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Copyright 2000, Kimberly Chapman
This original work is available for distribution, provided the following: it is only distributed in this complete form, it contains my name and copyright, it is not altered during distribution without my consent, and it is not used to generate income for anyone without my consent. I would strongly appreciate knowing if anyone is widely distributing this in printed form.

This article was submitted to, but was rejected because I would not omit the references to specific companies. I believe everything I've said here about the companies named is fair comment and thus should not be of any more concern than naming a company that produced a bad game, but I respect WG's right to turn down articles for whatever reason they wish.

Where's the 'Support' in Tech Support?

By Kimberly Chapman (with input from Corran Webster)

The Internet is a wonderful thing for allowing all sorts of people with different views to communicate, debate, and hopefully learn. It is wonderful for allowing companies to conduct business in ways that were formerly impossible, such as a small store being able to offer its wares to the world. It's a great tool for disseminating information, for bringing people together, and for achieving intellectual goals.

Unfortunately, the Internet is also very good at allowing some people and companies to set around themselves an impenetrable wall of silence in the guise of enhanced communication. Once upon a time, if you had a question or a complaint, you had to phone or write a letter to the person or company in question to get a response. If you bothered to do that, however, most of the time you got at least some sort of courtesy response, and possibly even a legitimate answer. Being on the phone with someone or establishing a hard-copy paper trail seemed to imply a greater culpability, and with the exception of those companies that were truly unconcerned, consumers were able to get some sort of result if they made their initial effort.

With the introduction of the Internet, consumers were suddenly able to more easily contact companies to question or complain about products. Emailing a company meant no more long waits on a phone queue, no more waits for the post office to get the letter there, and it implied that the receiving person could easily type back an answer just as quickly and efficiently.

Of course, this being the real world, what the email really meant was a deluge that the companies couldn't keep up with. Some companies realized this inevitable problem and sought to better populate their support teams and to put on their web pages hopefully exhaustive Frequently Asked Question lists and their answers. The FAQs, however, are only useful if the consumer bothers to read them, and the companies are still finding themselves snowed under in questions that a savvy customer could easily answer themselves. Because of a desire to not put customers off, some companies still answer these emails, meaning their overall load has not been decreased and harder questions wait longer to be answered.

The response has often been to hire more customer service agents. This is good in theory, but the shortage of experienced and knowledgeable people has meant that, unfortunately, many customer service representatives know far too little about the products being supported in order to give a useful response. It seems that many companies put their best reps on the phone system, again because a phone call carries more culpability, leaving the least knowledgeable staff to deal with the emails.

I am getting sick of support responses that indicate the person responding has not read the email at all, such as by answering an unrelated question, the opposite of the question, or suggesting a solution I've deliberately told them failed when I tried it. I'm also getting sick of the rampant typos, misspellings and incomprehensible language structures I've seen recently; the least they could do is run a spell-check on the response. The sloppy nature of the responses seems to illustrate a total lack of concern and respect.

Some companies try to blow the email off by having an auto-responder cheerily inform the customer that their email has been received and will be sent to the appropriate department. How often have you received an auto-response promising you a human response in a few days, only to never hear from the company again? It has happened to me more times than I have actually received human feedback.

Too many companies lately seem to have given up responding to email at all, yet they still keep the forms or email addresses there on the web site. In such cases, the email is only a pacifier, serving to allow the frustrated, possibly angry, customer to blow off some steam and then twiddle their thumbs for a few weeks until it becomes obvious that the company isn't paying attention. Often by then, the customer has gone elsewhere for support, or has given up.

As soon as tech support met the web, culpability went out the window.

A case in point: my husband Corran and I recently both bought Civilization Call to Power, by Activision. I have the PC version, he bought the Mac version. On the Mac box, it says: "Internet and LAN Multiplayer, works for Mac-to-Mac and Mac-to-PC." The PC box merely says, "Internet and LAN Multiplayer," probably because MacSoft had not yet produced the Mac version at the time of the PC release.

