Anxiety and Phone Calls

I don’t like talking on the phone. There are two reasons for this, I’ll get one out of the way quickly because it is less important than the other.

A key component for me when conversing with people is being able to see them. When you consider that I am posting this to a blog and I’m fairly active online (and have been since the late 80s in some form or another) it seems counter-intuitive. But, in my brain, this is writing, which is different from talking. I can write, and people write back, and if I get a particularly heated or spiky response from someone, I’m not on the spot to immediately reply. I can take my time and consider the position and give a thoughtful rebuttal if it is warranted. When I talk to people, how they react, in their face and body, to the things being said supply great information for keeping from kicking over too many hornet’s nests, and also to encourage conversation if the response is positive. But when on the phone, all that drops away, and I can’t see a person rolling their eyes or gritting their teeth or fidgeting with their fingers. They might be doing those things, but I can’t see them. I don’t like this.

But the larger reason why I don’t like to talk on the phone is almost a post traumatic stress response. For years, for more than two decades, I have worked in some form or another in a customer service related position. These days I do much more programming than support, but being at a smaller company I still have to occasionally answer the phone. Because my jobs have almost always leaned toward support instead of service the people I talk to usually are having a problem and not just asking a question. And more often than not they are angry about the problem. I can do my best to try to defuse their anger, but it doesn’t always work. So the bulk of my experience using phones is to have someone yell at me.

These days, when I need to make a phone call, I pick up the phone and before I start dialing I can feel my heart speed up. My foot will start to tap or my leg start to twitch. I might even feel my face flush with heat and break into a little sweat. I know, I know, that the majority of the people I speak to on the phone these days are not going to yell at me, but I’ve been conditioned. I cannot stop my physiological and psychological response.

It’s a terrible thing that I should probably talk to someone about so I can get past it, but healthcare in this country… I won’t go there, it makes me angrier than having to talk on the phone. Anyway, so that’s why, if you need me, you should email me, or text me, or catch me on Facebook, or just drop by the house and we’ll play some board games. All of these options are better than calling me on the phone.

Deny First, Resolve Later

One thing that has been increasingly difficult over the years as there has become more focus on metrics for measuring call center success is actually getting help.  Too many companies appear to have a policy of denying responsibility first, pushing the problem off on someone else, and only later doing any work once someone else has definitively proven that the problem is theirs to solve.

In my current job, I deal with a lot of phone companies.  From AT&T all the way down to podunk local cable companies branching out into VOIP.  Our company is an answering service, and whenever someone calls us with a problem, we take ownership of it, work out all the details in an effort to either a) find and resolve the problem, or b) conclusively prove that the problem isn’t our problem and direct our customers to the right place to resolve their issue.  As an answering service, the one thing we fundamentally depend on is calls being forwarded from our customer’s location to our servers.  Once we get the call, we can do our magic and answer the phone properly and perform all the duties they pay us for.  If we are getting the call and something isn’t going right, we work to resolve the problem.  If we aren’t getting the call… well, there is only so much we can do.

What we don’t do is just shove people off, tell them to call someone else, and leave it at that.  No.  Even when we are certain that the problem isn’t ours, we walk the customer through some simple tests and see what results we get.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred (probably more, but I don’t want to get into large numbers or fractions) the problem is with their phone company.  (Half of the remaining times the problem is with their physical phones and the other half it is with us or our phone service provider.)  Either the phone company isn’t forwarding to us, they are forwarding to the wrong number, or they are forwarding to us but their service lacks the basic call data that most “real” phone companies send us and we are unable to process the call properly.  For the third option, we have a simple solution, takes 5 minutes on our end to resolve and then it’s up to their phone company to change the forwarding number – which should be another 5 minutes, but can often take 3 business days.  The first two options, however, is where the fight begins.

We do our job, then we say, “The problem is [insert exact problem here]. Please call your phone company and tell them [insert solution here]. You can have them conference with us if they don’t understand and we can get it sorted out.”  They thank us and then call their phone company who more often than not tell them, “Our stuff works fine, call your answering service and have them fix it.”  It usually takes about five rounds of this before the customer starts yelling at us.  Why us?  Because for some reason people trust the phone company.  Even when it’s a podunk operation serving the people of Greater Backwater with their fine assortment of tin cans and string, they trust the phone company as a utility and distrust us as some sort of money-grubbing for profit evil business.

