Have you ever wondered what the heck is going on while you’re on hold for billing or technical support? Do you want to know why calling a company like AT&T is so frustrating?
Well get ready for the inside story, the other side of the phone call told by me, an ex Tier II DSL Tech Support agent at the unnamed largest DSL Internet Service Provider in the US. I will refer to the unnamed super company as Large ISP from here on out.
Where do I even begin? I’ll start with “Tier II” and what it means. We in Tier II Technical Support are located in “onshore” call centers based in the United States. Most of Tier I is overseas in India and the Philippians. There are a few other places like Mexico and even more limited a handful of employees in the US. The US employees are there to field the new install type calls so that your first call to Large ISP does not land in India. It’s a trick, all other calls after will. Anyways, we at Tier II are able to use more freestyle troubleshooting techniques and are not forced to follow an on-screen prompt like Tier I is.
What Can Tier I do?
Nothing! These guys are not allowed to free think, they are not very technical at all, and they are hired more as a customer service call fielding robot aspect than anything. They must follow strict on-screen instructions in a tree-like troubleshooting structure and ask a very specific set of questions in a predetermined order every time. No matter what you are trying to say or how easy you think it is they will ask you things like have you turned it off and on, is it a self-install kit, was the service working before, is it plugged in, are the lights on, etc. They will frustrate the hell out of you! It’s not necessarily their fault. I blame Large ISP because they are forced to do exactly this.
Bonus video here was made by an upset Tier II employee of the company and it depicts just how it works. The video was made when Large ISP was trying to force the program Tier I uses on us. They do use a lot of cursing and using inside terminology so you may not understand it all, but these are the steps and questions forced to ask by Tier I of this company.
Tier II, What Does It Mean?
Good question, most of them are not that technical either. Seriously, I was surrounded by co-workers who didn’t know what they were doing. I would hear them saying things like “Fox Fire” and “DSN Servers”. I’m not making that up. How does this happen you ask? Well, Large ISP is unionized meaning, when a huge non-technical billing or paper pushing department gets shut down, instead of laying off the 55-year-old non-computer savvy employee, they put them in a training class and tell them they have to be a Tier II DSL Support Tech if they want to keep their jobs. So they go from paper pushing old-school invoice filing thoughtless zombie drones to being a so-called logical computer thinking support technician in order not to be laid off when their department is shut down.
Old Union Employees
This photo was titled bringing AT&T overseas jobs back from India in 2008. I bet you they were put into technical support roles. This is a good depiction of the people I worked around. Doesn’t exactly look like a technical bunch does it?
I should clarify there are some really nice people working in these old union grandfathered in positions and they deserve jobs too, I just don’t think this was the way to handle it. It protects people who can’t perform at the customers’ expense. If Large ISP wants to save face and bring overseas jobs back home, they would bring Tier I jobs from India and the Philippines and hire these old union employees in those positions with competitive pay. But remember Tier I is just a customer service agent that reads a programs prompt, so it wouldn’t be much pay.
This is Large ISP’s way of saving money. I was a contractor. Contractors do a 2-year stint in Tier II alongside Union employees. Contractors are hired based on skills so they are not grandfathered in like the Unionized unfireable Brady Bunch up there. Contractors get paid a lot less and receive not a single benefit. Large ISP does this to save money and increase profits for the head dogs.
Because of the vast lack of knowledge within the companies ranks, if it weren’t for outside contractors embedded internally in these departments the numbers would tank and customer satisfaction would go down costing Large ISP billions. So they need underpaid contractors to work these positions. As a contractor, you equalize the departments failing statistics while training the union employees via daily meetings and talking about current issues and solutions.
Also to be fair, not all of the union paper pushers don’t get it. Many learn and retain the information and become better technicians. But for even some of those, it is a matter of “learned” a process rather than a naturally critically thinking computer brained person solving a problem. So they stick to things learned, which still leaves a lot of easy problems unsolved or “Out Of Scope”. Sometimes you gotta just hang up, call back and the next agent solves it in a minute. I’ve been that savior countless times.
