Public’s Frustration with Tech Support is Part of Some Tech Firms’ Business Plan

Wednesday, July 06, 2016
(photo: Nick M. Do, E+/Getty Images)


By Kate Murphy, New York Times


You may consider yourself even-keeled, the kind of person who is unflappable when those around you are losing their cool. But all that goes out the window when you call tech support. Then you fume. Your face turns red. You shout things into the phone that would appall your mother.


It is called tech support rage.


And you are not alone. Getting caught in a tech support loop — waiting on hold, interacting with automated systems, talking to people reading from unhelpful scripts and then finding yourself on hold yet again — is a peculiar kind of aggravation that mental health experts say can provoke rage in even the most mild-mannered person.


Worse, just as you suspected, companies are aware of the torture they are putting you through.


According to a survey conducted last year by the industry group International Customer Management Institute, or ICMI, 92 percent of customer service managers said their agents could be more effective and 74 percent said their company procedures prevented agents from providing satisfactory experiences.


Moreover, 73 percent said the complexity of tech support calls is increasing as customers have become more technologically sophisticated and can resolve simpler issues on their own.


Many organizations are running a cost-per-contact model, which limits the time agents can be on the phone with you, hence the agony of round-robin transfers and continually being placed on hold, said Justin Robbins, who was once a tech support agent himself and now oversees research and editorial at ICMI.


“Don’t think companies haven’t studied how far they can take things in providing the minimal level of service,” Robbins said. “Some organizations have even monetized it by intentionally engineering it so you have to wait an hour at least to speak to someone in support, and while you are on hold, you’re hearing messages like, ‘If you’d like premium support, call this number and for a fee, we will get to you immediately.'”


The most egregious offenders are companies like cable and mobile service providers, which typically have little competition and whose customers are bound by contracts or would be considerably inconvenienced if they canceled their service. Not surprisingly, cable and mobile service providers are consistently ranked by consumers as providing the worst customer support.


AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications did not respond to requests for comment.


Especially frustrating when talking to tech support is not being understood because you are trying to communicate with machines or people who have been trained to talk like machines, either for perceived quality control or because they do not speak English well enough to go off-script.


“It’s utterly maddening because the thing about conversations is that when I say something to you, I believe I’m having influence on the conversation,” said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the podcast “Two Guys on Your Head.” “And when you say something back to me that makes no sense, now I see that all these words I spoke have had no effect whatsoever on what’s happening here.”


When things do not make sense and feel out of control, mental health experts say, humans instinctively feel threatened. Though you would like to think you can employ reason in this situation, you are really just a mass of neural impulses and primal reactions. Think fight or flight, but you cannot do either because you are stuck on the phone, which provokes rage.


Of course, companies rated best for tech support often charge more for their products or they may charge a subscription fee for enhanced customer care so the cost of helping you is baked in, as with Apple’s customer support service, AppleCare, and the Amazon Prime subscription service.


You can also find excellent tech support in competitive markets like domain name providers, where operators such as Hover and GoDaddy receive high marks. Also a good bet are hungry upstarts trying to break into markets traditionally dominated by large national companies. Take regional internet and phone service providers like Logix and WOW, which rank near the top in customer support surveys.


But tech support veterans and mental health experts said there were other ways to get better tech support or maybe just make it more bearable.


First, do whatever it takes to control your temper. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Losing your stack at a consumer support agent is not going to get your problem resolved any faster. Probably just the opposite.


“I definitely remember seeing parts of myself I didn’t know were there as far as getting irritated with people and using passive-aggressive behaviors,” said John Valenti, a video producer in Rochester, who worked as a tech support agent at an internet phone company from 2007 to 2012 to put himself through graduate school. He made an absurdist film about it for his master’s thesis at the Rochester Institute of Technology.


Valenti, like several other tech support workers who have posted confessions online, said rudeness generally gets customers placed on hold for long periods or “accidentally” disconnected. It also may result in the agent fixing the immediate problem but not the root cause. So you are only going to have to call back when it happens again.


Do not bother demanding to speak to a supervisor, either. You are just going to get transferred to another agent who has been alerted ahead of time that you have come unhinged, Robbins said. Also, be aware that your words are being recorded and might be printed on posters in the call center.


“I’ve seen companies make T-shirts with the cruel, awful things people say,” Robbins said. He added the shirts might provide an impetus to improve because customers have been driven to such extremes, “but then it also may just show some people are truly from crazy town.”


Customer support experts recommended using social media, like tweeting or sending a Facebook message, to contact a company instead of calling. You are likely to get a quicker response, not only because fewer people try that channel but also because your use of social media shows that you know how to vent your frustration to a wider audience if your needs are not met, as well as to praise them publicly when you are treated well, they said.


To get better service by phone, dial the prompt designated for “sales” or “to place an order,” which almost always gets you an onshore agent, while tech support is usually offshore with the associated language difficulties.


You can also consult websites like and for phone numbers and directions on what digits to press to bypass the automated system and get a live person.


Failing that, apps like Lucy Phone and Fast Customer will wait on hold for you and call you when an actual person picks up. No need to stoke your rage listening to grating hold music.


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