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Tech support woes
Scott Granneman, 2006-01-20

Technical support that's outsourced to foreign countries can cause frustration and have a negative impact on security when the problems remain unsolved.

In 280 BCE, Pyrrhus of Epirus landed in southern Italy with the intent of taking on the growing Roman power and conquering territory for his own uses. At first he was successful against the Romans, defeating Publius Valerius Laevinus and his legions at the Battle of Heraclea. After a winter spent preparing in Campania, Pyrrhus faced Publius Decius Mus and his army at the Battle of Asculum. Pyrrhus won, but the Roman historian Plutarch relates the cost of that victory:

"The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war."

In achieving what he most wanted - a victory - Pyrrhus actually lost, for he had received so many casualties that his forces were never able to recover against the Romans. He realized the truth of his actual situation, and uttered the famous phrase, paraphrased above by Plutarch, "One more such victory and I shall be lost!"

Outsourcing tech support

Moving forward well over two millenia, we've seen a tremendous increase in outsourcing by American corporations in the last decade. Company after company has moved manufacturing and professional service work to other countries, with India the poster child for this global transformation - in part because English is their only unifying national language among the dozens of other languages across the country. In particular, the IT industry has been shifting technical support to Indian call centers in greater and greater volumes, to the point now where most consumer tech support calls about a problematic PC will be answered by someone sitting in a cubicle in Bangalore or New Delhi.

I recently went through quite an ordeal with the Indian firm to which HP has outsourced its Pavillion tech support. The problem was with HP, but it could just have easily been with Dell or another major vendor that outsources its tech support. Without going into great detail about it here, I'll summarize things but you can read more on my website if you like.

I purchased a new HP Pavillion PC in March 2005. By the Fall, my monitor started giving me a distorted display and then finally stopped working altogether. I called HP tech support and talked to someone in India. His advice was useless. Next, I talked to someone in America, who shipped me the HP Recover Console but that didn't work either. I called HP again, and they agreed to take the computer back. I shipped the computer back. Then I received a random person's video card along with a wadded piece of notebook paper from the HP customer who erroneously received the video card before I did. She sent it back to HP, and they then sent it along to me. Why? To this day, no one in HP can explain that one. Needless to say, the video card isn't mine. Thus begun several further calls and chats with HP tech support. Without exception, the phone calls were terrible: I could barely understand the techs due to their heavy accents, the phone connections were substandard, and the help proferred was useless. My "repaired" PC arrived on December 27 with a note that something had been repaired that wasn't even broken. When I turned the PC around, I found that the video card was missing. Gone. As in, there's just an open hole in the back of the box where the video card used to be. Further calls and chats with HP tech support personnel in India proved increasingly frustrating. I am continually assured that a supervisor would call. No call came.

At that point, I was documenting my problems and making this publicly available. One of my students posted it to Digg, a web site where users post and vote on newsworthy tech stories. By the next day, my story has made the front page of Digg and our web server was inundated by visitors. I got a phone call from someone at HP who could take care of my issue. Just a few hours before I began writing this column, I finally received a replacement PC from HP. But why should I have had to take such extrodinary steps to get the machine fixed?

Tech support is hit and miss

Three other events followed closely upon my misadventures with tech support. First, I had to call IBM tech support about a problem my wife was having with her ThinkPad hard drive. I spoke immediately to Zach in Atlanta, Georgia, who quickly agreed with my diagnosis and agreed to replace the hard drive. It was a nice contrast to the month-long headache I went through with HP. Sometimes tech support just works.

Then, I spoke last week to the South County Older Adults Computer Club about security. SCOACC is a sizable organization - impressively, evenly divided 50-50 between men and women - composed largely of retired folks who like to get together and learn about utilizing their computers more effectively. Before I spoke, I listened to each SIG report on its previous and upcoming meetings. The dominant topics centered around Microsoft products: Windows, Office, IE, Outlook Express, and so on.