Contractors Getting Hired
If you get a contractor, you can be assured that they know much more and were only hired due to their technical skills. We applied for the job via something like Craigslist, passed a phone interview and went into a Staffing Agency where we had to take a basic networking test and interview for the position. After we prove we are worthy of being sent over to the actual company, they reveal it is the largest telecommunication provider in the world and must go there with a large group to take a harder test. In my group, there were about 20 of us, and only me and one other guy passed. If you passed that test, you got to have a real interview with a training manager. The easiest interview I’ve ever had. “You finished first on the test and passed it; we’ll be contacting you.”
You then start your training class, five weeks, 5 test, one week on the floor in “nesting” with hawks over you while you take live calls. You must pass them all or get dropped from the program. You then get placed on a team full of grandfathered in union employees with a manager who couldn’t pass a single test you took over the last month.
Sadly my class did lose a few along the way. Out of my nearly 2 years at this DSL provider, I could easily say that training was by far the best part of the job. You got to learn a new companies system, have fun, make new friends and my trainer was the best. I later learned that the training managers are the only managers in the call center who know anything about computers or networking. Shouts out to Bill, Stephen, and Carlos! I literally started this website while in training, hence the inside joke on the home page. “Cause bill says”.
Call Center Management
While we’re on the topic of management, if you get a bunk support technician and think you can get better help by asking for a manager, DO NOT. The management is the LEAST technical group in the building. I don’t know how massive corporations get away with this stunt but trust me they do.
Your best bet is to hang up on the tech and call right back demanding Tier II. The first tech may also get a bad mark against him for you calling back(Repeat Rates). Anyways, I’ll cover more on that later now that I’m on a rant roll. All I’m saying is do not ask for a manager for help. You will hold a very long time, and they will have not a single answer to help you fix your problem. The tech you could not stand is standing there aiding the manager who knows nothing. There is no one with knowledge above Tier II, so it’s a game of luck.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers!
Management’s only real job is to tell you about your numbers every day. Face to face, printouts, via IM, email, and meetings. We do have daily 15 or so minute meetings(and a weekly hour meeting) where the manager just reads each person’s numbers out loud in an almost humiliating way for some technicians with lower numbers. We talk about what problems are coming in and share answers. This is good for those union employees that would not have figured it out on their own. I am not complaining, just letting you know how it works. I myself loved the daily meetings. I had a funny manager, a good team of nice people whom some I am still friends with and I actually like helping others so I was always bringing my findings to the table.
Numbers, why so many reminders? Each manager in the call center has a team. Your manager is hounded by their managers about their team’s numbers. So this is why they constantly hound us and want to be number one. I’m sure they get bonuses for being number one. We did. Our managers offered us bonuses for being the number one team. For example, if our team makes number one this month, our manager will buy us Philly Cheese Steaks for lunch. So I made this motivational poster to distribute to my team as a joke. Like anyone cares about getting one free lunch for working extra hard.
This was a bummer for me, because as you can see I was the leader and I never got free lunches because of the union grandfathered employees on my team. Nice people, just not performers as you can see.
The numbers people have to worry about are things like Average Call Time, Customer Satisfaction Survey, Call Back or Repeat Rate and such. So pretty much if you do not like the agent you got on the phone, slam him on the survey that is emailed to you and call back to talk to another tech.
Anytime you call back within 24 hours, even if you call back just to say you like the last tech, the computer calls it a repeat and the tech is dinged as soon as your phone number is entered into the system. This has happened to me. But generally, my numbers were at the top of my team if not top of the whole call center(aka world, we’re the biggest) at all times of my contract there. Even as number one technician for the largest super Internet Service Provider in the world I got zero recognition, bonuses or anything from them.
The Call Wait & Process
You call in, go through a ridiculous call prompt, enter all of your information via your telephone and get a Tier I Agent, usually in India. They drill you on all of the stuff you already wasted so much time entering into the system. They do not directly address your issue, they ask a bunch of nonrelated questions. They take 45 minutes of your time before breaking everything by having you hard reset your router or modem then blind transfer you to Tier II. In most cases.
I mean blind, you arrive on our line, and we know nothing about you or your problem, we ask you every question again such as billing telephone number, name, security verification questions and then ask the problem from the beginning. It’s not our fault. The company decided that we are not allowed to talk to Tier I agents to field the issue before the call. When we were allowed to do that I would generally know the problem, accept the call and tell the Tier I agent the solution for next time. I would up train them and be ready for the customer. But with the cold transfers the Tier I agent learned nothing, and I have to annoy the customer all over again.
