Customer Service, Tech Support, and the Perils of Outsourcing (or Offshoring!)

Posted by pwitman - August 28, 2011


It seemed like a simple idea at the time. My DSL modem that provided my Internet connection at home had broken, and I had to get a new one. I could do it through my current provider, for about $100, and stay with my $30/month fees for moderate speeds. Or I could go to a new provider (call them “Novel Internet”, or Novel for short), get a “free” modem, and pay only $15/month for double the speed. What’s not to love?

Well, here goes. Novel had good radio publicity and endorsement of a talk-radio technology guru, and an endorsement from a family member who’d used them for years. So I called them to start the process – so far, so good. Got the modem in the mail a couple of days later – all still good. But then the fun begins. In short, after several hours on the phone with their tech support, who all seemed to honestly care and to sincerely try to help, NO ONE got it right until it was too late. Here are the details:

Novel’s web site, during the signup process, said very clearly “do not contact your current Internet Provider until your new service is working. Then you can call and cancel.” So I followed that rule, read the rest of the instructions with the modem (which said that service would be activated by midnight the night that it arrived), hooked everything up, and waited patiently.

But it didn’t work after midnight, so I called tech support. After politely going through the list of things they always want you to do (check the power, look at the lights, check to see if it’s plugged in to the DSL filter properly, …), I escalated to second-level support. Four calls and 2 hours on the phone w/ Tech Support yielded several claims that “we can’t share the line with your current provider” and “did you call them to turn their DSL service off?”

Of course, I didn’t make that call, since the instructions on the Novel signup page said not to, that Novel would do it.

On the near-final call to a third-level support person, Novel said that the old provider would have to come out to my home to do something in order to make it work. Novel tech support said the night before that Novel had not yet called the old provider to make this change; it appeared someone had dropped the ball. Then the message changed – I would have to call the old provider to turn off my Internet service.

Just when you think it can’t get weirder, it does …

Given all the trauma so far, I asked what, specifically, I should ask the old provider to do. Novel’s third-level support person asked me if I had my phone service with the same company. Since I did, he said, I’d have to ask them to turn off both phone and Internet service, wait for Novel to get Internet working, and then call the old provider to get my phone turned back on.

Conveniently, while I was on the verge of totally losing my temper, the line to Novel’s tech support dropped. They called back 30 minutes (!) later, but by that time I’d already called my old provider to ask them to send a new modem and turn things back on.

And then it gets weirder still!

The old provider says: “We’re sorry, but Novel called us on your behalf a few days ago to cancel your Internet service, so we have to start from scratch. It’ll take a few days, but we’ll open a new Internet contract for you.” Conveniently, this meant that I was treated by the old provider as a new customer, so I got both pricing and speed competitive with what Novel had promised.

Total time on the phone so far: Approximately 6 hours, AFTER the stated activation time provided by Novel.

While all this was going on, I found a tech support forum for all sorts of DSL providers. There, I happened across a direct access path to the general manager of Novel’s operations, so I dropped him a note with a more raw version of what’s above. He promptly connected me with the guy who turned out to be the last US-based tech support person for Novel – we’ll call him “Fred”. Fred clearly understood what had happened, called me on the phone to apologize, tried to make things right technically, and appreciated my sharing my insights with him.

Then we get to the financials! After trying four different methods (all recommended by Novel’s customer service staff) to cancel my relationship, they finally agreed to do so, but they couldn’t refund any of my money, and were going to charge me to restock the modem. Several laps around the stupid loop there led me back to the general manager, who assured me he’d take care of it, and, indeed, he did – Novel made my accounts whole, though they didn’t compensate me for the 6 hours of phone time, the cost to return the modem, or the cost to my mental health!

Now this isn’t a rant about offshoring – far to the contrary. Even as I was obviously frustrated, the folks I talked with clearly were sincere about trying to help, and never lost their cool. But they were also clearly new to their roles, and neither trained nor experienced with the products they were implementing, nor did they have a system that enabled them to see what was going on with my issues.

No one ever said “I see you just talked to Bob, and we’ll pick up where he left off.” Every call started with the first steps: Is the modem plugged in? What do the lights look like? Turn the modem off and back on again … This indicated to me that they had no continuity of service records, or didn’t know how to use them successfully. This problem could happen no matter whether the service operation is inside the company, or if it’s outsourced inside or outside the US.

Why am I writing about this? It’s a bit of a cautionary tale – good recommendations have to be current as well! My friends who recommended it: a) had implemented before the service and support were outsourced, b) almost never called tech support, and c) had started with this service, and weren’t trying to convert. So I was trying a scenario that was unproven, and perhaps had just been broken by their outsourcing moves.

I wish Novel all the best in resolving their issues – if they don’t, it’ll kill the company, and deservedly so!

Thoughts? Have you run into situations like this? I’d be curious to hear about it (without company names, please!)

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