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Life as an Internet Support Technician

September 17, 2003

This month marks my fourth year doing phone Internet tech support. And, in less than three weeks, it will all be over. I can’t say the time has flown, but, looking back, I have gone through so much! 

The other night I had a call that reminded me of how far I’ve come. The customer started in yelling at me, and never did quiet down long enough for me to explain things to her. When I finally turned her over to a supervisor, she continued yelling till the supervisor finally told her to shut up (something I was not allowed to do). Even two years ago, I would have been a nervous wreck after a call like that. Now, I just sat there shaking my head and wondering how a grown adult could honestly think yelling and screaming at me was going to get her better customer service. Did she honestly have no clue how immature and pathetic she sounded?

This is an experiment. Invite a friend who has never visited you to your home. Stand in the living room. Send your friend into the kitchen, and talk them through finding a certain utensil in a specific drawer. (No cheating by peeking to see where they are actually looking!) That will give you an idea what it’s like to do telephone tech support.

Wandering back to my first years at this job... Now I can look back and say, yes, we really are stronger than we ever imagine. How a little country mouse, a painfully shy person who is uncomfortable with strangers and doesn’t even like to talk on the phone ended up doing tech support… Well, all I can say is, you do what you have to do to survive, and when I took this job I was pretty close to the end of my rope. I guess you could say this job was my knot. It kept me from sliding off the end, but it didn’t do a thing to help me get back up to the top.

I will never forget my first sup call. A “sup call,” to the uninitiated, is some variation of, “I demand to speak to your supervisor!!!” Could I get a “normal” sup call, with a customer complaining about the hold time or how long his service has been down? Of course not! I had to get a total nutcase, still one of the absolute worst calls I’ve ever taken. He had had his computer formatted and was back on the Internet, only he had lost the location to a chat room he wanted. I was supposed to help him get back to that chat room. He demanded that I help him get back to that chat room, never mind that he couldn’t even tell me the name of it or even any part of the address and it was way outside our support boundaries. Every objection, every single explanation I tried to give was met with the same answer bellowed at me: “I HAVE BRAIN DAMAGE!!! I HAVE THE MIND OF A FIVE-YEAR-OLD!” Freaky, yes. Keep in mind, I’d only been taking calls for a week or so, and was still pretty much clueless about everything. I was terrified. Of course, if I took a call like that these days, I would probably get myself in trouble with some smart remark like if he has the mind of a five-year-old, what business does he have going into chat rooms anyway? Sometimes it pays to trigger them to either demand a sup or hang up on you, because there are some customers you just can’t deal with. But I didn’t know that then. I was still trying to be perfect. I was in tears by the time a sup took over, and just shaking.

And then there was Vicky. No offense to anybody named Vicky who happens to call tech support, but I still can’t hear a customer say, “This is Vicky” without getting cold chills down my spine, even two years later. Vicky was the most famous nutcase our company has ever known. Not to insult people with mental instabilities, but a paranoid schizophrenic such as she was should not have been calling tech support herself. Especially not one so totally computer clueless. Trust me, the combination is very bad. She would call up, totally freaking out, over the least little thing, at least once a night, sometimes many times a night, for about a six-month period. It got so we could tell when a tech had a Vicky call from the level of frustration in their voice. 

The first time I talked to her, she was panicking because she had received a mailer daemon error. You’ve all seen the cute little message, something to the effect of: “I’m sorry I was unable to deliver your message. I’ve given up. This is a permanent error...” Uh-huh. Some person out there was refusing to deliver her e-mail to her sister in Germany, and it was a “permanent error.” She was afraid she would never get to talk to her sister again. She was in tears. No, I did not manage to explain to her about ‘bots that send automatic messages like that. Well, I tried, but it only freaked her out more to think that there was “something” out there reading her e-mail. Then there were the times she called up because she couldn’t connect, and she “knew” we had a little button to push to let her get back on the Internet. It was almost always her errors in dialing up to the Internet or sending e-mail that caused her problems, but she would call up and totally go off on us. I remember I had a trainee listening to my calls--his very first day of listening to calls!--and I got her. He sat there totally poleaxed, listening to her heap abuse on my head, cussing out me and all techs up one side and down the other. Because I “refused” to push that little button to let her get back on the Internet. Poor guy. I’m surprised he didn’t quit on the spot! 

She liked me, though. And I was the only one who ever helped her. She “lost” her address book, and I managed to extract the information from her that it had only contained three addresses to begin with, and I talked her through recreating it. She was forever grateful to me for “finding” her address book. When I got off the call, I stood up and yelled, “I made Vicky happy!” And I got a standing ovation from the techs in the cubes around me.

Eventually she became so abusive that we refused to accept calls from her--her husband or son had to call in. And why didn’t they do the calling in the first place? I have no idea, but I have to reluctantly admire her independence and determination to face her own Internet demons.

Is it any wonder that I have an attitude about this job? Or that I’m fascinated with psychology?

Occasionally, the nasty calls turned out to be my favorites. I took a call and tried to work through my opening script…

“Can I get your name, please?”

“For the eleventh time…”

“And the business telephone number on this account?”

“For the eleventh time…”

I made my way through the script despite his snarling over how many times he’d had to call us, and finally got down to his current issue. His e-mail was not allowing him to type.

Cringing, expecting to get my head bitten off, I timidly asked him to check the connection to the keyboard. Grudgingly, he agreed.

He came back on the phone with a complete attitude change. “I have egg all over my face,” he announced sheepishly.

After all his ranting, they had been moving furniture and the keyboard had gotten unplugged. I had to give him credit, though. If it had been me, I think I would have “accidentally” disconnected the call rather than admit getting so upset over something that turned out to be my own fault!

