Tech support finds a friend in peers

More and more, the best answers to technical questions are coming from fellow customers

Reader Rich responded to a recent post, "Customer service at the tipping point," bringing up an excellent point about how many customers ultimately solve their problems.

"You betcha I reached the tipping point!" Rich writes. "The company was 3Com. The year was about 1995 or 1996. Management wore Blue underwear, so we had initially ventured into networking firmly ensconced in the Token-Ring arena. We were just beginning to move into Ethernet territory and had provisioned a brand-new building with a perfectly structured cable environment with 11 brand-new 3Com 3300 switches. Within three weeks, we started having problems with one, then another, switch at random times. They would simply go into the astral plane and require a power-off/reset. It wasn't just the management IP stack breaking, this affected all user traffic."

[ Find out how shoddy customer service is pushing many customers past the their tipping point. | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

Rich stepped into 3Com support with high hopes of having his problem resolved. These switches were barely a month into their warranty, after all. But his hopes were quickly crushed by a support line that refused to connect him to anyone helpful until he provided a P.O. number or credit card. He had no intention of doing that for these in-warranty products, so he gave up on tech support and hung up the phone -- no closer to solving his problem than when he picked up the phone.

I've been conducting a series of conversations with high-level thinkers in the world of technical support and customer service over the past couple of weeks, which I will report on soon. I could not help but notice an eerie similarity between Rich's experience and a "typical" experience described to me by Brendan P. Keegan, president and CEO of Worldwide TechServices, which provides on-site support for large high-tech firms, including IBM, HP, and Sony. Keegan has seen people on the receiving end of support reaching the same tipping point Rich hit so often that it has become almost expected.

"People feel that when they call in for tech support, they suffer through a phone system and people who can't answer their question until they ultimately end up hanging up -- perhaps an hour later -- no closer to getting their problem solved than when they started," Keegan says.

Rich did finally find a solution to his problem: "It was to upgrade the firmware on the switch from 1.1 to 2.0. But did I get that tidbit of information from 3Com? Not a chance! It came from another user at a 3Com user group meeting."

Even Rich's method of solving his own problem by finding a peer with the answer, says Keegan, is so common that it is increasingly becoming not only the norm but the method companies endorse as a means to connecting problems with their solutions. Because so many users go to forums, chat rooms, Twitter, and anywhere else they can quickly describe a problem and get a solution from someone who has already suffered through the problem, companies are actively looking for ways to streamline that system -- rather than improve the phone experience. More and more companies are instituting systems that encourage this peer-to-peer support and are staffing those forums and social media sites with people who are there to monitor, facilitate, assist, and moderate the questions and the answers.

Will that peer-to-peer support be better than the help Rich got from 3Com? Let's hope so -- at least for the companies offering it. Because driving customers to their tipping point drives them elsewhere -- as Rich's conclusion shows.

"I swore from that point on we'd never spend another dime on 3Com equipment," he says. "And, as far as central IT is concerned, we didn't. It took us until 2007 to divest the organization entirely of 3Com garbage."

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "Tech support finds a friend in peers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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