June 26th, 2007

startledcat is startled

Tech support horror stories

As noted in my previous post, jhitchin's "Tech Support" song is dear to my heart. Part of the reason is that, as a tech support worker myself, I have had those moments to which the song refers.

That confusion as the caller describes a situation you're pretty certain violates several laws of physics. ("I'm telling you, my modem works beautifully during the day and then refuses to dial out at all after sunset.*" "Yeah, our logs show that too. Umm ... have you tried garlic? Or a cross?")

That shock as the mists of innocent miscommunication casually burn away and the full depth of a problem is revealed in all its glory. ("I haven't been able to dial up to 555-0616 in a while." "That's not one of our numbers. Aha ... you know, I bet that's the dial-in phone number from the company that we took over from. Wait. How long exactly has it been since you were able to connect?" "Uh, a little over a year."*)

That pants-wetting fear as a Machine That Should Not Be (e.g., anything containing both Windows 98 and a network card) shambles into view like a digital zombie. Or, for that matter, as a User that Should Not Be Allowed Anywhere Near Computers (e.g., anyone who thinks making a Windows 98 box their primary Internet machine is a good idea; or someone who misunderstands the meaning of "tech support" *) moans and latches onto your head to eat your brain.

And the reason I transcribed the song today is because I recently had an encounter that can only truly be described by quoting Hitchin.

The background here is that the outgoing mail server at the Internet Service Provider I work for is restricted to people on our dial-up network as a spam prevention measure; mail-only and webhosting customers have to use their own ISP's outgoing mail server. (This restriction is the case at most ISPs, but since virtually all Internet service comes with free e-mail, it's really never an issue.) One of our e-mail only customers calls up with complaints that he can't send messages, so I explain the policy. Then I discover that his Internet service is satellite.

It has been my experience as a tech that, without exception, satellite ISPs' tech support is hideous. Hughesnet is perhaps the worst offender -- last time I checked, the tech support number prominently plastered all over their website had been disconnected, and the number recycled to an online florist (who was probably sick of getting tech support calls*). But all of them suffer from utterly impenetrable Web sites, unusable documentation, and a burning desire to never have to speak to one of their customers. So when I heard that Customer had satellite service, I winced and decided to give him a hand in setting up his outgoing e-mail server properly.

After wading through WildBlue's hedge maze of a support site, I learn that they specifically don't provide mail server information. Their only public support option is an application to download that will accelerate your connection, and also oh by the way fix Outlook Express' settings so that it will access your mail account.* **

This is, of course, unacceptable. It's a slow day, so I jump into an online-chat tech support queue on behalf of Mutual Customer; I figure I'll know the right questions to ask (and, maybe, have enough credibility) to get all the necessary setup information from one of their techs.

I'm going to skip the story of how connecting to their online chat queue at various times (and apparently at random) cited me a 45-minute wait, booted me out entirely, and immediately threw me to the head of the line. Because that's neither here nor there.

No, the real story starts when I connect to "Senior* Technical Agent 3."

I introduce myself and identify our mutual customer. Then I start asking for details of mail client configuration.

Server name, check. ("But hey, you got one! One out of ten ain't bad.")

Then I ask him the port to connect to their outgoing mail server on.

This is something that end users often don't know anything about; it's a technical detail that's transparent after initial setup. But it's a basic component of the support job. Asking an ISP technician about the connection port is like asking an auto mechanic to check the level of your transmission fluid.

And Senior Technical Agent 3 -- Senior Technical Agent 3 -- says:
> "Port 25? Or 587?"
"we would not know that" * ** ***

Rob, working at the next desk over, is interrupted in his work by a heavy, rhythmic thumping. Seconds later, he has leapt from his seat and is attempting to persuade me to stop whacking my head against the table.*

When I recover, unfortunately, I still have a job to do. I'm not quite masochistic enough to press the issue (I figure I can just try both and see what sticks), but I do have to ask some assorted questions about authentication and connection encryption. At least with those, Senior Technical Agent 3 gives me things that sound like real answers.

I probably don't have to explain that, once Customer called back and we tried to get his connection working, absolutely nothing the tech told me worked.

Except for the server name. But hey, even a stopped time measurement device is right once per solar cycle.

* True and not embellished, not even for dramatic effect.
** Oh, dear god, I only wish I was embellishing the depth of the stupidity here.
*** Everybody say it along with me: "OH MY GOD, THEY GAVE YOU ROOT?!?"