I reckon that more than half of all of us are frustrated by poor ISP support and dread having to contact them

We all know the scene: something’s gone wrong with your internet connection and you want to pursue it with your provider. It goes something like this:

HurdlesHurdle 1: you can’t find a phone number for technical support. Many organisations with an online presence (not just ISPs) try to reduce the number of cries for help that actual reach human ears by making their customers jump through hoops such as “have you looked at our FAQs page?” After that, you may have to fill in a complicated form that only allows you to express your problem in the pre-defined terms of the form instead of wording it the way you want. Eventually, you may be lucky and be given the option to call a number. I wonder what percentage of initial calls they have weeded out before a call is even made? As I’ve suggested in a recent blog post, googling for “tech support” followed by the name of the organisation might find you a number.

Hurdle 2: the phone number you finally find is a premium number
and you resent paying £1 or £1.50 per minute to have a problem rectified that is the ISP’s responsibility. I will always try to beat this one by using a smartphone app that tries to find an alternative number, whose use is free as it’s within your allowance (see WeQ4U, for instance).

Hurdle 3: You finally get a phone connection, but it’s to an automated service
that forces you to choose a menu option. This wouldn’t be so bad if they told you at the start how many options they are about to provide. How often have you listened for what you want, only to find it never occurs and you didn’t make a mental note of what might have been the best alternative?

I try to jot down the options as they say them. If this doesn’t work and they don’t offer to repeat them, just hold on and they will probably either repeat the options or put you through to a human. If this just gets too frustrating (and assuming you have access to a web browser with an internet connection) just google for “sales mynemesis” where “mynemesis” is the organisation in question. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to find a sales telephone number and a human being to answer the phone. You can then ask to be re-routed to a support person.

Indian Call CentreHurdle 4: You finally get through to a human being who identifies himself as “Kevin” but seems to be talking like a cross between Stanley Unwin and Peter O’Sullevan (remember them?). He (or she) may think (s)he is speaking English as an English person would, but (s)he isn’t. When this happens to me, I have no problem whatever in asking them to please repeat what they said and to say it slower as I’m having trouble understanding them. I will do this as often as necessary during the conversation and will not feel embarrassed to do so.

Hurdle 5: Kevin then insists on repeating back to you the situation you have just explained and promises that he is “absolutely going to help you with this matter”. He then asks you to confirm that his confirmation of what you just said is correct. Not sure about you, but this is where I’m starting to lose it. I haven’t found a clever way of dealing with this hurdle except hissing “yes” at him through gritted teeth. He won’t continue until you do confirm his confirmation, so you might as well bite the bullet, play his game, and attempt to be gracious and dignified.

Hurdle 6: Kevin then insists – absolutely insists – that you tell him you are now carrying out the same ten tests/tweaks/fiddles that you tried ten times before you eventually gave in and started this process of contacting him. There is nothing you can do here except play along with his game. I’ve lost count of the number of times my computer support clients have asked me to help because they can’t bear to phone their ISP for help, only for me to be told to repeat all the steps I’ve already tried. It’s no good saying to them “Trust me, I’m an IT Consultant”: that little joke just plummets into the cultural divide.

The key thing to remember with Hurdles 5 and 6 is that Kevin is following instructions on a screen. Although (s)he is a highly capable graduate doing a job that is well-paid in the place he resides, he knows that his supervisor is quite possibly listening in to what he is doing and it really is more than his job is worth to try to use his/her initiative or to try to take shortcuts through the process. We are not dealing with a “free human being” here: we are dealing with a human being who is just a part of the machine. You can just imagine what Kafka or Orwell might have said.

Jumping through Hoops

Hurdles and hoops. The metaphors may be mixed, but the reality is depressingly similar amongst most ISPs.

Hurdle 7: Kevin admits that the ten things he’s insisted you check (again) haven’t revealed the problem and he’s now going to “escalate your issue to the next level”. However did that phrase gain currency? He means, of course, “I’m going to pass you to someone else, who is trained in a slightly different microscopic slice of the whole process”.