Eventually, we get a conference call going and I get to explain to the phone company tech how to do his job.  The worst part is, when I’m doing this, I can hear the contempt in their voice.  They know how to do this, they don’t need me to explain it, but they don’t want to do it.  They want someone else to fix it without involving them.

And the phone companies aren’t alone here.  I run into it everywhere.

It really irritates me because I would never run a business that way.  Never.  Your customers pay for service, you should give them the best service and support you can give.  Of course, the scary though being that perhaps this half-assed responsibility shirking service is the best they can give…

A Week of Tweets on 2011-01-30

  • Never call me on speaker phone. Call first, then inform me you are going to put me on speaker. Really, it's safer for both of us. #
  • Tuesday. A day for doing things in pairs, or doing something because someone else is doing it. #
  • Today is going to be too long by far because the RIFT beta is waiting for me at home. #
  • Thanks to the song, I can always spell Mississippi, but there is no song for Masachewsits. #
  • Really need to see about setting up Artemis at Dragon*Con this year. #
  • Cr-48 showed up at the house yesterday. I can see why many people dislike it, but for a web browser with a full keyboard, it's pretty nifty. #
  • It puts the lotion in the basket. #

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I’ve been a smartphone user for a few years now.  The funny thing is that about 90% of the features of a smartphone I don’t care about.  Here is the list of things I don’t need my phone to be able to do:

  • Play music/MP3
  • Play video/watch TV
  • Play games
  • GPS navigation
  • Make fart noises
  • Twitter, Facebook and 99% of the Internet

Now, here is a list of all the features a phone needs for me to love it:

  • Make/receive phone calls
  • Text messaging with a full keyboard because I 442833 trying to type with a 12 key phone pad
  • Sync my contacts with other sources like Google or Exchange over the air

That’s it.  Really.  So simple, and yet no one does it.  At least not that 3rd point, unless you get a full blown smartphone and pay $70-$100 a month for service.  Sure, a camera on the phone is nice, but I don’t need it and use it so rarely that I wouldn’t miss it if it were gone.  But its the contact sync that is the deal breaker.  Every non-smartphone I’ve owned could sync, but you have to buy software and connect it to your PC to do it.  Lame.

I could be wrong.  Maybe there is a phone out there that does just what I need and doesn’t require a large monthly payment for service.  But if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

The Right Tool For The Job

Or, “Why I Won’t Be Buying an iPad.”

Back when they announced the device, I put my thoughts up.  Now that the device has released, I’ve read the reviews and seen videos of it in action, I’m still not buying one.

Largely, it is for the same reasons I mentioned.  Since I’d never pay for the 3G data plan, its function as a mobile computing device is limited to Wi-Fi hot spots, and currently I’ve got a phone for that.  So the next use would be to have it around the house.  I’m really not big on browsing the net while watching TV, mostly because I usually want to actually pay attention to the TV.  And really, for the quick things I’d want to look up, I have my phone (I don’t have a land line anymore, so I always have my cell phone on me).  When I do actually want a computer it is primarily for two things: writing and drawing.

As far a writing goes, I’m not a touch typist, not really anyway (I can type without looking at the keyboard, but you can go insane watching my hands float all over – home row is for sissies), but my typing is dependent on the tactile response of the keyboard, to know when I’ve made mistakes.  I’ve seen people complain about how a laptop forces you to be in an uncomfortable position and the iPad lets you be more relaxed… only, I’m not uncomfortable when I use my laptop.  In fact, I’m often more uncomfortable in the big cushy couches most people love.  I like rigid, straight back, seating (though when I watch movies I do like a bit of tilt and some head support).  Using an iPad and the positions I’d have to be in to type on it two handed looks to be painful to me.  I may end up at an Apple store to play with one someday, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.

For drawing, as a previously mentioned, I don’t want to draw with my finger.  I really don’t.  I like using a stylus, which the iPad does support, but I’d really have to use it to see if it is worthwhile.  And is it pressure sensitive?  I use the heck out of the pressure sensitivity on my Wacom.  I’d hate to be without it.

Most of the web based gaming I do these days is Flash based and wouldn’t function on the iPad, so that’s out.

For me, the iPad just isn’t the right tool for the job, and currently my phone, netbook and desktop do the things I want very nicely.

On the other hand, while I wouldn’t buy one of these, I think my wife would like it quite a bit, except for the whole iTunes thing.  We are Zune people, and I really don’t want to install iTunes and then have it and the Zune software start fighting over who has control of the MP3 tags.  But if we could get over that, I think she’d be very happy with the iPad as an email checking, Internet browsing, note jotting, media consuming machine.  We’ve got a few boxes of CDs and DVDs sitting around waiting for a garage sale, perhaps we could use them for something else.

