The support contest

Over the years, I’ve pitched an awful lot of people on the virtues of doing most of the support and troubleshooting for our software through e-mail. The argument goes like this: when it’s all done in writing, it makes it easier to spend the time necessary to examine what’s actually happening and try out various ways of isolating the problem’s cause and of fixing it. In this way, despite there being what seems like a significant time lag in the response to a given e-mail, issues actually get resolved more quickly and efficiently than they could have if everything had been done in real time.

There is, of course, a flipside to this, and that is that it can be surprisingly difficult to understand what is being said when there aren’t any attitudinal clues like vocal cadence and tonality. Even over the phone, it can be very challenging to understand each other without the benefit of facial expressions and physical gestures.

So, like any place that does a lot of communication through email and telephone, from time to time we have misunderstandings. Even the most understanding and amicable of our employees (which is me!) occasionally find themselves in the middle of an escalating misunderstanding.

What makes these occurrences interesting is the style of interaction that they induce: both sides feel vaguely threatened, and so the conversation morphs from a support situation into more of a contest. The person seeking help forgets that they’re trying to get helped, and the person giving help forgets that they’re trying help, and both people end up trying to “win.” Eventually there comes, on one side or the other, what we have come to refer to as the “gotcha” moment, at which point one of the people involved doesn’t win.

The reason I bring this up is not to try and tell you that we have exceptionally bad support, because I am convinced this sort of thing happens everywhere. Also, I’m not trying to tell you that we have exceptionally great support (but we do!) where this problem has been altogether eliminated; I don’t think there’s any way to ever entirely avoid these situations. But, we are seriously looking at ways to reduce its occurrence, and to help people feel more comfortable and confident communicating with our support staff, in order to minimize the chances of ending up in a situation where you don’t get helped.

Which is more than I can say for all of those other companies. We win! ;)

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