Hurdles 8, 9, 10: repeat Hudle 7, through “ever escalating levels” until some kind of decison or answer is reached, or until you lose the will to live.

This whole sorry scene is surely one of the worst aspects of our techological age. What it all boils down to is, of course, money.

Take my own ISP, for instance – Zen internet. Although I don’t think they are as brilliant with customer support as they used to be, they are still much better than most. Until I upgraded today, I have been paying £16.25 plus VAT per month for a 35mbit/sec fibre optic connection with a download limit of 50gb per month. This is a lot more expensive than some providers, but think about the total package.

This comes to £234 per annum. Now imagine that I have just two “issues” per annum that require half an hour each of Zen’s time to resolve. If we assume that Zen’s employees cost them (say) £20000 per annum (Zen support is – unusually, but thankfully – sited in the UK) then that hour of support has probably cost about £30 (including overheads for that employee). To put it another way, every hour of customer support costs them more than 10% of what I pay them annually. It wouldn’t take many big issues in the course of a year for me to be an unprofitable customer. And if I was only paying half as much for my internet provision (say £10 per month), then each hour of support that I need in the course of a year could soak up 25% of their income from me.

These figures are, of course, estimates but I think they demonstrate just how important it is for the profitability of ISPs to be maximised by reducing as far as possible the number of phone calls they have to deal with and “de-skilling” the support they provide as far as possible. If they can deal with 50% of problems by making the customer jump through the same hoops that some of them already tried, and employing a “lesser skilled” person to handle that 50%, then they are going to save money in a very important area. Being prepared to pay more for your internet provision can mean you get a better level of support.

When it comes down to support from your internet provider, you get what you pay for.

Recently, I blogged about the Windows Snipping Tool and how convenient it is for grabbing a copy of all or part of a screen. This is fine for normal purposes, when everything is behaving normally . . .

A dreaded BSOD (blue screen of death).

. . . but what happens if you suddenly see the dreaded “blue screen of death”? Sometimes a simple re-boot is enough to sort the problem, but if you see the BSOD again you will probably need to investigate. You will quite possibly need some help as to what to do next and how to get to the bottom of the problem. It would be very handy if you could use the “Snipping Tool” (or Gadwin PrintScreen, that I blogged about here ), but you can’t. The BSOD means you can’t do anything except switch off and back on again. And if you do re-boot after seeing a BSOD it’s quite possible that you will see some kind of message that relates to the problem that caused the BSOD. Once again, you probably won’t be able to use a normal Windows tool to grab the contents of the screen.

This happened to a client of mine last week. She valiantly tried to write down the gobbledeygook she saw on the BSOD and the screens that showed on re-boot, but I was unable to persuade Dell Technical Support that these suggested we’d got a hardware problem. The “PC Check” software that was installed on the machine gave the system a clean bill of health so Dell insisted that it must be a software problem and that the only thing to do was re-install everything from scratch.

I wasn’t at all convinced that it was a software problem. It wasn’t consistent, and I had already re-installed the driver (software that manages hardware) that related to the hardware mentioned in the error message. I had also looked elsewhere for possible causes. Nevertheless, we decided to follow Dell’s advice and re-install.

Photograph of the first screen after the BSOD

Fast forward to my next visit a few days later to begin the re-installation and, luckily, the intermittent problem cropped up for me (I hadn’t seen it before). And this is when I had a very simple (but you may say “obvious”) flash of inspiration. I used my smartphone to take pictures of the two screens that came up after re-booting following a BSOD. Unfortunately, I couldn’t examine the BSOD itself as it just flashed up and was gone. Then I phoned Dell Technical Support and arranged to email these photos to the technician I was speaking with. Wonder of wonders! After a break of about 10 minutes she came back on the line and admitted that we had a hardware problem! I won’t dwell on the fact that she then tried to convince me that we didn’t have an onsite warranty. I’ve learned before that it’s well worth checking the details of your warranty before calling on hardware support from the supplier. We had done that in this case so I knew I was arguing from strength when I asked for an engineer. The engineer arrived, as arranged, the following day and he fixed the problem.