My topic was security, and as part of it I related to them my ongoing experience with HP's tech support. When I mentioned the problems I'd had understanding what the techs in foreign call centers were even saying, I noticed that many of the 75 people or so in the room were looking at each other and nodding. "Holy mackerel," I thought, "if I've been having trouble making sense of what those guys were telling me on the phone, it must have been nearly impossible for these folks!" Several went on to relate how they had called tech support - HP and Dell were primarily mentioned, although there were other companies mentioned too - and found it exceedingly hard to decipher what they were hearing, due to poor phone connections and impenetrable accents.

We have to remember that the average computer user still knows very little about security. When they have tech support issues, their "computer is running slowly," or they have a virus and they've purchased a brand-name computer, they call tech support. It's an age-old issue with computers - but with a lack of knowledge on the vendor's end, or with a customer unable to understand what the tech is saying, the problems don't get resolved.

Then I spoke to my mother on the phone recently about my issues with outsourced tech support, and she told me that my stepfather Ray had given up in frustration when he had tried to speak to an individual at an outsourced tech support center. Ray simply couldn't understand what the tech was trying to say.

I was able to get my problem resolved with HP because I work with technology. I don't give up, and I know enough about computers - and how to play the game to get a company to listen to me - to force HP to finally take my problem seriously. When I realized that phone conversations were going to be torturous, I switched to Instant Messaging chat to avoid the heavy accents. When I was told to do something stupid or useless that was next in the script that the tech support dude was reading from, I refused and explained why. If I was a member of SCOACC, or my stepfather, or any average computer user, I would have given up long before this, or continued to languish on the phone speaking to people I couldn't understand. And since most people aren't writing for major IT publications, there's no way for them to publically voice their concerns.

Yes, I know that you one can purchase Premium Tech Support from Dell, for example, and that you'll speak to a knowledgable American when you call - not necessarily someone without a heavy accent, mind you, but at least the phone connection will be better. One can also purchase a ThinkPad and be assured of decent help, or a Mac, as Apple has never used outsourced tech support to my knowledge (heck, if your city has an Apple Store in it, you can walk your Mac or iPod in and get someone behind the Genius Bar to help you face to face). But most people buy what's cheapest, so they end up with cheap companies that outsource their support to the cheapest place possible, and end up having to call India or the Phillipines some other country when they run into a snag. If we could only understand what they're saying, things would be much better.

Tech support affects security

20% of all calls to Dell in 2004 concerned spyware and how to remove it, the number one issue Dell tech support had to face. Now add on all those calls from people whose anti-virus software subscriptions have run out, or where Trojans that have taken over their computers, or the myriad other security-based issues people face, and you can see that security is a major reason consumers call PC tech support lines. And who do they end up talking to? Tech support personnel who these users find difficult to understand, for a variety of reasons. The result? Worse security for everyone. More problems on the Internet. Computers that remain under the control of bad guys. A flood of calls to IT workers by frantic friends and family who need help now.

I don't blame the call center workers at all. They're just people trying to better themselves by working at a job that offers them comparatively good wages and a future. The people in Indian call centers can't help their accents, or their phone connections, or the scripts they're forced to walk through, now matter how inane those scripts may be. No, I point the finger at the Dells and HPs of the world. These companies see outsourcing purely as a way to save money, without much in the way of quality control. I'm sure it does save money ... in the short term.

Sure, HP saved a few bucks by having me call someone in India. But it cost them in the long run. I made call after call, and tied up their tech support personnel for hours. There's a direct cost to the support right there. But also as a result of my incredibly poor experience with the vendor, one can guess whether or not I'll be purchasing anything from them in the future. As for Dell, I had already heard enough stories from friends to know to avoid that horror show. When problems are resolved properly, we rarely tell more than one or two people. But when problems aren't resolved at all, we go out of our way to tell ten or more people.

This trend of outsourcing is troubling because it does affect the security for home users out there, which number in the millions. It's just as problematic for the companies who rely on outsourced tech support to shave a few pennies off of their costs. The end result does not seem promising to me at all. Companies win a Pyrrhic victory over their balance sheets, while customers, the Internet community, and ultimately those same companies, suffer. Is it really winning if everyone loses?


Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook, is in stores now.
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