We have a LAN. We can play Civilization II between our computers without problem. But try as we might, we cannot get a multiplayer game going of Call to Power. Naturally, after several unsuccessful experiments, we contacted the game's creators for help. I went first, going to Activision's web site, where I found a list of multiplayer problems and "solutions." Nothing there matched my problem, although I was distressed to learn that if I downloaded the 1.2 patch, all multiplayer games would be disabled in favour of Hotseat and Email games, and the Mac version also requires the PC version to not be patched. Eventually, I emailed tech support because nothing on the site answered my question.

The response summarized: Go ask MacSoft. Because of course, it's all too easy to pass the buck when a game or product is developed by multiple companies. It's always the other company's responsibility, isn't it?

So Corran went through the same procedure with MacSoft, eventually getting an email that was technically inept and completely useless. He responded pointing out the errors and requesting a re-evaluation of the problem, and in over a month has received no response.

Thus, here we sit with over $70 worth of software that remains mostly unplayed, since we bought it to play against each other and haven't bothered playing it much on our own. This is why I haven't yet reviewed it, although rest assured when and if I do, the review will not be a favourable one because of this and other problems that give Call to Power an unfinished, unprofessional feel. Today Corran tried to phone the non toll-free number, but found that there were errors in the system (the selection for a network problem matching ours played a message about available cheats!) and there was no way to get a human, despite company promises otherwise. Even pressing "0" didn't work, and this was well within the company's stated hours of operation.

Activision and MacSoft seem to feel they've done enough in terms of support by posting the limited information that they have, by brushing off problems, by allowing problems to be handled by staff that don't seem to have the necessary expertise, or by providing a broken telephone system.

I could cite off a long laundry list of companies that have done the same thing, some game companies, many not. The brush-off reply seems to have become a standard, including the "we're working on this problem, please stay tuned" response. Of every company that has promised me they're working on a solution, not one has ever demonstrated it by actually ever providing one. I have a lot more respect for a company that honestly says it doesn't know how to fix a problem than one that keeps me hanging for a fix that they never intend to produce.

The only instances where the web seems to be helpful in support, particularly for games, is where the company has set up a user forum. There, at least if the company can't be bothered to answer questions, one can often find technically savvy players that will do their best to help. This can also be useful for gamers in that one can often also get solutions to gameplay problems such as hints and how-tos. But web forums should not excuse the company from being responsible for support; it should only augment the support structure.

It comes down to this: if a company creates a product, they should have to support it. That means solving problems, providing real fixes, and paying attention when a customer takes the time to detail their question or complaint, regardless of whether it comes by mail, phone, or email. Companies like Mitsubishi and Bridgestone/Firestone/Ford are in the midst of learning the hard way that suppressing consumer complaints can lead to litigation. Multiplayer games failing to connect is trivial compared to deaths from auto accidents, but the core issue remains: companies need to take responsibility for their products, and one important facet of that is paying attention and dealing with consumer communications.

If a company wants to post a FAQ and inform customers that questions answered completely by the FAQ won't be answered in email, that's fair enough (though they should still answer them by mail or phone since the user may not have Internet access), but they should take the time to read emails to ensure the problem isn't covered before discarding the communication. The company's goal should not be to find creative ways to suppress customer inquiries, as seems to be the case lately with too many organizations.

I strongly believe that as part of a commitment to supporting the products they make, companies should not be charging for tech support unless the information is available freely in a manual. It's one thing to charge a customer who hasn't bothered to consult the manual, and quite another to charge someone to ask about a problem that isn't covered there. A company that releases products with known problems and then charges customers to fix those problems is acting in bad faith and deserves no customer loyalty.

Perhaps there needs to be legislation forcing companies to better support their products. It's always a scary concept to bring largely technically inept governments into such matters, but the trend towards abandoning customers is on the increase when the Internet should have facilitated the opposite. Perhaps professional organizations such as alliances and trade groups should start requiring members to meet a certain level of customer service in order to make it unnecessary for the governments to step in. It is coming to the point where we, as consumers, must say enough is enough; either regulate yourselves or be regulated.

It's difficult for the buyer to beware when they can't discern the level of customer help until after they've spent the money to become a customer in the first place.

-- Kimberly "fed up" Chapman

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Page last updated December 4, 2003.

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