The Failure of Facebook Games

As I have been diving in to Facebook games, I discovered that in order to succeed in the games I had to add strangers to my friends list.  Unfortunately, this has a side effect that is quite bad.  As Facebook has become more popular and the use of Facebook Connect and other APIs has grown, my Facebook friend list travels with me lots of place.  I don’t mind my real friends following me around, but game strangers who I only added because I needed more people to advance in a game since no more of my real friends would play I don’t want them around.

Last year I bought a Palm Pre.  Best phone I’ve ever owned or used, absolutely love it.  One of its best features is Synergy, which is what they call the blending of profiles without syncing them.  So, I added my Gmail account, my Facebook, my AIM, my work Exchange account, and so on, and when I look at my contacts it shows them all, in one view, duplicates are combined into a single entry but not sync’d.  For example, I have my older brother as a friend on Facebook, a contact on AIM and an entry in Gmail.  In the Pre, I see his picture with a small subscript 3 telling me that this entry is a blending of three accounts.  If he updates his Facebook profile, that will automatically update in my phone, but items in his Gmail contact entry only change when I update them.

Combining my Pre with my recent use of Facebook games and suddenly I had dozens of people in my phone, with phone numbers, whom I don’t know.  This is the side effect, and this is why I removed all those people as friends on Facebook.  Going forward, playing games on Facebook is going to be harder, slower.

The failure of most Facebook games is this: you have to choose, sacrifice social for games or sacrifice games for social.  That’s a horrid dilemma for a social gaming platform.  Facebook needs a way for people to be game-friends that links them for the game but for nothing else, and gives people the option of allowing that relationship to grow and step outside the game.  Until that happens, I choose Facebook as a social platform, not a gaming one.

Additional Note: I have noticed that in some games you can get what I am calling “former friend benefits”.  Taking Hero World as an example, once I add a person to my Super Team, I can remove them from my friend list but my team size doesn’t decrease. While this prevents me from using them actively in the game (training, gifts, etc), I can still use them passively (my super team is currently 37 people, even though I only have 8 or so that are on my friend list) for content that requires team sizes of a certain level.

Dragon*Con 2009: Day Zero

It is Thursday, the day before Dragon*Con officially begins, and like every year that means registration.  Some years it is a tiring journey downtown after work followed by a couple or three hours spent in line and then a trek back home to finish packing and sleep before making the real journey down on Friday for Con.

This year, however, the wife and I decided we’d just extend our hotel stay by one day so that our trip down for registration would end in us hanging around and meeting people and stumbling back to our room when we get tired.

Dragon*Con this year is going to be a little different for me.  Normally, I just post daily wrap-ups, but thanks to my purchase of a Palm Pre, I’ll be a little more “on time”.  First and foremost, the Pre has that awesome synergy thing you may have heard about, and what that means is that it blends my calendars from several sources into one display without syncing the calendars and duplicating stuff.  And with the folks at Dragon*Con providing a Google Calendar of events, it means I won’t really need to carry around the book and schedule, it will all be on my phone.  Next, with the use of Twitter and TwitPic, as well as Facebook, I’ll be able to snap photos from my phone and immediately get them out to all the people.  So, if you’d like to see them, here is me on Twitter, and here is me on Facebook.  I’ll try not to annoy people too much, but I make no promises.

So much to do, so much to see, so exciting… You know, the idea of PAX intrigues me, and I want to go, but I never will.  Dragon*Con is just so much… more.

Of course, it helps if you get to registration early.  They were open until 11, but they cut off the line at 9:30 at about where they estimated it would take two and a half hours to get through… we were beyond that point.  Registration opens again at 8 in the morning.  So without our badges we went down to the Marriott bar, Pulse, and hung around chatting and people watching… In New York, they say if you hang out in Times Square, you’ll see a million people walk by.  At Dragon*Con, the place to stand is in the Marriott.

Two Wallpapers

So, last weekend I didn’t post any doodles.  The reason for that is I went to go see a movie at the theater (and actually pay!) and then spent most of the day running around shopping.  In the previous week, my wife’s cell phone broke, and while we were discussing what we should do about it my cell phone broke.  My wife could conceivably live without her cell phone, but I rely on mine so that I’m reachable for work stuff.  We ended up at the local Best Buy, and they happened to be running a special on Palm Pre phones: $149.  Well, we already happen to be Sprint customers and both of use are out of our contracts so we get the full sign up discount.  We just couldn’t pass it up.

