Baboon Pirates

Scribbles and Scrawls from an unrepentant swashbuckling primate.

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Location: Texas, United States

Monday, November 29, 2004

Tales From TechSupported Oceans

Madogre related a story last week about his experiences at Convergys. Apparently he was a manager there, which means that aside from guns and a hearty dislike of the Van Helsing movie, we've apparently got something else in common.

No, I didn't work for Convergys, but for a competitor. In the back half of the 90's there were about half a dozen large companies that specialized in one form or another of outsourced tech support. You had Software Spectrum, Convergys, Sykes, Stream International, Warrantech, and a couple of other smaller players. Each one angled for a larger chunk of the outsourced support business from all the major players. Dell, HP, Compaq, Microsoft, Gateway, WebTV, Roadrunner, Earthlink, Apple, you name it, they outsourced their support. My company handled calls on hardware, operating systems, ISP support, software applications, financial data, and a myriad of other activities. If the sales guys could put an estimate on it, we bid on it. And we made money hand over fist until the tech crash came.

For a young techno-geek fresh outta college, it was a great job, if you could stomach the fundamental dishonesty of the whole gig. See, the big OEM and software companies doing the outsourcing didn't want it known that their employees weren't the ones answering the phones. They feared (and rightfully so) that if Joe Consumer knew they were getting Billy-Bob Gaptooth from Hogknuckle, Tayksis answering their calls instead of Professor Iotta Knowitall, PhD, MCSE, LLD, Chief Technical Officer for Dell Corp., they might regret their purchase. So, SOP was to lie to the customer and tell them we really & truly worked for the company whose name was on their computer box.

In my opinion, even though it was a good job (for the most part), companies who outsource the care and support of their customers deserve to lose them all. I understand that it can help your bottom line if you don't have to carry 300 employees on the payroll, but there's no way in hell some kid with 2-3 weeks of training is going to be able to solve your customer's problems as well as someone who's been there through the entire product development cycle. Even after 6-8 months on the phones, there are always a huge number of braindeads still on the payroll. This was not just my company, either. I had contacts in the other companies that we shared clients with (the "don't put all your eggs in one basket" client strategy), and they pulled the same sneaky crap we did. Sometimes even sneakier!

The fact is, for a manufacturing or software company your repeat customers are your absolute best asset. To entrust your most precious asset to another company means you either a) don't know what the hell you are doing, b) got sold a bill of goods, or c) really and truly trust the outsourcing company.

If you picked "C", you're a stupid SOB. I can name 20 ways off the top of my head I saw various clients get assraped, either via billing or contract avoidance or twisting the quality scores or a combination thereof. It was a great job until the beancounters took over. Suddenly, low calltimes were more important than satisfied customers. It turned into a churn & burn operation, until finally no more profits could be squeezed out, and the jobs all moved to India & Canada, where they could pay lower wages. I hesitate to see where they'll go after that. Maybe they'll teach Chinese peasants enough English to reinstall Windows for customers to maintain that 35% profit margin. I hated to see that stuff done to the clients, and silently cheered when various Service Delivery Managers and Site Managers were either called on the carpet or dismissed due to playing with the numbers. In the tech support world, the "I was only following orders" defense still works, at least for lower level management like myself!

Though I don't miss all the deceptiveness, and certainly don't miss the high pressure environment, I do miss my teams, though. I was eventually promoted up and out of the trenches and wound up doing HR-type training, but the best times came from running a crew of 24-48 techs. I had spectacular teams. Each contract I worked on, I usually had the lowest attrition rate, the highest promotion rate, and rated either #1, 2 or 3 out of 12-15 managers in terms of my profitability and job satisfaction scores. People wanted to work for me, not because I made things easy, but because I made them challenging. I would purposefully give people tasks that they didn't think they could do, just to watch their ego shine when they nailed the issue. I would delegate some of the non-confidential parts of my job to the people wanting to get promoted, so they could be better prepared for the interviews. I shielded my team from the endless rain of bullshit from above as best I could. I fought hard for every extra perk I could get for them. I paid out of my own pocket for incentives and food & drinks and cut every rule I could get away with to make things easier.

I didn't cut a lot of slack, though. Some rules you can't break, or you can face some serious EEOC issues. One of my best teammates, a guy I had invited over to my apartment several times for drinks & cardplaying, I had to fire for excessive attendance violations. It was no surprise on either of our parts. He knew it was coming, and took it like a man. I didn't put up with kiddie games, and God help you if you ever lied to me.

In truth, I probably broke too many rules and regulations to be a good manager. I never stopped "thinking like a phone agent and not like a manager". OTOH, maybe that's why my teams performed so well.

Please, share your tech support tales! I'd love to hear from others who've escaped that world!