Why The Cold Transfers?
I’ll admit, in Tier II one of the favorite past times is trash talking Tier I. There is a hate directed towards them. And I get it; they often create more work for us. But I liked talking to them and teaching them. Some Tier I agents would even save my information and IM me(internal IM) in the future asking quick questions, and I was able to help them resolve the problem.
So basically, Tier I used to call with their fake names like Fred, Susan, and Thomas(the real names in the system were way hard to pronounce), talk to Tier II and the Tier II agents fueled by their hatred towards Tier I would ask the wrong questions and reject calls from Tier I saying “you need to go back and try this before transferring”. So the user waited to be transferred to Tier II and Tier II denied the Tier I agent based on their dislike of Tier I and the user waited extra time for nothing. In my case I would have to fight Tier I to get the call because I would say, “oh it’s just this” tell them for next time and they would say “oh! I’ll fix it, thanks!” and I would have to say “No, you are to transfer the call like the rules state”. Because for me it is a super easy quick fix and my numbers go up. So anyway, blind transfers because most of Tier II hates Tier I and refuses to talk to them pretty much. Another reason is that Tier II agents found out if they keep the Tier I agent on the phone for over 2 minutes and THEN rejected the call, it would go towards lowering their average call time so they would try this as often as possible. Numbers without customer satisfaction responsibility.
Tier II Calls
Every single call we get in Tier 2 must have first gone through a Tier I(almost always overseas) call center to get to us. This means the customer has already spent at least 30 minutes on the phone, is already aggravated and their problem is not yet solved. So pretty much they are mad at us from the very begging. But Large ISP has come up with a pretty effective way of deflecting some of that anger back towards India with subliminal racism. We had a very strict unchangeable opening script which had us declare we were in California right away to assure the end user we were competent. We were even told this is why we must declare location first. Customers would often immediately trash Tier 1 / India and praise America and English speaking employees giving us a bit of relief.
Don’t Be The Angry Customer
Because of all that the customer had to deal with to get to you they were almost always upset when you got the call. Some were just distraught and felt helpless and wouldn’t be angry towards you at all but showed more defeat than anything. Either way, it was rare that you got a customer in good spirits.
However, if you the customer relax and allow the tech to try and help you, chances are it’s going to go a lot smoother if you’re nice. In almost every case I turned that beat up end user into a very happy camper.
The only time I was unable to satisfy the customer was when they themselves forgot the “security question” they set up. If this is the case, the tech simply can’t help you, and you must follow whatever ridiculous steps they offer you. Even if they require an old-fashioned fax machine.
I felt really bad for some customers because it was a known fact amongst us Tier 2 agents that the Field Technicians or Tier I phone agents that set the customer up for the first time made up the answers and never informed the customers. However, no one at the Large ISP wanted to admit this, and we just pretend the customer forgot the answer themselves and made them go somewhere to fax in their ID.
After being cold transferred to us and drilled by us again, if you got the right technician then your call should be solved pretty fast, or you will be deemed Out Of Scope pretty fast and sent to a 3rd party paid support system.
Out Of Scope
The ISP will tell you that the connection to the house is good and that it must be an internal problem therefor “Out Of Scope” and they refuse to help you with it.
Why? So they can refer you to third party support contracts that ask you to shell out hundreds of dollars up front without even knowing what the issue is yet.
You would be surprised with how many simple fixes would come my way, but I was not allowed to help the users because management is continuously listening to your calls and forcing you to refer out of scope issues to this other support company. They send you an IM message telling you to refer them to the 3rd party paid support while you are on the phone with the user and you know what the issue is and how to fix it but you can’t because technically it is not the fault of Large ISP.
We can free think and troubleshoot, so if you tell me that you’re getting your email but can’t get to Google, I can start troubleshooting DNS or browser related issues. Tier 1 would ask you if your modem is turned on or if you called before about an install and such. All in all, it’s a straightforward job IF you know what you’re doing. The reason it’s so easy is there are no responsibilities other than numbers, no follow up, no repeat customers or account building. I say this because you answer the random incoming call, get the number, fix it and never hear from them again.
