Why does Internet Service Provider Support seem so Bad?

I reckon that more than half of all of us are frustrated by poor ISP support and dread having to contact them

We all know the scene: something’s gone wrong with your internet connection and you want to pursue it with your provider. It goes something like this:

HurdlesHurdle 1: you can’t find a phone number for technical support. Many organisations with an online presence (not just ISPs) try to reduce the number of cries for help that actual reach human ears by making their customers jump through hoops such as “have you looked at our FAQs page?” After that, you may have to fill in a complicated form that only allows you to express your problem in the pre-defined terms of the form instead of wording it the way you want. Eventually, you may be lucky and be given the option to call a number. I wonder what percentage of initial calls they have weeded out before a call is even made? As I’ve suggested in a recent blog post, googling for “tech support” followed by the name of the organisation might find you a number.

Hurdle 2: the phone number you finally find is a premium number
and you resent paying £1 or £1.50 per minute to have a problem rectified that is the ISP’s responsibility. I will always try to beat this one by using a smartphone app that tries to find an alternative number, whose use is free as it’s within your allowance (see WeQ4U, for instance).

Hurdle 3: You finally get a phone connection, but it’s to an automated service
that forces you to choose a menu option. This wouldn’t be so bad if they told you at the start how many options they are about to provide. How often have you listened for what you want, only to find it never occurs and you didn’t make a mental note of what might have been the best alternative?

I try to jot down the options as they say them. If this doesn’t work and they don’t offer to repeat them, just hold on and they will probably either repeat the options or put you through to a human. If this just gets too frustrating (and assuming you have access to a web browser with an internet connection) just google for “sales mynemesis” where “mynemesis” is the organisation in question. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to find a sales telephone number and a human being to answer the phone. You can then ask to be re-routed to a support person.

Indian Call CentreHurdle 4: You finally get through to a human being who identifies himself as “Kevin” but seems to be talking like a cross between Stanley Unwin and Peter O’Sullevan (remember them?). He (or she) may think (s)he is speaking English as an English person would, but (s)he isn’t. When this happens to me, I have no problem whatever in asking them to please repeat what they said and to say it slower as I’m having trouble understanding them. I will do this as often as necessary during the conversation and will not feel embarrassed to do so.

Hurdle 5: Kevin then insists on repeating back to you the situation you have just explained and promises that he is “absolutely going to help you with this matter”. He then asks you to confirm that his confirmation of what you just said is correct. Not sure about you, but this is where I’m starting to lose it. I haven’t found a clever way of dealing with this hurdle except hissing “yes” at him through gritted teeth. He won’t continue until you do confirm his confirmation, so you might as well bite the bullet, play his game, and attempt to be gracious and dignified.

Hurdle 6: Kevin then insists – absolutely insists – that you tell him you are now carrying out the same ten tests/tweaks/fiddles that you tried ten times before you eventually gave in and started this process of contacting him. There is nothing you can do here except play along with his game. I’ve lost count of the number of times my computer support clients have asked me to help because they can’t bear to phone their ISP for help, only for me to be told to repeat all the steps I’ve already tried. It’s no good saying to them “Trust me, I’m an IT Consultant”: that little joke just plummets into the cultural divide.

The key thing to remember with Hurdles 5 and 6 is that Kevin is following instructions on a screen. Although (s)he is a highly capable graduate doing a job that is well-paid in the place he resides, he knows that his supervisor is quite possibly listening in to what he is doing and it really is more than his job is worth to try to use his/her initiative or to try to take shortcuts through the process. We are not dealing with a “free human being” here: we are dealing with a human being who is just a part of the machine. You can just imagine what Kafka or Orwell might have said.

Jumping through Hoops
Hurdles and hoops. The metaphors may be mixed, but the reality is depressingly similar amongst most ISPs.
Hurdle 7: Kevin admits that the ten things he’s insisted you check (again) haven’t revealed the problem and he’s now going to “escalate your issue to the next level”. However did that phrase gain currency? He means, of course, “I’m going to pass you to someone else, who is trained in a slightly different microscopic slice of the whole process”.

Hurdles 8, 9, 10: repeat Hudle 7, through “ever escalating levels” until some kind of decison or answer is reached, or until you lose the will to live.

This whole sorry scene is surely one of the worst aspects of our techological age. What it all boils down to is, of course, money.

Take my own ISP, for instance – Zen internet. Although I don’t think they are as brilliant with customer support as they used to be, they are still much better than most. Until I upgraded today, I have been paying £16.25 plus VAT per month for a 35mbit/sec fibre optic connection with a download limit of 50gb per month. This is a lot more expensive than some providers, but think about the total package.

This comes to £234 per annum. Now imagine that I have just two “issues” per annum that require half an hour each of Zen’s time to resolve. If we assume that Zen’s employees cost them (say) £20000 per annum (Zen support is – unusually, but thankfully – sited in the UK) then that hour of support has probably cost about £30 (including overheads for that employee). To put it another way, every hour of customer support costs them more than 10% of what I pay them annually. It wouldn’t take many big issues in the course of a year for me to be an unprofitable customer. And if I was only paying half as much for my internet provision (say £10 per month), then each hour of support that I need in the course of a year could soak up 25% of their income from me.

These figures are, of course, estimates but I think they demonstrate just how important it is for the profitability of ISPs to be maximised by reducing as far as possible the number of phone calls they have to deal with and “de-skilling” the support they provide as far as possible. If they can deal with 50% of problems by making the customer jump through the same hoops that some of them already tried, and employing a “lesser skilled” person to handle that 50%, then they are going to save money in a very important area. Being prepared to pay more for your internet provision can mean you get a better level of support.

When it comes down to support from your internet provider, you get what you pay for.