Photograph of the second screen after the BSOD

That still left the client with no installed programs or data (as a new drive had been installed), but at least it meant that we hadn’t reinstalled everything only to find the problem was still there.

Smartphones are great for this situation because they make it very easy to email a picture. You could do it with an ordinary digital camera but then you’d have to upload the pictures to a computer and attach them to an email (which would be impossible, of course, if you only have one computer and it’s currently very poorly). You just need to take a reasonable amount of care when taking the picture so that any text on the screen will be legible in the photograph.

So, this was a lot of words to explain something very simple, but I think it’s worth it because it could often make a fraught experience a little easier. I’m not suggesting you should always have a camera at the ready next to your computer, but if you should remember this trick when a problem arises, it might make computer support from the likes of Dell a lot easier. It might also help when you wish me to support you with computer problems. I’d certainly be happy to try it and neither digital photos nor emails cost anything!

Do you regularly want to copy a file to a specific folder? I’ve often noticed during 1:1 computer training sessions that people have their own way of filing that could benefit from a simple tweak to Windows Explorer.

Here are a couple of examples from my own working habits:

  • I often want to make a file available to my other computers. Since I use Dropbox, all I need to do is place the file in my dropbox folder and it will be automatically synchronised to my other computers. So, I want a quick way of copying my file into my Dropbox folder. I’m still a big fan of Dropbox, by the way. Here are my first and second blogs on the subject.
  • I create and download a lot of pdf files. I may well have them filed “by function” (eg a pdf file relating to a specific computer support client might be in the folder dedicated to that client). But if the file has more general application then I might also want it in a folder containing nothing other than pdf files (since I can often remember that a file I’m looking for is in a pdf format even if I can’t remember its name or where else I’ve put it). So, I might want a quick way of copying a pdf file from a specific client folder to my “pdf file store” (which, as it happens, is a specific folder inside my Dropbox folder).

So, what we need to do is to personalise a Windows “context menu” so that when we’ve selected a file in Windows Explorer we can easily send a copy of that file to a folder that we’ve previously defined as a destination for a “send to” action. A “context menu”, by the way, is a menu whose contents are dependent on the current context – ie the sort of item it includes depends on what you were doing when you invoked it. The context menu is invoked by right-clicking on the selected item.

Personalising the “send to” option is quite easy. Just follow the instructions for your own operating system:

Windows XP

  • Click the Start button.
  • Click Run.
  • In the Open box, type “sendto” (without the quotes), and then click OK.
  • Right-click on a blank part of the window that has opened.
  • Left-click on the “new” option.
  • Left-click on the “shortcut” option.
  • Left-click on the “browse” button.
  • Navigate to the folder you wish to add to the “send to” menu.
  • Click “OK”, “Next” & “Finish”.
  • Close the “SendTo” window.


Vista and Windows 7

  • Click on the Start button.
  • Type “shell:sendto” (without the quotes) into the search box.
  • Click on the shell:sendto option that is now listed above the search box.
  • Right-click on a blank part of the window that has opened.
  • Left-click on the “new” option.
  • Left-click on the “shortcut” option.
  • Left-click on the “browse” button.
  • Navigate to the folder you wish to add to the “send to” menu.
  • Click “OK”, “Next” & “Finish”.
  • Close the “SendTo” window.

Now, whenever you want to copy a file to that chosen destination, just right-click on the file, left-click the “send to” option, and then left-click on the sub-option you have just created (as below):

SendTo Menu

Some purists might say that this is all wrong: that instead of copying files all over the place we should be creating shortcuts that point to the one and only original file. I would agree with this when the file in question is one that’s often changed/updated after its creation. There’s nothing worse than having multiple versions of files all over the place and never knowing which is the latest version. If you need to get quick access to such files then the easiest way is just to place a shortcut on the desktop and access it from there. The “sendto” technique is better kept for files that are unlikely to change often – in which case, the “sendto” technique is much quicker than creating shortcuts and saves precious space on the desktop. As for not creating copies of files because that’s a waste of hard disc space, that’s only really an issue if you are definitely short of space.