If you can’t fix it you do not have to call them back; you refer them to the 3rd party pay service even if it is Large ISP’s problem. However, I NEVER did this. I was so against referring to the 3rd party system that managers would talk to me about not having sent any customers there(profit). But the truth is, I had no reason to, I knew how to do my job. Non technical union farts would refer people to said company all the time, user would call there, find out the cost of the service(often they were sent there not knowing it was a pay service) and then they would call back Large ISP very angry creating a repeat case, hence the high repeat rates among union employees.
Like I explained the hold time between Tier One and Tier Two used to be the agents arguing back and forth with each other, Tier 1 getting hung up on and having to call back to get a new Tier 2 agent. Large ISP fixed that by instating “cold transfers” eliminating the communication link between India and the US. But you may notice we place you on hold a bit. Why? Well because we are running a test, diagnosing, investigating the line status and so on. We do this with you on mute, not hold. We can hear everything you say, all the trash talking. But it’s ok, we’re talking to our cubicle neighbors about you as well and maybe even keeping you on the line just long enough so that we can get our break/lunch or get off on time. If we hold you for those 15 unnecessary minutes it could prevent us from getting another long call forcing us to work overtime. Or vice versa, you could be our forced overtime call and we’re milking you for as much time and a half as we can before leaving for the day.
Department Wars & Miss Transferring Calls
So so so many incorrectly transferred calls. The problem at Large ISP is that there is no responsibility and people are scared of numbers. People transfer you away to the wrong department all of the time because if they get you off of their line(to decrease average call time), then you are no longer their problem. Unless of course you somehow get transferred back to the department and repeat them. The customer pays dearly for this game and wastes up to 45 minutes holding just to be in the wrong place.
Getting a Truck Roll
When you are forced to call another department such as maintenance to get a technician dispatched for an outside line issue then you better be ready for WAR amongst that internal department. Just like like Tier 2 rejects Tier 1 calls, maintenance rejects Tier 2 calls. I don’t know what their motivation for this is but I feel it had to do with numbers on their end. For example, if they do schedule a “truck roll” and it turns out it was not needed they get dinged. Which makes sense. Because of these numbers, they are very militant towards the Tier II techs requesting tech rolls. They will no doubt just hang up on you in many cases. And you the Tier II agent know the user needs a truck roll and you know if you cold transfer the customer to maintenance there is a high chance the customer won’t know what to say and end up being sent back to tech support creating a repeat. So now your average call times are going up because you are forced to hold for maintenance, explain the problem, combat them, maybe have to call back again and get another agent to create a truck roll.
In maintenance defense, the union grandfathered support techs sent invalid escalations regularly because they don’t know any better. Some do it on purpose because the trouble ticket takes time to carry out and by the time the truck rolls(maybe a few days later), finds out the problem is for our department and sends the customer back to Tier II, the repeat window has passed. Again, no responsibility and avoidance of numbers. We used to be able to ship replacement modems out until bunk Tier II agents used the “bad modem” excuse for anyone they wanted off the line. Sending out replacement modems like candy only to find out the issue was not the modem and the customer would have to call back. But this would be outside of the repeat rate time frame and the bunk Tier II agent was safe while the customer paid.
Customers really would love me, it became apparent early on in the call I knew what I was doing, and I was there to help the user and may not even like the Large ISP that I am working for. If a technician did do a great job, and it all felt so natural, then at the end of the call they get all awkward and say an exact phrase like “I hope you’re very satisfied with my service today”, it’s because they are forced to go back into generic script mode by the managers to wrap the call, making the whole experience go back to a fake forced feeling. But if you get the survey in your email and like the tech, 100% is the only answer. If you give them a 90% they are dinged. If you did not like the tech, 0% them, they will hear it from management and look like a fool when numbers are read out to the whole team.
Employees Treated Poorly
This has got to be the worst system for employees. Someone like me, with the best numbers in the call center, gets the worst(random) shift. When I left there, I was working 10am-3pm, off from 3 pm to 7 pm and on again from 7 pm to midnight. Before that, it was 7am-4pm. I had to wake up at 4:30 am and take public transportation a long way to get there on time every day, but I did. You must be early, and you can not leave early. In fact, every day requires overtime because you are usually stuck on a call when your time passes.
