Most everyone has had to call a tech support phone line at some point. No matter who I have conversed with on this topic, they usually feel roughly the same way about it.  They’d rather have their eyes poked with rusty forks then have to go through a call to a technical support line. I understand their pain. Perhaps more than they might realize since I have actually been stabbed by a rusty fork…not in the eye, but it still really hurt! And sometimes even I would rather be stabbed again by that fork then call a support line. Too bad it’s part of my job.

Tech Support Blues

Generally, I don’t really like to talk about my job, much less write about it. I’ve always been warned…don’t ever cross the streams, that would be bad. But it’s a little bit unavoidable in this topic, so there’s that. I understand the pain more than a fork in the eye, I’ve spent a great deal of time on both sides of those types of calls. There is the side where I’ve been the tech support person on the phone trying to impart some sort of arcane wisdom from the dark reaches of cyberspace to help solve why a mouse pointer keeps changing into an hourglass. Those conversations can be left for another time. This little anecdote is about the other side, my own calls into tech support.

Over the years I’ve been through it all on IT support calls. Quick and painless ones or long drawn-out multiple hour-long affairs. Some conversations that proved very helpful, others that you wonder if they have ever even seen a computer. And I have heard hold music, far, far more than my fair share of hold music. Minutes, hours, days and weeks of hold music. Hold while they talk to their boss, hold while they look up your question, hold before anyone will actually even start talking to you. I’ve even been put on hold for an hour and a half to wait for the next available technician with 23 other calls ahead of me, only to be disconnected when finally reaching the very end of the queue.

When most people complain about their experience on a tech support call, they inevitably mention they were connected to someone in India that didn’t know what they were talking about. My experience with off-shore tech support is a bit different. First of all, on some topics, I’ve found some of the Indian tech support agents to be the most knowledgeable that I’ve come across. I’ve spoken to engineering agents and teams of agents from India that write and explain code that would make the heads of their US counterparts just spin in bewilderment. I’ve also spoken with agents from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, France, and Italy, as well as others from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head and were just the ones I had bothered to ask about location. I am sure that if I dug deeper, there would be many other countries represented in my pool of experience as well. No matter where the agent is from, there is one thing I have found in common with all of the techs of all nationalities. The good ones make sure that you both understand each other.

There is a Kilimanjaro of vital information that can be lost in translation and it doesn’t matter if the language is nationality-based, or jargon-based. Whether someone is speaking in Urdu or in tech acronyms, they first must make sure that the person listening actually comprehends the words being said. This concept can get tricky when one is speaking a language that is actually their second language. This is also where your internal translator can get a workout when trying to filter what you hear into what you understand.

Most of the time, I am fine with comprehending accented English. It can be kinda fun to guess where a person is from based on the inflections and words they pronounce. Even though I find the conversation still works, I do find myself having to work a little harder at comprehending the words I am hearing.  My brain chugs a little as it spends time re-verifying that I heard correctly, and I can see where that would be mental tripping hazard for a lot of people. I can also see how that trip up could cause instant frustrations and bias when encountering the same sounds again. This whole idea became very clear to me one day after I had a particularly challenging hour long troubleshooting conference call with four pretty smart people all working to solve a problem together. All four people just happened to be from different continents speaking with their own accented English. I honestly had a little bit of a headache when I hung up, it was exhausting, and all I was really doing was internally translating variations of English!

A stunning illustration of how much extra work your brain is forced through when processing accented English comes when you see how an automatic message transcription service translates a technical call from a person speaking English as a second language.  I just so happen to have some great exhibits where the results speak for themselves.  There shouldn’t be much background needed on the problem being solved, and I won’t say which country the tech was from.

After working for several hours on some ongoing issues one day in the relatively recent past, we took a break from our phone call for my helper to do some research.  He called back some time later and left a message for me.  My messaging service translated the following:

Call #1

Eric Riley from the social and support team calling in regards to an incident so that it really sure what this means. So hoping … that there will be a you that the hotel H A … you can come home and is for candy supposed to supposed to be so please it’s urgent … I wanted to confirm this notification press onto any means of a little bit. Thank you have a nice day

It seemed to start off pretty well there at first, but you can see that it quickly went downhill. I knew in great detail what he was supposed to be calling about but I couldn’t even come close to figuring out what that text implied he was saying. It really didn’t get much better than that either. The issues continued and I received several more calls from the same company. The next message I got on this problem was from a different agent…

Call #2

Yeah hi Denise this is louis from Microsoft in supposed been calling in regards to in case the last week we will be sleeping so hopefully … I e of the do this via the Internet and phone is giving us the just wondered who is about on this case you do because I am suspended pending snow storm … please let us know how you wanted to close to do this is thank you.

At least we got a company name out of that one! Over the next couple of days I received a few more messages on the same support issue from 2 different support agents, with varying degrees of translation success.

Call #3

Hey hi this is louise from Microsoft into for the call is in regards to a new this severely sure we will … you just been tied off all food inc. if you know the proposal template in this case. Thank you any line is that nobody.

Call #4

Yeah hi could … I was hoping this is for this … So hopefully just wanted to discuss this issue … selfish and wondered were doing on this is … for the defer those belts that is listed you as part of the dentist office there but if you do the whole beach and wonderful to this message. So Beach … she’s on the Fulton. Please take me to work with me please two donation’s love..

Call #5

Hey how you please visit with from Microsoft me supposed to be this is in regards to Juanita supposed to be open the same we have received a non issue will continue to investigate and I will be do that you had it in time and open each of Alan and … I was hoping for me to just … that she said he’s only do it and send the other two phone calls from your side as want to the city to make it sounds good? But I have been off so please let me know how you wanted to thank you this is Willy.

Call #6

Yeah hi liz this is Lee from Microsoft beautiful in this call is in regards to an interest in either insurable. If anything’s couple of days … you had … ovations from the back and say they can support those for sex and the city. So just wanted to check over the issues is what I did know talk. I was not any minute not want anything just wanted to call and thank you in advanced.

By the way, at no point were these conversations ever actually interacting with anyone named Louise, Liz, Lee, Juanita, Denise, Fulton or Willy.  I’ve known more than a few techs that shortened their given name so that it would seem more pronounceable for Americans, but the name Willy was never one of them.

I was able to call these agents back and we eventually worked through our technical difficulties, but I did find myself amazed that we were able to collaborate at all through our linguistic difficulties. It helped me be more appreciative of what the human brain can comprehend and interpret. Think of your brain doing those same translations the next time you call in and get Raj from India. I would bet you are translating his instructions a lot better than the hopeless text above! Think of what Raj’s brain is having to sift through as well, I bet his is doing more work than yours, never mind the cultural differences.  Sure, both your brains will make some mistakes, it will be frustrating, and you might get a bit of a headache.  But think about how cool it is that you can even communicate with each other at all…and remember, Raj probably has a headache from listening to you too!