Just to come back to Dropbox, for a moment. If you click here to create a Dropbox account you will receive 2.25gb free space instead of the normal 2gb.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Single candle on calendarIt’s a year since I started writing this blog every week. Before that I’d just dipped my toe in the water, wondering if I’d got anything useful to say on a regular basis to my computer support clients and potential clients. So, this week I thought I’d have a look back on some of the earlier posts and see what’s changed.

Microsoft Security Essentials

MSE LogoOn 16th October 2010 I wrote a post about Windows free antivirus program – Microsoft Microsoft Essentials. I had just installed it on an XP machine, and then I put it on my Vista Ultimate machine. It hasn’t caused me any problems apart from the tray icon disappearing initially on the XP version. The program just quietly gets on with the job. It’s caught a few nasties and seems to have dealt with them without drama. Admittedly, I don’t use these machines much except when providing remote computer support to clients who use Vista and XP themselves, and as destinations for backups from my main machine. Nevertheless, it appears to have done a near perfect job so far. It’s easy to install and very unobtrusive.

I now trust Microsoft Essentials to the extent that I have installed it on my new main laptop – a Samsung RF511 15.6 inch notebook. (This is my third Samsung and, so far, it’s as good as the first two.)

AVG Antivirus

AVG LogoShortly after blogging about Microsoft Security Essentials I covered AVG Free and even then I was complaining about how they try to mislead you into installing a trial of the paid version rather than installing/upgrading the free version. It’s my impression that this tendency has got worse during the last year and, frankly, I’m now too embarrassed to recommend it to clients unless I think they will be happy to do battle with AVG’s mis-directions. Recently, I’ve even seen AVG popups that suggest that AVG has saved the user from innumerable threats in the recent past. This is un-necessary, intimidating and misleading. I’d been recommending AVG for several years, but I now recommend Microsoft Security Essentials instead.

Zen Internet

Zen Internet Logoon 5th November last year I gave a plug, by way of a blog posting, to Zen Internet. They’d just won PC Pro Magazine’s award for Best Internet Provider for the seventh time. Guess what: they’ve just done it again.

As a consultant providing computer support to small organisations, independent professionals, and home users, I am often the person asked to deal with internet provider call centres on behalf of bemused and frustrated clients. I have some clients who call me to their homes and offices specifically to deal with these call centres because they find the experience too stressful, frustrating, and protracted to do it themselves.

Call centres appear to be geared to handling the maximum number of technical support calls with the minimum expertise. The way they do this is to force their support staff to follow a strict troubleshooting sequence that doesn’t require them to think: just to follow the instructions on their screen. The agent isn’t allowed to deviate from “the script”. so no real dialogue takes place with the client. It doesn’t seem to matter very much what the customer tells the “support agent”, the agent will still insist on making the poor client jump through exactly the same sequence of hoops every time. This approach tramples right over the customer’s primacy in the exchange. It’s appalling, frustrating and dis-empowering.

Compare this approach with that of Zen Internet. Their support people (based in Rochdale) actually listen to you, engage with you, and address your issue as a one-off that needs to be solved as such. It’s true that they don’t offer 24 hour support (it’s 08:00-20:00 weekdays and 09:00-17:00 at weekends), but that’s probably because they’re staffed by human beings – who need to sleep. Despite only being available during reasonable hours, Zen provide a much much better service than the likes of BT, Virgin and AOL. It’s true, though, that Zen are not competing on price. You won’t get broadband from them for a fiver a month. I use the Zen Lite service. It’s their “entry level” service and costs £15.31 plus VAT per month. It only includes 10gb downloads, but that’s fine for me as I don’t download movies or watch BBC iPlayer. As far as I am concerned Zen are worth every penny and I am happy to keep recommending them and plugging them.

So, as I’ve kept blogging on a weekly basis for a year there’s every chance I’ll stay with it. The readership is small but very very select! Actually, the readership is growing slowly and steadily, but I’ve not spent time and effort promoting it beyond the readers who matter most – my own computer clients and potential clients. I try and keep the focus on the needs of my own computer clients, but I am, of course, very happy for anyone at all to subscribe to the newsletter or read the blog online.

Thanks for reading!

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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