Why such a terrible shift for someone on top of the numbers pyramid? Because it goes by “seniority” and us contractors get random jacked up hours while the Union employees with terrible numbers get to pick any shift they want. No respect for the knowledgeable hardworking. We’re only there to protect the Union folks while keeping call center numbers up.
Super Strict Attendance?
A quote I got from one of my fellow contractors’ employees while working there. “I never knew the value of a single minute until I worked for Large ISP.” So true.
I mean attendance is important anywhere but these guys were so to the minute it was stressful. Your phone records everything. You can not go to the bathroom without first punching a code in your phone and it will notify the Work Force Masters(they have a department and they sit and watch you) if you are gone for (x) amount of time. You are limited by the number of times you can take that “health break”. If you do take health breaks you are hounded by management and your “efficiency” goes down. Yet another stat. So you do not get to get up, walk to the water cooler, visit a co-worker to talk or anything. You must punch out a code at all times and use only an allocated amount of time for that code. There is a giant red scrolling LED marque posted in all areas of the sea of cubicles saying how many calls are in the queue and it’s almost always flashing red AHOD(All Hands On Deck). After each call, you have only 2 minutes to “wrap”, add notes and such before you are expected to hit the ready button and get a new cold transfer call immediately. No minutes of downtime ever.
WFM aka Work Force Masters
The phone reports everything to WFM, who sits in a room with the easy job of making sure your job is hard.
They can see all call lengths, health breaks, wrap times, call times, etc.
They IM you all the time with stupid questions about your call as if they would know what you were talking about anyways. They also like to remind you if your wrap time is 3 minutes instead of 2 minutes. Sometimes you just have to finish noting the account before taking another call.
Work EVERY Holiday
Contractors were also forced to work every single holiday, no ifs and or buts. Some of these holidays would be the slowest days of the year with up to 35 minutes between calls yet Work Force Masters couldn’t figure out scheduling. It was really bad and so mismanaged and wrongful how they treat their good employees.
Cut From The Outside World
While you’re in this sea of cubicles you are not allowed to use the internet. How ironic is that? We’re the ones fixing other peoples internet connections but we ourselves are blocked from most sites and the outside world. In the building cell phone service only worked if your phone was on a contract from Large ISP. It felt as if they had jammers in the building to prevent others because as soon as you went outside you would get your single back and all of your text. I found a way around this trap by setting up a “test modem” to secretly cast a wireless channel that a few of us had access to. Management wouldn’t have figured it out or who did it in a million years.
I Liked It
I could go on and on and may add more to this article later, but for now, that’s the general basis of what goes on inside a call center.
All in all working there, I liked it. The job was so easy(for me), and I do like to compete and track statistics, so being number one was a goal. But the pay was WAY too low, zero benefits and the hours were the worst shifts I’ve had in my life. But the work was elementary, the end users were happy when I fixed their problems. My customer satisfaction surveys were always 100%.
I like helping people, and I actually made this site, StickyStatic while I was working there in training there for some of my co-workers. Some people were having a hard time remembering basics, so I started the site to help them with networking commands.
About the union employees and the extremely noncomputer savvy management, they were not evil people or stupid people. I liked everyone I worked with.
Especially my training managers and my teams’ manager. It’s not their fault they had to follow such idiotic protocols. And my team members were good people too. It’s also not their fault that computers were not their original field and some people can’t just learn to be a network troubleshooting technical thinking guru no matter how hard you train them(it takes a specific person). Large ISP just went about it all wrong, and the knowledgeable contractors suffer the most. The customers suffer pretty hard too.
If a manager was not YOUR manager they were evil and a threat. Unfriendly and looking for ways to harm the other managers’ teams. I think it goes back to the bonuses thing. There was one manager who fired people for reading books in between calls.
I should probably say this is fictional and even if any specific ISP was mentioned this is not about them and this was written as a story. Any mention of specific characters, support roles, positions, call centers, images or user roles is purely coincidence or an example. If it were true it would have been back in 2009, so maybe things have changed, but it doesn’t seem like it.
I hope you were very satisfied with my insider knowledge.