Love the phones.  They are fantastic, especially for me.  I’ve got it connected to my Google mail and calendar accounts as well as my work Exchange server, I can see both calendars at the same time but not sync them, so my work never knows about my personal appointments and I don’t have to clutter my personal calendar with work junk.  Sure, the Pre is a little lite on applications thus far, but eventually that will change.  Besides, while the iPhone has a million apps, most of them are crap anyways.  Yeah, that’s a real application.  But the Pre’s got the web, which gets to most things, and its got a Twitter app and a couple of movie time apps and other basics.

Anyway, this week I spent a little time messing around and making myself some wallpapers for the phone.  I mean, I’m not 17, so pictures of hot chicks, which is what 99% of wallpapers for phones are, aren’t what I’m looking for, and besides, I like making my own stuff.  Some of my experiments were complete crap, so I won’t post those, but I will post two that I am happy with.  The first is a cut version of a previous doodle, the castle and the moon:

The Castle and Moon wallpaper version
The Castle and Moon wallpaper version

After doing that one, I spent a while messing around with Gimp and various brushes.  So, while not a traditional freehand doodle, here is the best of the bunch, and the only one I felt worth sharing.

City with Symbols
City with Symbols

Clearly, I like black and white since I’ve been in more of a “sketchy” mood lately.  The whole thing was done with a city brush, a couple of mystic symbol brushes and some blood spatter and gunshots brushes.  Here it looks sort of bland, but I dig the way it looks on the phone where it takes over the screen with the icon bar overlay at the  bottom.

Anyhow, I’m sure to make some more wallpapers, and I’ll continue to share them.

Call Centers vs Help Desks

From my experience, customer support at most businesses falls into one of two categories: Call Center or Help Desk.  As either a customer or an employee, I prefer the Help Desk.  Now let me explain both and why.

A Call Center is usually defined by the (over)use of call metrics to define success.  They want to have as few calls as possible be answered by the automated backup system (when all the reps are busy), and you do that by decreasing call length.  A rep who is not on the phone is a rep who can answer the phone.  In a Call Center, the reps are encouraged to pick up the phone, gather information, answer if they can do so easily, and if not inform the caller that someone will call them back and issue them a ticket or incident number.  No real “work” gets done in a Call Center, they are just there to answer the phone so you don’t talk to a machine.

A Help Desk is very similar except that often the only metric that matters is how many calls it takes to resolve an issue.  The fewer the better.  Call length is unimportant as long as that time spent is relevant to solving the problem.  The goal is to have every problem resolved on the first call, so that the customer does not have to call back.

Whenever I call a company for support, if the entirety of my first call is to create a trouble ticket and then wait for a call back, I already know that my support experience is going to be disappointing.  In one of my most recent experiences, I called about a service outage (no phone service from a 3rd party reseller) and a ticket was created and I was told I would be contacted “shortly”.  Now, understand that my initial report include the line “we are a 24/7 business and we are completely down”.  It took 3 hours for a technician to get in touch with me, during which time I had called the support number a dozen times and escalated through several managers, because, you know, my business was dead in the water.  When he called he was very nice and explained that they were having lots of high priority calls today (which I only half believe since it has become defacto procedure in business to never accept blame and deflect onto other people or situations), and then he ran a line test and determined in less than 2 minutes that he couldn’t help me and we needed to have AT&T go physically fix a line.

Now, allow me to outline one of my jobs on a Help Desk to explain why the above experience was bad.  When I worked for one company, I started initially as a “2nd Level” support person, not clearly defined, but I was not an admin nor did I directly take support calls.  Through my efforts and with the support of management, our help desk would eventually have three clearly defined levels:

  • 3rd Level – These are the system admins, the experts who troubleshoot problems when everyone below them has no idea how to fix it.  If you talk to this level, it is because your problem is new or different enough that a new solution has to be found.
  • 2nd Level – These are the system techs.  They have knowledge, one day probably hope to be promoted to the admin level, and their desks and inboxes and hard drives are filled with solutions handed down from the 3rd Level.  They use these solutions and refine them on issues passed to them from the 1st Level, and they pass failures and run new ideas past the 3rd Level.
  • 1st Level – These are the people who answer the phone.  They aren’t required to have any real knowledge at all beyond being able to read and follow instructions, and to have good people skills.  On their desks should be folders of solutions refined from the 2nd Level, or their PCs should have access to a knowledge base or other digital medium with search capabilities.  Every thing they cannot solve from documents on their desk or in the knowledge base is passed to the 2nd Level.

