Technosophy: Computers Don’t Kill People, Tech Support Kills People

The startling fact that a commenter recognized the name of my old employer Leading Edge in the last Technosophy reminded me of this little piece, which I originally wrote up for another web board some years ago. I should note in advance that we did have some competent servicing dealers and resellers – some were in fact quite good – so if you, by chance, worked for a Leading Edge dealer in the past, you shouldn’t take personally the part where I take cheap shots at them. :)

(It should also be noted that when I wrote this, Compaq was not merely a brand of Hewlett-Packard, but was in fact a vast manufacturing concern in its own right which had recently finished dismembering and devouring Digital Equipment Corporation.)

Long ago I worked as a hardware tech support rep for Leading Edge Products, a company which made bad PC clones, then supported them shoddily. (“Oh, like Compaq!” you’re thinking. Well, yes, except without the success.) We had two warranty plans available with our machines:

  • A three-year “carry-in” plan, where you schlepped your defective PC to the nearest Leading Edge Authorized Service Center (most often someplace called ‘DataCom ElectroEnterprises’ that turned out to be some college kid’s garage) and they fixed it for you (this generally involved replacing failed defective parts with new defective parts that had not yet failed). Then they would call you up and you would go back and get it, usually without bothering to check at the store to see if it actually worked, and then when you got home and it didn’t you would call us, as though we had personally screwed you, rather than taking it back to the people who’d actually worked on it; and
  • A one-year “on-site” plan, where you called up our support number, answered the various obvious questions that the front-line support techs would put to you, and, if by some miracle you -had- plugged the machine in and it -wasn’t- just the World’s Cheapest Mouse going trackball-up on you, you’d be handed off to one of our harried and overworked Service Advisors. There, depending on which of the two Advisors you got, you would be badgered mercilessly like a murder trial witness of questionable reliability or spoken to in a soft and soothing manner while the exact nature of your system’s defect was divined. Then the Service Advisor would hand off the call to our wonderfully alert and competent on-site service vendor, General Electric, who would eventually dispatch a surly and uncaring dolt in a truck to come out and cram mismatched new parts into your machine, then call our support line and hassle the front-liners about why their bin pickers had given them the wrong parts.

OK? Enough background information? Still with me?

Well. One lovely Wednesday, because the manager had a special and enduring love for me, I was assigned the task of returning calls left on the manager’s voice mail box. As you might guess, people leaving voice mail for the manager are not generally calling to give compliments. As a matter of routine, I looked through the service database for the callbacks where the caller had left a case number to see what information I could glean. One call looked especially unpromising – it was an on-site service call which had been dispatched something like a week before and was still showing “unresolved” by our friends at GE. I figured I’d get the hard part out of the way first and called that one back.

The phone was answered by a woman, though the name on the ticket was a man’s. OK, no problem – it’s a machine owned by a company, probably this is the receptionist or something.

Here’s the way our conversation started:

ME: Hi, my name is Ben Hutchins, I’m calling from Leading Edge Products in regard to the outstanding service call your office has out on one of your computer systems. Can I speak to Mr. Whatever please?

HER (sounding shaken and sad): Oh… uh… I’m sorry, but Mr. Whatever… passed away suddenly last week.

ME: … Oh. Well, uh… I’m sorry to hear that. Is there, uh, somebody else there in the office who will be handling this issue now, that I could speak to?

She explained to me that no, she didn’t think there was, because it was probable that the machine was simply going to be discarded, and the company’s management was probably trying to decide whether it would be worth suing us.

You see, Mr. Whatever was a VP of this company, the girl I was talking to had been his secretary, and the machine in question was Mr. Whatever’s desktop workstation. It had been malfunctioning for some time, and GE had failed to dispatch on it because of some more-than-usual confusion about what parts were needed, or something like that – so the computer’s problems got worse and worse over time, and calls to LE accomplished little, since the problem had already been dispatched to GE and they would just blow the Service Advisors off whenever they called to ask why this hadn’t been handled.

The real highlight of the call, though, came when Mr. Whatever’s secretary related the circumstances of her boss’s death. The last time anyone saw him alive was the previous Friday afternoon when, on her way out, she had looked in to see how Mr. Whatever was getting on with his reluctant computer.

He had been sitting at his desk glaring at the machine with hatred, muttering, “It’s this thing or me. It’s this thing or me.”

He was found at his desk, slumped over the keyboard, on Monday morning. Dead of an apparent heart attack.

“He really hated that thing,” she told me tearfully. “I don’t think he’d want us to have it fixed now.”

What else could I do? I thanked her very kindly, closed the ticket, and told the manager I was going the hell home for the day.

And that’s how Leading Edge’s tech support killed a man.

Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.

About Gryphon

In his career - well, not so much a career as a series of interesting but usually ill-advised vocational choices, if we're being honest - Benjamin D. Hutchins has been a tech support grunt, an Internet operations tech, a small-town print reporter, a public relations writer, and a semiprofessional muser upon the random. Now he's working on several books (none of which, just to buck tradition, is the Great American Novel), eyeing the relentless march of personal gadget technology with bemusement and often suspicion, and wondering what's with these kids today, with their clothes and their hair and that stuff they think is music.His first book, Off the Top of My Head: Personal Reflections of a Small-Town Newsman, can be had here or here.
This entry was posted in Technosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Bakk

    Wow, Thats a story for the grandkids one day!

  • Chris H.

    I’m tempted to make some crass joke about the poor guy’s heart and shoddy RMA practices, but I’ll refrain.

    And yeah, I did work for one of those dealers, though in our defense, the reason they’d fail again after repair was often because the replacement parts provided by Leading Edge were…um, not so great. :)

    Mind you, Leading Edge was hardly the only culprit of that. We became convinced that a certain laptop vendor wasn’t even looking at the RMA descriptions of parts we sent back; this was confirmed when they sent us a replacement power supply that was identical to the bad one we’d sent in. Our problem description? “Cannot generate the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to induce time travel.”

    You’ve thought I’d've at least gotten a phone call…

  • Gryphon

    Well, I did say “replacing failed defective parts with new defective parts that had not yet failed”. :) We were all well aware that we weren’t working with the best quality parts. This was especially true during the Great Mouse Replacement Period, in which every single mouse shipped with a new Leading Edge computer for several months did not work owing to the fact that Daewoo had bought a huge bulk order of them from, at a guess, Uncle Park’s Bait Shop and Electronics, Ltd. in Inchon. What was especially fun about that was that all the replacement mice we had on hand in Westborough to send out as replacements? Were from the same enormous bulk order and didn’t work either.

    Ironically, our hardware support people and especially the guys who worked down in the HQ repair shop (where dealers would send their hardest cases) really were conscientious. We wanted to do a good job. We wanted to take care of our customers. Sincerely, we did. We just… weren’t always able to.