back with “My manager wants to know what you need to speak to him about,” which was followed by another dozen renditions of “He won’t be able to tell you anything different.”

I suspect that the First Line team were under pressure to reduce the number of escalations they made, and I can understand that in a way. And my friend on First Line was absolutely right – his manager was in no better position to help than he was. My aim, and I was very open about this, was to make my way through the system to someone who could explain or effect change, and really what needed to happen at First Line was that I needed to be guided down the right route to do so.

After an hour on the phone to First Line, I received a call back from the mysterious manager two days later that lasted 25 minutes and featured a blatant attempt to misdirect me into giving up (Him: We’re making a change to our bills next week. Me: Does that fix the issue I’m talking about. Him: Err, no. Me: !!!). That was followed a few days later by a mercifully short conversation with a manager from the Complaints Department (Her: We’re making a change to our bills in January. Me: Not this week? Her: No, it’s been delayed until January. Me: Will it fix the issue I’m talking about? Her: No. Me: Haven’t I had this conversation already?). Apparently, in seven to ten day, I get a call from some new tier within the Complaints department. We’ll see what they come up with.

In an episode of  The West Wing, Leo holds a meeting with someone, trying to persuade them to change their course of action. The other party holds their ground, and Leo wraps up the meeting within 30 seconds of it starting. He’s recognised that this person is not going to be persuaded by him. He’s going to have to get the President involved. There’s no point wasting time trying to convince him in the meantime.

Now I’m not saying that I should be put straight through to the President every time I pick up the phone – my delusions of self-importance don’t quite stretch that far – but the role of First Line teams is (I think) to fix the problem, and if it can’t be fixed to put the person through to someone who can fix it. I don’t think organisations should be putting up hoops of fire that their customers need to jump through in order to speak to someone who can actually help.

I forget the website I was browsing, but I read a blog entry by someone who was explaining one of their mantras for the working environment. They said that whenever you pick up the phone to someone, you should be asking yourself “How can I help this person?”

I think that applies very much to support teams, IT-related or otherwise. It’s not all about what you manage to achieve in your interaction with the user – it’s also about the impressions you leave them with. Did you leave the user or customer with the feeling that you were genuinely trying to help them and not just trying to fob them off. We’ve just engaged a new printer maintenance provider, and on their first call out, the feedback I had was that the engineer “couldn’t get out of the building quick enough”. That initial interaction has set the tone for our relationship with this company.

Another common piece of customer service advice is always to end the call with “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” or something similar. Used well, it can be effective, even though most people will have already asked all their questions and raised all their issues by the time you get to this stage in the call. But I remember phoning one company to cancel my contract with them and they ended their call with that question, and well, no – there really wasn’t anything more they or their company could offer me: that’s why I was cancelling my contract.

Waiting in a long queue in a high street department store made me realise that the staff had been trained to say something nice about whatever each customer was buying. I was buying socks – and with the best will in the world, there is nothing nice or interesting to say about plain, black socks.

A few weeks later, I spotted that the local supermarket had trained its staff to do the same – presumably one of the managers there had been to the department store on the high street. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a chat as I try to catch and bag the items the checkout operator is scanning at an alarming 21 items a minute (they have targets, you know). Sometimes I just want to bag my food in silence. But I generally don’t need to be told how nice the colour of the toilet roll I’ve chosen is, or how tasty the quick cook rice was when that staff member just so happened to buy it last week.

I’m all for general advice to front line staff – wherever they may work – to be friendly to customers, but as soon as you try to script in what whey they should be friendly, you’re destined for failure.

And I now use the self service counters at the supermarkets far more than I ever thought I would, although I still have to tell the machines to shut up.

“Please put the item in the bagging area.” Really..?

UPDATE: ManageEngine added my issue to the issues list as SD-53926 a few days later.

Image credit: Randall Monroe, xkcd.


  1. As someone who has often been on the other end of an IT call I have to say that all of the stock answers such as ‘well it works for me’ rile me. All I want to hear is ‘I’m so sorry you are having a problem, of course you are a very intelligent human being and the system is definitely malfunctioning and I realise you must have already tried turning it all off and on again so I’ll sort it out for you, go make a coffee and it’ll be back in working order by the time you get back’.

    • @BeckyBendyLegs – not wanting to quote from IT people are from Mars, users are from Venus but many IT people will be much more focussed on the technical issue and showing how clever they are in being able to resolve it than in dealing with this softer side of call handling. There may indeed be an untapped market for a technical support line where the analyst responds with “Awww, pet. That must be so hard for you. And you’re so busy at the moment as well…”

      I think IT support analysts expect a lot from callers. We expect you to try turning it off and on again in circumstances where that might help (WiFi not working, Word giving a strange error message). We will also sigh and tut down the phone at you if you reboot your laptop and send us your username, password, and date of birth when your complaint is that there’s a paper jam on your printer.

      In an internal IT department, you will build up a picture of the different users and user groups you support, and that can help you work out whether to offer sympathy and a cup of tea or registry fixes and a DLL update. If you’re offering external support, well then anything could be waiting for you when you pick up the phone…

  2. My favourite support call was the one where we had to explain that it almost certainly wasn’t a bug in our software that had attached all those pornographic images that his boss had found!

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