Tuesday, May 09, 2006

bowling alone

I just spent two hours on the phone with IT Support.

Usually when I spend two hours on the phone with someone, we have a conversation. I find out something about how they are and what they're up to, and I might even let them in on some of the highly secret details of my hermit-like existence high above San Francisco. Or maybe they just whine at me, or I whine at them, for an almost uninterrupted two hour stint. Regardless, it's human contact at its most basic. Talk.

I just spent two hours on the phone yakking it up with IT Support. You'd hardly call it a conversation. And I'm not sure if it even counts as human contact. Or yakking for that matter.

It's hard just prying from them where on earth they are: it's as if they're not allowed to become less disembodied, to be in a specific place. But I'm nosy and I wormed it out of this guy. Colorado. He was in Colorado. I'm not sure what city, but I do know the state: it's the rectangular one with mountains in it, home of Coors, NORAD, and big healthy people who hike and ski.

I could hear other IT Support guys taking calls in the background, so I assume he was in a big room with desks and maybe partitions and perhaps even a missile defense system. Our IT Support is in three locations: one's in Colorado, and the others are more vaguely in Ireland (Dublin, perhaps?) and India (Bangalore?). I can usually guess by the voice, but I like to ask. The IT Support staff in Ireland conducts these non-conversations with lyrical accents and greets you with an inappropriate time of day ("Good evening" when it's still morning). The Indian IT Support people use your name a lot. They'll say it over and over, weaving it into every nonsensical instruction they give you. "Now, Cathy, I want you to open up a CMD window and type in 'ipconfig.' Cathy, have you opened up that CMD window? Cathy, could you tell me what it says now?"

They're mighty fast and loose with my first name, but they don't like to be pinned down about where they are.

The calls are monitored to ensure quality. And to ensure you don't actually have a conversation with the person fixing your computer. Rather there are ponderous empty conversational voids -- abysses, really -- while your computer boots or while you run some magic .exe file they've told you to run.

It makes me nervous, these silences, interrupted only by the musical sound of Windows booting for the 32nd time or the clickety-click of typing. So I always attempt chitter-chatter. "Is it sunny there?" I ask, figuring that the monitoring supervisor can't get too upset if we talk about the weather. I suppose asking about the weather assumes the IT Support guys can see out the window, or that there is a window to see out of. Maybe it's a sore point, asking about the weather; it reminds them that they're working in a converted ICBM silo and there are no windows. Or that the facility is surrounded by a razor-wire topped fence. I really want to ask something more personal, even something small like what they're using as their screen background (almost everyone customizes that) or something even more to the point like "Are you looking for a different job? Any prospects?" or "Are you currently incarcerated somewhere?"

Anything to break the silence and anonymity.

It used to be, you'd have the IT Support guys on site, and you'd be nice to them. You'd offer them Red Vines and M&Ms. That way, if you had them work on your computer, they wouldn't accidentally reformat the hard drive when they were reconfiguring your email. Your nervous chitter-chatter went somewhere: you were strengthening the social fabric or establishing some small measure of rapport. Or even just buttering up the IT guy so he'd fix your network connection first the next time it disappeared everywhere in the building.

It's not that way anymore. Now I'm talking to an inmate at the Supermax or some poor slacker who decided customer support was safer than driving a cab. Less apt to get knifed. You don't have customers who barf. But in my view, at least I know who my cab driver is. I can catch his eye in the rearview mirror as we jerk down the freeway. As he works the brake with one foot and marches on the accelerator with the other. Lurch. Lurch. Lurch. Honk. I'd know even more about him still, except he's talking on the cell phone in a language I don't even recognize. Lurch. Lurch. Lurch.

But I can see my cabbie. He's in the same city as I am. We're sharing the same scary experience. We're looking out the same windows at the same traffic. We're blowing through the same stop sign. Together. We're lurching down the freeway. Together. We might even have a conversation about something. When I was on my way to SFO, going to Charlottesville, the cab driver informed me that Edgar Allen Poe had attended the University of Virginia. I discovered he was right: the university had preserved his dorm room, intact. My cabbie had prepped me for my trip. The last cabbie I had was an MBA student at NYU's Stern School. He'd come to Manhattan by way of Pasadena from India. We marveled at the cultural implications of the migration of Trader Joe's from Mission Street in South Pass all the way to the heart of Dean and DeLuca-ville.

The IT Support guy and I don't engage in this kind of small talk. There's just the small mechanical noises my Vaio is making as it reboots and reboots. It's a funny noise, but I don't dare ask about it. He'd have to open a second SR (Service Request) if I did. Then I'd have to fill out *2* questionnaires rating his performance today.

It's not just that they won't engage in small talk (or Smalltalk); they never even tell you why they're having you do the seemingly meaningless sequences of steps. Over and over. You're just right-clicking and left-buttoning and poking at this tab and opening that window and going to this website and double-clicking on that icon.

Sometimes I think they're just messing with me: "Okay. Now bring up a Cmd window. Okay. Now type 'ipconfig /renew'. Okay. Now stand on your left foot and touch your nose with both index fingers."

Today's guy had me looking for Windows Updates over and over again, convinced that I hadn't installed the right ones. There were lots of long silent periods as 5-then 7-then 18-then 9 megabytes of squishy update files squeezed through the wireless router and onto my hard drive. It was like repairing the holes in walls with Crest.

If this were a date, the long awkward silences would've meant something. Something important. Something like, I'm glad the human race isn't depending on this. I'd have said, "There's this TV program? I think it's on right now? I always watch it? Like, I mean, always? It's my show? So I really gotta go?" That's what I would've said -- uptalk and all -- as I backed away from my half-finished mocha and fled the cafe to escape these grim silences.

The weird thing is, after we'd determined there was nothing he could do for me, after I'd gone through a year's worth of reboots, after he'd told me any number of times that he was taking notes on my case, after he'd sent me on my way, after he'd completely lost face and escalated my SR (which seems to be a black mark against these guys), not 5 minutes later a woman named Suzanne -- tier 2 IT -- contacted me via email. I followed her brief instructions and viola! my system was magically fixed.

I still had no idea what was wrong or why the incantation she gave me worked, but it did. I never even got to ask her where she was. Or what she was wearing.

But my issue was fixed.

The only time I had a real conversation with one of these guys was one Thanksgiving Day, when I spent 6 hours on the phone with David in Colorado. The thought of all that togetherness elsewhere -- all that warmth, all those turkey smells, all those dysfunctional families breaking bread -- while the two of us sat at our respective computers trying figure out why my Smart Card had suddenly become a Downs Syndrome Card (a 'tard card?) threw us into conversation. I found out about his family, his childhood, everything he associated with the holidays.

But I don't expect it to happen again. Probably not. Probably David's finished serving his sentence.

It was a pretty minor offense.


Anonymous Stephen Smoliar said...

It was good to see these reflections, since I seem to be on a CRM-bashing campaign on my own blog. My June 14 entry was a response to an article about rude customer service in the airline industry; and my response was, "Don't blame the airline industry, blame CRM!" Then, on June 17 I took a similar approach to an interview with Richard Hunter, who is supposed to be overhauling customer service for Dell. I did a text search on that interview and could not turn up any variant on "communicate" or any allusion to the concept of "engagement!" This is the world that the technology has made for us!

9:51 AM  

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