The goal of these levels is clear.  The 3rd Level guys have other work to do, which is interrupted when they have to take support calls, so they want to solve and document and pass to level 2 as quick as possible.  The 2nd Level guys want to become 3rd Level guys, so they work to understand and refine everything that comes from level 3, and part of that process is recognition that will come from authoring documents for the folders and knowledge base for level 1.  The 1st Level folks, if you’ve hired them correctly, are the kind of people who love helping other people, so they want to resolve every call and don’t want to pass things off to level 2, and if you’ve hired your 1st Level manager correctly they’ll be the sort who hounds level 2 for solutions to problems that keep going past his people.

If you staff and train this three tier help desk right, it is extremely efficient and people won’t mind at all when they have to call because their issues will be handled promptly.  At the company I worked for, while I was the 2nd Level guy, I implemented the folder system for problem resolution.  For everything from password resets to broken PCs, I gave the 1st Level every piece of information they could safely use for troubleshooting and resolution, and when I needed to give them access to something unsafe I wrote or provided a tool that allowed them to do what they needed without giving them full access.  And for everything I absolutely could not give them access to, I gave them instructions on how to gather what information in order to make my job as easy as possible so that I could resolve and respond to the issue as fast as humanly possible.  When I ascended to the 3rd Level, I took my process with me, convinced management we needed a 4 person 2nd Level staff to replace me, and I began documenting every 3rd Level process I could pass off to level 2, which they in turn continued my example of refining and passing to level 1.  Within a couple months of the full three tier setup, the 3rd Level group barely received any support calls as level 2 was handling most of them, and the 2nd Level was rapidly trying to pass the buck to level 1 with new procedures and documentation in order to free themselves up for working on “special projects” (which mostly consisted of implementing work that level 3 had designed … the grunt work that helped educate them on more facets of the systems).   Over time, some of our level 2’s got promoted or got new jobs, and we were even able to promote people from level 1 to level 2 (not often done since the prime skill set for level 1 was customer service, but if someone had technical aptitude we allowed them the opportunity to try, some went back to level 1, some did well at level 2), and the whole thing ran much more smoothly than when I had arrived.  Even I eventually moved on, and when training my replacement, a guy promoted from level 1 to 2 to 3, I showed him all my duties and toys, and then I handed him a documentation manual with every solution I had not or could not pass on to the level below me.  It was beautiful, and as far as I know still runs that way today, eight years later.

So how does that relate to my recent service outage?  Well, if a technician can, in less than 2 minutes, tell me that the problem is not theirs and we needed to call AT&T, whatever he did should be able to be wrapped up in a tool that can be given to the people who answer the phones so that problems like mine can be routed properly more quickly and not have to wait three hours just to be told they aren’t talking to the right people.  The problem is that it is a Call Center, and their management has no interest in having the people answering the phone actually solve problems, their job is just to answer the phone so people don’t wait on hold too long.

Me, I’d rather wait on hold comfortable that when they answer I’ve a good chance of getting my problem resolved, than to talk to someone sooner only to be pushed off and told they’ll call me back at their convenience.

Who needs phone books?

Face it.  The world is changing.  I moved out of my parents’ house back in 1994, and in all the years since I have received a full batch of anywhere from six to ten phone books, yellow and white pages, every year.  And in all that time, I can recall perhaps five or six times I ever used them.  Nowadays I can find anything I might possibly need a phone book for on the Internet.  Or rather, I’m going to use the Internet and any business that isn’t out there is probably not going to get my dollars.  Even the Yellow Pages themselves have opened up, and if you happen to live in a state serviced by AT&T you can even browse an online version of the printed phone books.  I’m sure more services are out there as well…

So, given my penchant over the last couple of years to stop junk mail, you can imagine how I feel about my annual stack of phone books that appear on my door step.  True, I simply drive them over to the post office where they have a dumpster for phone book recycling, but the printing of the books is just a giant waste to begin with.  (Yeah, yeah… I know, “In Case of Emergencies”, but I keep written down all the emergency phone numbers I would need, especially the ones I would need if I had no power or Internet access.)  That’s why I was very happy when I got an email from Green Dimes about Yellow Pages Goes Green.

I’ve signed up to have them stop sending me phone books, and now I just have to wait and see…