When I got this job, I had no clue that a crucial aspect of it would be the ability to visualize the person at the other end of the phone and figure out what they were actually doing. I came to almost develop a sixth sense about it. And then there was learning how to ask ridiculously-specific questions.

“Where, exactly, is the error message?”

“In the middle of my screen!”

And there were the customers who barely knew how to turn on a computer.

Verbatim from a call I took one day:

“What Windows are you running?”


Which Windows are you running?”

“I don’t know.”

“OK, never mind. Double click on My Computer.”

“I don’t see it. Where is it?”

“On your desktop.”

“What is that?”

Don’t get me wrong. I do respect the fact that not everybody is a computer expert. I, personally, know nothing about cars, and have no interest in learning about them.


I do know how to start and stop my car properly, where the gas and brake are, and even how to check my oil and add windshield washer fluid. It totally baffles me that so many people are content to just “drive” their computer, barely capable of turning it on and maybe checking e-mail. If I take on something new, I expect there to be a learning curve, and I expect to have to put a little time and effort into learning to use it properly, even if I never learn all there is to learn about it.

And I would certainly never call my mechanic for driving lessons!

Then there are the unexpected calls that almost make it worth it.

One time I took a call to hear a customer scolding somebody in the background. “No, Jared, you may not pet the fish!” You know I had to ask. And she proceeded to list all the strange things her four-year-old had attempted to feed the goldfish and which things it liked and which it didn’t. Killed my talk time, but it made my day!

A customer had been unable to connect for a week, and had even been escalated to Tier 2. Had she made sure the phone cord was plugged in? Yes, many times, every tech asked her that.

“OK, humor me. Trace the phone cord all the way from the back of your computer to the wall.”

She had a phone cord plugged into the right jack in her computer. She had a phone cord plugged into the right jack in the wall. It just wasn’t the same phone cord!

The same customer continued on to tell me that the last time she’d called any tech support was to call the gas company to see if it would be OK for her to Vaseline her gas meter.


She explained, she had had a peeping tom, and the police seemed incapable of doing anything no matter how many times she called them. The bedroom window was rather high up, so she figured he must be standing on the gas meter. So… She put Vaseline on the gas meter. Sure enough, that night she heard a thump. And the next day she watched to see which of her neighbors was walking funny. And then she called the police and told them not to bother about it. “I know who it is, and I’m not afraid of him!”

People can’t figure out why I hate a job where I can sit and play on the Internet (within reason) and do crafts or read all night long. And, I’ll admit, that part has me spoiled. The problem is, when I am on a call, it’s extremely high stress, all focus and call control and using all my training, deductive reasoning, and troubleshooting skills to figure out and fix whatever is wrong, all the while using major customer service skills to keep the customer calm and cooperative. It takes some training and a lot of experience to do what I do as well as I do it. 

For your amusement, here is what a typical call goes like:

First I have to translate what the customer tells me into what’s really happening. Usually he or she will start the call in one of two ways:

First is the clueless secretary or business owner who happens to be the only one in the office, “We can’t connect!”

Which I have to narrow down. “What are the green LNK lights on the modem doing? What error message do you get when you try to pull up a page?”

“What’s the modem?”

“Do you see a little black box with lights on it that says Cisco?”

“Oh, OK!”

“Unplug the power cord.”

“Which one is the power cord?”

“The black one that doesn’t look like a phone cord.”

Or their internal tech support person will start with technobabble, trying to impress me with how much they know. “I can’t ping outside the LAN. I can’t reach the gateway.” And they usually feel obligated to offer a solution as well: “I don’t think our static IPs are working.”

Those ones I have to take down a notch to get them to shut up and let me ask the questions instead of listening to their theories. “In other words, you can't connect.”

“Yes, I can’t ping outside the LAN. I think the gateway’s not working.”

Then it’s my turn to get rapid-fire technical, to convince them I know what I’m talking about. Just because I don’t feel the need to express myself in technical jargon doesn’t mean I can’t sling jargon with the best of them. “Let me do some testing here... DSLAM shows that you’re trained... Hmm... I need to see if you’re hitting RADGREP. Can you power cycle the Cisco for me? OK... I see you hitting... Now let me ping you... Are you running a firewall?”

Then I have to question them in such a way that I get only the relevant information. “What are the WAN LNK and the LAN LNK lights doing on the Cisco?”

“The ACT lights are blinking ‘blink-pause-blink-pause...’ and we have five computers hooked up through a LinkSys router...”

“What are the WAN LNK and LAN LNK lights doing on the Cisco?”

“...We’re using DHCP to hand out IPs from the router, and the Windows 2000 machine is also set up as a server...”

“What are the WAN LNK and LAN LNK lights doing on the Cisco?”

“Oh! They’re solid.” (Which I already knew, because the ACT—activity—lights wouldn’t have been blinking otherwise, but I need to control the conversation and not let the customer run away with it.)

“OK. Unplug the power cord from the back of the Cisco.”

“What’s that going to do? I’ve already rebooted it.”

“Have you unplugged the power cord?”


“Then you haven’t power cycled it. It’s not the same thing as rebooting. Now, unplug the power cord from the back of the Cisco.”

And then the payoff…

“OK, can you browse the Internet now?”

Pause. “Yes! Thank you!!! That was it???”

“Yep, that was it.”


And, once in a very rare while, we get a call that really does make it all worth it.

The other day a coworker got a call from the U.S. Mint.

Their Internet was down.

It turns out they had been disconnected for nonpayment.

In what other line of work could you get a call like that?