'Help'

Whom do you call when the disk drive bites the dog? Tech support! They try not to laugh.

January 17, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Did you hear the one about the stressed-out fellow who rang tech support looking for the "Any" key because his computer ordered him to "Hit any key?"

How about the seamstress who set up her new PC with the mouse under the desk because she thought it was a foot pedal?

Or the caffeine addict who called to complain that his cup holder was broken. You know, the one that slides out of your computer--

If these sound like urban legends of the Digital Age, spend an evening with James Copeland, an 18-year-old tech support staffer at Absolute Quality Inc. in Hunt Valley.

Copeland and his colleagues handle distress calls for customers of popular software publishers such as Hasbro Interactive, Lego, and Scholastic. They've heard it all: Parents swearing a blue streak, panting phone sex operators, blubbering babies and blubbering adults.

In the world of high technology, where software wizards and engineers grab the glory, tech support staffers take the blame for the software bugs and design goofs that drive users crazy. At no time is this more apparent than now, in the weeks after Christmas, when company tech support operations -- and customer frustration -- are at their peak.

"Tech support is not for everyone," says Steve Martin, co-founder of Absolute Quality, whose 148 employees spend half their time testing games and the other half living with the results.

"It's like, `Oh, boy, I get to talk to a crazed lunatic about how some game stinks -- and then they're going to yell at me as if I developed it.'"

It's no surprise that tech support staffers are perpetually in short supply. "Burnout tends to be a problem," says analyst Eric Rocco of Dataquest.

On a typical day, Copeland and his colleagues field up to 500 calls from a warren of cubicles papered with posters of pro wrestlers and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, as well as thank-you notes from grateful callers they've rescued from the brink of disaster.

Around Christmas, call volume shoots up to 5,000 a day, a sizeable number but still a drop in the bucket compared to Microsoft, which draws 29,000 calls on an average day.

With so many callers on hold, Microsoft even created a radio station to entertain them. A staff of seven DJs (or "Queue-Js" as they're known in the trade), offers a mixture of quiet rock, plugs for Microsoft Web sites and most important, estimates their wait times.

"It's kind of like a traffic report," says station manager Debbie Letterman. "We even have people who will call back and say, 'Put me back on hold because I want to hear what that song was.'"

In Hunt Valley, Copeland doesn't have a radio station to soothe his customers. And Kimberly, calling for the third or fourth time for help with a game she bought her kids for Christmas, certainly needs soothing.

Slouching over his keyboard, Copeland rifles through an online database of common problems for each of the 225 titles the company supports, including popular games such as Scrabble, Rollercoaster Tycoon and Frogger. But after 32 minutes helping Kimberly update her sound and video drivers without success, he's stumped.

"If you can't pinpoint a problem, it's frustrating," he says.

In tough cases like these, Absolute Quality troubleshooters sometimes build a computer to match the one a caller has on his desktop--a silicon petri dish to experiment with possible fixes. To that end, they maintain an inventory of computers that ranges from the latest AppleG4 to decade-old museum pieces, as well as a storeroom stocked with most of the audio and video circuit boards on the market.

Occasionally, troubleshooters encounter problems they can't solve. That's when they call Joe Aliberti, a 20-year-old wizard with a shaggy beard and ponytail. He so good he gets his own office.

"He's our last line of defense," says tech support manager Randy Denmyer.

Aliberti specializes in "rebuilds." That's a euphemism for what happens when a program trashes critical system files and the computer expires altogether. Aliberti calmly leads the victims on a journey deep into the recesses of their machines, into the world of BIOS and Windows Registry, where even many programmers fear to tread.

One rebuild took more than nine hours over three days. And most of the people he deals with, Alberti says, barely "know their left click from their right."

"I tell them, `This is brain surgery. If you mess up, your computer's not going to be able to see or talk. So do as I say.'"

But troubleshooting can be more than mere technology. Sometimes the job can get a bit steamy.

One call to Absolute came from a phone sex operator who was having trouble with a game. During the repair session, she would occasionally excuse herself, switch phones, and resume heavy-breathing sessions with her clients.

Then there was the woman who told staffer Ruben Brown that he had a sexy voice, and by the way, was he married?

When she talked about dropping by for a visit, "I told her we were at a satellite location in Puerto Rico," Brown recalled.

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