The Saga of AT&T Technical Support: Circa 1994

As I was creating my last post, filed under Rants 'n Raves, I kept having flashbacks to something that I had written during a similar situation many years ago. It took a lot of searching, and put a lot of rpm's on the cluster of hard drives used for the archive, but eventually I found it. It took a while to get it into readable format again since it was written using Winword on a Windows 3.11 machine. (For those of you that are historically challenged, Win 3.11 was the predecessor to Windows 95, which, as we all know, was the predecessor to Windows 98.)

So now, from deep in the byte mines of my archive of 1994, is my experience with AT&T Technical Support when they were still a computer company. Enjoy!

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The Saga of AT&T Technical Support


How to waste an afternoon and have fun doing it!

Date: May 3, 1994

AT&T, technical support, absurd, PC6310, broken, company confidential, Purgatory

The Saga:
Today I decided it was about time to repair that old AT&T PC6310; you know, the one under the bench with the bad power supply. It may be old (circa 1984) and it may only be a '286 box, but I have an extra EtherNet card and I can always use another network connection. Anyway, I had ripped it apart several months ago and ascertained that the power supply wasn't working. Now, how hard can it be for a person with 24 years of experience in the field of electronics, physics, and computer science (including 17 at AT&T Bell Laboratories) to spec out, and replace a modular power supply? Well, if all I had to do was contact a big green, slimy creature (holder of all knowledge) on the planet Mars and arrange for overnight transportation, it would have been a breeze! Unfortunately, I found it necessary to contact the wonderful down-to-earth people at AT&T Technical Support.

While I must say that all of the people that I found it necessary to talk to were quite pleasant and friendly, somehow I was left with the feeling that AT&T hasn't a clue as to what it means to provide technical support.

First on my quest for knowledge was a perusal of the Yellow Pages for the "AT&T Dealer nearest you". I guess I should move to Mars. Of the various places and people that I talked to, nobody seemed to remember what a model 6310 was, let alone how to fix it. Most of the local service shops are "tube pullers". (This is an old phrase reminiscent of the days when you pulled all of the tubes in your broken TV set and took them to the local drug store where they always had a tube tester.) They remove your power supply module and have it exchanged for a repaired one. Feeling, of course that I owed myself something more than this, I marched on.

Next, I called a published AT&T customer service number. I waited on hold a scant 20 minutes (sans music) before hearing a human voice say "May I help you?". Ah! Nirvana, I thought. Purgatory, I discovered. The only information that they could give me at this number, was another number to call for information about my particular piece of equipment. Not being easily discouraged, I once again dialed into the unknown. Now here my luck started to change. After waiting only 18 minutes on hold with a musical accompaniment, I was told that the part number of the desired component was "AT&T/NCR part number 4053713290 for an LA 21A.N.71999/M".(How could I have been so naive?) I then asked the most foolish question of all ... "How much?" Well now, you see that probably was my fault! I wrongly assumed that after investing over 30 minutes on customer support, and actually getting a part number, that they would be able to tell me how much it was going to cost. Wrong! To get that kind of high level information, you have to be routed to another representative. (I believe it was at this point that I first heard the phrase "I'm sorry sir, but that's all we're trained for." ..... no further comment required.)

Well, more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this great corporate mystery, I pleaded to be routed to the next plateau of customer involvement, where, after waiting a mere 8 minutes, (no music, just occasional static in the ear) I was politely told that "AT&T/NCR part number 4053713290 for an LA 21A.N.71999/M will cost you $644.40 plus shipping." Now, I wasn't born yesterday you know, because if I had been I wouldn't be screwing around with a 10 year old '286 box with a broken power supply. So, I know that $644.40 for a replacement part for a machine that I can buy in the junk bin for $100 just doesn't make great financial sense. Besides, I have several catalogs advertising replacement power supplies for around $85 - $150. At this point, thinking that maybe the customer support person simply confused my PC6310 with a No. 5 ESS unit, I foolishly asked if she was sure that the part number was the correct one for the requested PC6310. She couldn't verify that because "I'm sorry sir, but that's all we're trained for.".

