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State of Wireless Phone Tech Support and the Offshore Call Center

One of the blessings…or possibly “curse”…of being a computing professional is that over time it becomes easy to tell when someone is trying to dazzle you with a bunch of technical “BS”. Right now it seems that the leaders in technical BS are those companies involved in the wireless phone industry…and no where is it so obvious that the “BS” is flying hot and heavy as when you try to obtain technical support from one of these companies.

Tonight I tried to get help with a problem with my phone from Virgin Mobile. Now don’t get me wrong…I LOVE Virgin Mobile for their no-contract phone plans and decent handsets. However, their technical support is perhaps the most frustrating I have ever encountered.

Today I spent a grand total of FIVE hours on the phone with them, and I still don’t have resolution to my problem. I don’t like to engage companies in business issues on a Sunday (my religious beliefs are such that I believe Sundays to be a day to spend with family and away from “worldly/temporal” issues), but since I would be driving to work tomorrow in a 16 year old vehicle, I wanted my phone to be working when I made that trek.

Whomever created the voice answering system should be taken out and shot, right after they are boiled in oil, burned at the stake, and publicly stoned. However, Virgin Mobile’s system has a new twist: it changes without warning.

If you call and select from their top level menu, the sub menu will hold certain options. If you attempt to bypass the options by hitting zero, the system will tell you that it did not understand, and it will begin to list your choices again. However, the SECOND time through the options will be subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different. I am not saying that just the wording changes…I am saying the actual selections change. Surprise!

Next comes the recorded message encouraging you to use the website for support. Finally, you get put into a queue to wait for the next live representative, which an upbeat voice tells you may take longer than 11 minutes.

Next comes the assault on your ears.

The absolutely most GOD-AWFUL music gets BLASTED through your headset, punctuated by voices that (seemingly by design) sound like someone just picked up the phone (the way the music cuts out…and the voice begins in a tone that sounds like a human picking up the phone). But once again, SURPRISE! This is not a human…it is just a recording of one! Now the awful music is back, but the volume is extremely soft. Turned down your handset volume before? Now you have to turn it way up to hear what is going on for fear that a REAL human will come to the phone and you won’t hear them.

After you get the volume up to a level to where you can hear it again, they switch things up on you and suddenly the music is BLASTING once again. Too bad you turned up your handset volume up in order to hear the soft music.

When you FINALLY get to a human being, you are treated to pretty much what you would expect: a really LOUSY phone connection (consistent with your call being bounced around a few satellites and ultimately delivered to some call center half way around the world) trying to converse with someone named “Steve” whose English is SO bad you just KNOW that their real name could NEVER be “Steve.”

While “Steve” tries to sound “upbeat,” you can tell he is reading from a script as the words are way to stiff and obviously rehearsed. In addition, the training that these folks receive is obviously heavy on the “Dale Carnegie” technique as your name is used at least three times per sentence. Unfortunately for the call center representative, in their part of the world the surname and given names are reversed. So they keep referring to me as “Mr. Peter” instead of “Mr. Lee”, without any clue as to how badly that marks “Steve” as a non-English speaking representative.

After almost 60 minutes on the phone with “Steve,” we finally hit his technical limit, and he apologies and tells me he is going to have to forward me to the technical support team (just which team was I currently speaking with???). After assuring me that he has recorded our conversation on my account so I won’t have to repeat myself to the next rep, he transfers me to the higher level support.

I was not surprised at the return of the horrific music on-hold, nor in being disconnected from the system after enduring 60 minutes of “waiting” and that awful music. When I called back (and had to wait through the music on hold in the normal wait queue for another 10 minutes), I made a different choice on the phone menu system, and this time it took me directly to the famed tech support team. The rep who finally answered pulled up my account, but of course asked me all of the same questions, and had me perform all of the same tests on the phone as the first tech had. I asked about whether or not they had read the notes on the account from the previous rep, but they simply brushed the question aside and continued repeating the tests of the first rep. They finally decided that the problem was with how my phone number was ported over to Virgin Mobile from AT&T (note, I ported that phone number to Virgin Mobile three years prior!), so they transferred me to the number porting group.

When the number porting person got on the phone (yes, there was more music on hold to listen to!) and put me through the EXACT SAME tests as the previous reps, and asked the same questions, it was then that I knew that each of these so called “departments” were nothing more than the EXACT SAME POOL OF PEOPLE with the same level of training (or lack thereof), and the same inability to see what had already been done to try to solve my problem (that is, no one was recording our conversations or actions on the computer).

After five hours on the phone for the entire day, I still don’t have a working cell phone. They left me with an explanation that my account was being transferred between an “old” computer system and a “new” one, and the glitch should be worked out in the next 12 hours.

I’m going along with this explanation only because I don’t really have any choice in the matter. I have very low confidence that 12 more hours of waiting will make any difference in the ability to use my phone. But I am hoping that I am wrong.

I’d like to say that this type of customer service has never happened to me before, but sadly it is now the norm for so many large businesses…and certainly for any of the wireless phone companies I’ve ever had to speak with. Amazon is a notable exception, maintaining very friendly and competent call centers within the USA.

I’m certain that you all have had experiences similar to mine with off-shore call centers. My experience in this matter is certainly not unique. I suppose that these inadequately trained off-shore call centers are a necessity when your margins on your products are so incredibly fine, as they are in the mobile industry.

Oh…wait…how big were the mobile company’s profits last year???

Epilog: So what turned out to be the root cause of this hellish nightmare from my closet full of anxieties? Well, it turns out that the phone’s serial number printed on the box does not match the serial number recorded inside the phone’s battery case. Once I discovered the discrepancy, it took me 30 seconds to get the phone working.

I’m only embarrassed about this turn of events because I know better than to trust the tag on the box of a phone. Some years ago I spent hours trying to get a device to connect to my home network without any luck. In the end, I found that the MAC address stamped onto the case of the device was wrong (I was able to interrogate the device electronically as to what it’s MAC address was, and I found that the MAC address it was using did not match the address stamped onto the case).

The wonder of technology will always be that simple human frailty will be able to disrupt the most intricate of technological solutions. Or in other words, despite our best technological efforts, humans will always be able to screw up the works!

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