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Free at Last
Jeff Pasternack

Jubilation seems to go hand in hand with freedom, and while words such as “touchdown” and “gooooooaaaalllllll” certainly are evocative of the emotions that accompany freedom, nothing touches my soul so much as hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. belt out this proclamation: “Free at last, free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we’re free at last.”

This is exactly how I felt when I finally fired Comcast on August 1st. After placing more than 100 calls to their technical support and having four visits by technicians in seven months, I finally gave up on them. Problems with the node cannot be solved from within my four walls, and it became tiring to hear embattled tech support representatives say, “Sir, we appreciate your patronage and patience. Our skilled team of professionals are working on it and you should be up and running in no time.” The tech support folks have my sympathies, for not only do they bear the wrath of irate consumers rightfully complaining about poor service, but they also have to cope with managers who measure performance based on the average call time.

Sometimes it seems like technopeasants are perpetually stuck between the rock of corporate tyranny and the hard place of corporate incompetence and obstinacy. For example, many times there is only one service provider in a particular area and we’re repeatedly subjected to poor service, such as my much-lamented experience with Comcast. Other times vendors rush to release their products, knowing full well that they contain bugs and that their support staff will field many calls about the one issue.

For example, most people use Microsoft Office. Symantec, which makes Norton AntiVirus, also sells WinFax Pro. Their most recent version, WinFax Pro 10, has many known problems when it comes to playing nice with Office applications, such as preventing Word from loading. From the consumer reviews on, where only 12% of 138 respondents gave it a thumb’s up, one would think that simple testing would demonstrate that the product simply wasn’t ready for the market. In my own experience, I’ve tried installing it on seven systems using Windows 2000 and had no luck: it crashes Word instantly. I was uneasy with the solution in the knowledge base and called tech support. The recording told me that once I paid a $30 fee, then they would try to help me solve the problems caused by their software. On top of the $100 for the software, this seems very egregious, but sometimes we play the cards as they’re dealt.

During my call I reached a person who, while able to help, disclosed that she was pretty unhappy working there. Not wanting to pry further, I let the issue drop. After all, some people just aren’t happy with their jobs. And yet, I started thinking about management’s collective perspective on call center employees. So many medical practices and other businesses use call centers; it often seems like poor performance is the de facto standard. And that’s when I found a gem of a comment in the article titled Helping Them Helping You, which can be found in the August 2002 issue of PC Magazine on page 105. “The cost of labor is the biggest expense at any support center,” explains Tony Adams, a principal analyst with the research firm Gartner. “You’re perpetually having to write those nasty paychecks.”

Surely, the medical community’s perspective is that health insurance companies hate paying claims and probably consider those checks to be nasty. But do call center managers consider their staff so unworthy of compensation as to collectively report this opinion to Gartner’s research team? And if Mr. Adams’ comment is truly reflective of management’s opinion, is it any surprise that we suffer from poor service?

Being the curious sort, I sent Mr. Adams an email and asked if his comment reflects the aggregate opinion of support center managers or if it was just an off the cuff opinion of his. His response was:

“Well, when you look at the support costs for most of the software industry, where support is an afterthought, this is the case. More efficient operations have varying degrees of success with automation and offshore labor utilization, and better product design. But because the broad opinion is that support is non-strategic, (i.e. tactical) we can say this is a finding. No automation equals labor as the highest cost element.”

Perhaps it was the way I asked the question, but his response didn’t really answer the question, which is: Were managers presented with a survey question that asked respondents to pick from a list of words that describes how they feel about support center costs, or was this an your personal off-the-cuff word used to describe management's perspective?

I don’t know if the answer matters, really. As a human, I’m dismayed that there are legions of other humans with employers who so greatly detest the compensation paid to their employees that they refer to it as “nasty.” As a consumer, I believe that it is important for companies to provide quality technical support, especially when they release defective products.

All this said and done, and in consideration of Mr. Adams’ area of expertise and station in life, I think that Mr. Adams’ comment accurately reflects an opinion about a group of people that consumers rely upon for help. Consumers may never be free from problems that result in tech support calls. Tech support workers may never be free from feeling under-appreciated by management. While the battle for a consumer’s right to receive quality products and services continues to be waged, let’s not forget to thank the legions of workers when they do provide quality service. The world doesn’t need to be a nasty place.

Uh Oh + Err = New Computer Update

As faithful readers of this column may recall, I recently purchased a new computer from Falcon Northwest. I cannot begin to tell you just how incredibly fast this system is, or how incredibly helpful the sales guy, Warren, and the support team were, in helping me understand all the new bells and whistles that came with the computer. If I had to select a car that this computer most resembles, the Dodge Viper comes to mind: rip-roaring speed and no silly, pre-installed proprietary vendor software packages. The system is delivered absolutely clean and if you desire a high-performance machine, I believe that this is absolutely the best that money can buy.

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at