At this point, any normal person would be attempting to salvage the line cord before discarding the dead carcass, but, not giving up, I inquired as to the availability of technical information so that I might attempt to resuscitate the thing myself. (after all, I used to design these things). If you haven't already guessed, I was told to call yet another Technical Support 800 number. So, I did!

Again, this was probably my fault. I thought that if I called a technical support number requesting technical information, I would get same. Not to be! I was advised that by leaving my name, number, and a brief request, they would pass it on to one of the qualified technical support people in my area. With a bead of sweat hanging from the tip of my nose and a shutter in my voice, I related my experience with the "tube pullers" in my area and requested an alternate source of gratification to which I promptly received "I'm sorry sir, but that's all we're trained for.". With nowhere else to turn, I requested the call back.

The turn-around time here was rather good, only 2 hours; better than SCO (but that's another story). My awaited call finally came and with the machine's guts opened to the world, ready for any technical volley required, I answered the phone. I, at length,explained my dilemma and my now urgent need to resolve this problem. The gentleman from New Jersey politely explained to me that he was new with the company and not really familiar with the piece of hardware in question, but that he had the technical service books and related information at his disposal and could therefore aid me in my repair of this unit.

Ah! At last! Nirvana, I thought!

My first request was simple and seemed like a logical place to begin our new service relationship: could he please fax me a schematic, or at least a parts layout so that I might repair my *$#@*! power supply?

His response was equally simple: No! He could not give out that kind of technical information because it was company confidential. He could however, give me an 800 number that I could call to get the location of the nearest field service center. There, they could install a replacement power supply for me!

Purgatory, again!

The Resolve:
I called Northstar Matrix Service in Minneapolis. They answered on the first ring, the receptionist knew what I was talking about, she said $65.00. She transferred me to a technical person. He answered on the first ring. He assured me they could repair it in 5 days or less for $65.00.

Ah! At last! Nirvana!

Permalink 09/04/08 01:17:23 am, by Bill Rosser Email , 1333 words, Categories: Rant 'n Raves ,

Computers, Bricks, and Bullshit

For this post, I have decided to create a new category. I am going to call this category "Rants 'n Raves". This post will definitely be under the Rant column.

One of my pet peeves is that nowadays everybody is a computer expert. They toss buzzwords and acronyms around like a NASA scientist on speed. The problem is that 9 times out of 10, they haven't a damn clue what they're talking about; they only think that they do. To somebody with a genuine depth of knowledge garnered from nearly 30 years of experience, they sound like idiots. I can live with that, and usually enjoy the comic relief. The thing that pushes me over the edge though, is when the arrogance factor kicks in, and you have to withstand a barrage of reasons as to why they know everything there could possibly be to know about the subject, and you, of course, know nothing.

Did you every ask somebody the question, "What's a brick made of?" and get the response, "Well, it's brick!".

Allrightee then! So, I suppose I missed the lecture in chemistry that described brick as an element on the Periodic Table right after Plutonium.

Same deal with computers. I need a new Periodic Table of The Elements.

Well anyway, recently my business partner purchased a new laptop computer for company accounting use. The machine worked fine for several months before developing symptoms of overheating. Periodically during extended use, the machine would slow to a crawl and often freeze completely, forcing a reboot. As time went on, the problem became more severe. She found that by raising the thing off of the desktop, so as to increase airflow, she could usually minimize the problem. Finally, she noticed that there was no longer any air blowing out of the unit and realized that the internal fan had stopped functioning altogether.

Our first inclination was to simply open it up and replace the fan ourselves. After all, we do this sort of work all of the time and have a very capable service team. And besides, between the two of us we have about 50 years combined experience with computer electronics along with several college degrees, including one in Electrical Engineering, and two Ham Radio licenses. And for God's sake, it's just a fan. But since the laptop was still under warranty and neither of us really had the time or ambition to open another Pandora's box, we elected to return it to it's place of purchase, a local MicroSomething store, to have the necessary work completed.

After waiting over a month to get the machine back, we immediately discovered that the entire hard drive had been reformatted. Now, understand that we had a good backup of all of the critical data, so that wasn't the issue. It was simply the inconvenience of having to put everything back the way we had it. But what sent my bullshit-o-meter to the red line was when we asked, "Why did you reformat the hard drive in order to change the fan?"

Ok, here comes the barrage of expert reasons, including:

"It's standard procedure to make sure we fixed the problem." Huh?

And, "Something in the Windows stuff might have been slowing the fan down." Loose, or excess bits, I presume.

But wait it gets better. When we finally gave up in the argument for anti-stupidity software, we discovered that we could no longer set up some of the previously configured Windows features. Lo and behold, they had installed Windows XP Home edition; we started with XP Pro. It even says so on the MS Certificate sticker affixed to the machine.

Again to the customer support line. The reasons given: "That's what most people use." And, "It's what we always do." And my personal favorite, "How do you know that you had the Pro edition?"

"Where's the license for the Home Edition that you installed?", we asked.

"You must have it.", was the response.

So, we asked what would happen now, when we attempted to use our restore CD's to overwrite the Home Edition with XP Pro?

The response?

"Well, just put your license stuff back into Windows and it should all work out fine."

It's like talking to a brick.

Oh yea, the reason for the six weeks in service? They couldn't find the problem, and had to send it out for service. It came back with a new fan.

Tomorrow I'm buying a new Periodic Table Of The Elements. I need to see if Computer comes before, or after, Brick. I already know the atomic weight of bullshit.

Permalink 09/02/08 02:29:51 am, by Bill Rosser Email , 764 words, Categories: Rant 'n Raves ,

In Confusion There Is Profit!

One of my favorite movies of all time is a "World War II in the Pacific" submarine movie called Operation Petticoat. It's a 1959 comedy-drama that stars Cary Grant as the Captain of a war ravaged submarine and Tony Curtis as Lt JG Nick Holden; a "less than scrupulous" officer who's been assigned to active submarine duty ... his previous assignment was "Entertainment Coordinator at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel". Well he's not much of a sailor at first, but as luck would have it, he is a fantastic scavenger. Every time the ship needs the unattainable, he manages to get it.

At one point in the movie, the sub is in port for repairs and an air-raid occurs. While everyone else is running for cover, Lt. Holden is seen in a truck heading into the attack. When asked where the Lt. is going a sailor says "Well sir, Mr. Holden says that in confusion there is profit".

And so there is!

You're probably wondering how a 1959 war movie fits into the theme of Entrepreneurity. Every day now it seems that the economic picture gets dimmer and dimmer. The stock market goes up and down like a yoyo, banks are failing, businesses are drying up or facing tough times, and there doesn't seem to be any really good news in sight. For those of us that would someday like to take a break from all of this crap, the regular retirement portfolio just ain't looking all that healthy.

Well the point to be taken from the story above is that even in the worst of times, there are still opportunities if you care to look for them. The cost of food and gas may be higher than ever, but people still have to eat and get to and from work. Most people will still try to better themselves either by investing in formal education or self-instruction via hobbies. When times are tough, people look to escape; maybe it's just a weekend trip instead of that cruise to the Bahamas, or perhaps it's just a night out to hear a local band. There's always something that at least some people, somewhere, will want or need.

There's no doubt that a lot of businesses will have to reevaluate how they make a buck, but that's part of what being an entrepreneur is all about; watching for trends and looking for the opportunities that follow those trends. If you run a restaurant, you may need to adjust your menu to suit a slightly different crowd. If you're in the computer business, maybe you want to take a more serious look at the value offered by Open Source Software. If you're a farmer you might want to look at alternative means of crop finance like share farming.

So, if your IRA isn't producing like it used to, maybe it's time to take matters into your own hands. Try the entrepreneurial approach and look for a few good business opportunities to replace those missing dividends.

Permalink 08/23/08 04:23:51 am, by Bill Email , 497 words, Categories: Entrepreneurity ,

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