Tag Archives: selling computers

Why computer store techs are rude

It’s not your imagination. In the main, except for the Apple world, they really are rude. They don’t listen well. They bombard you with technical lingo that you will not understand. They don’t do it the way you asked them. And if you ask too many questions, they get increasingly testy.

Ever wonder why it’s that way? Why can’t computer stores hire competent technical people who also have people skills?

I used to sell computers. I sold PCs about five miles from the Microsoft main campus, many years ago when a 386 machine was hot stuff. I was a combatant in the trenches of the IBM/Microsoft wars. Back then, your local independent computer store had sales people and technicians, and where possible, we kept most of the techs away from the customers. It was better that way. Nowadays, however, more likely everyone in the store is a tech on some level, so you could end up dealing with anyone.

The first major thing to absorb about the computer support world is the pace of change. Imagine trying to be an electrical engineer, or an attorney or a doctor, and your knowledge set has to turn over every three years. Only the basic methodology and accumulated ‘gut feeling’ problemsolving skills remain with one; the rest becomes unimportant in three years and obsolete in about six. Not that many people can keep pace with that level of change, and most of them are socially dysfunctional because a lot of them have some personality syndrome that enables them to focus on fixing or puzzling out something for hours.

So you aren’t always dealing with highly adjusted social butterflies, and it’s uncommon to find a great tech who is also a people person. Computer store owners are small businesspeople, who pay people for a reason. The Aspie who cuts you off short and gives curt, opaque answers to reasonable questions is probably a reliable worker who generates income for the company and doesn’t steal the inventory, and the owner reasons that odds are against getting a better replacement. Plus, the owner is probably of the same personality type, and doesn’t see a great deal of value in worrying about people’s feelings. If they get it to work, or their policy protects them against having to do something, far as they’re concerned, case closed.

What is evident to me: the longer people work in the business of making computers work, the more jaded they tend to become about the public. They’ve heard all the lamentations before, and they deal with a lot of ignorance from the public. Much of the public doesn’t even see a difference between a software problem (usually created by the user, foolishly installing a wide variety of garbage and rarely bothering to invest in virus protection or backup) and a hardware issue (which is fixed, by and large, by swapping stuff out until the problem goes away); it just thinks, “So why don’t you just FIX it?” If it were that simple, they would. It often is not. However, good customer service requires one to take each customer at face value and offer a bit of education.

The service people don’t do that, because their general perception of the public is that it is too clueless to understand what they say (when in reality the problem is the service person’s poor communication skills). Why bother if people won’t understand? goes the reasoning. Another reason, more understandable, is that often it boils down to having to tell the user that s/he is an idiot. “But I LIKE my WeatherBug!” whined so many of my clients, when I told them that this noxious piece of spyware needed to go. “I never use the shutdown button,” smirked so many clients. “I just flip the switch on the surge.” Their expressions said: I’m so cute, such a rebel. No, you’re a fool, and you probably caused your own problem. “But my machine came with McCAFFee! I can’t have a virus!” Yet they never subscribed to virus definition updates, and even McAfee is better than nothing. All those discussion paths lead to the point where one must refrain from telling the paying customer that he or she did something stupid. There are only so many tactful ways to say that, and tact is not many techs’ strong suit.

What is more, most of the public won’t take advice. Shut down your machine using the shutdown mechanism in the operating system (Windows, for many). Keep a virus scanner up to date. Don’t just let everything install itself, and uninstall stuff you just don’t need. Defrag the thing now and then. Figure out a means of backing up anything you care about. One tells them all of the above, and as a staff colleague back in the dorms once said about getting residents interested in activities, “Their lips say ‘yes, yes’ but their eyes say ‘FOAD, FOAD, FOAD.'” The techs tried, and tried and tried, to convince people of the value of these forms of maintenance. After the five hundredth person listened politely, smirked a silent ‘in your dreams I’ll bother with that crap,’ and kept right on doing it the wrong way, they got tired of bothering.

So that’s what we’re up against. Socially awkward, often personality-dysfunctional people whose good advice was mostly blown off, who don’t have much respect for the public (partly deserved by said public), and who just hope to get out of the conversation as fast as possible. They are happiest when benching the machine without anyone saying, “My Internet Windows won’t download my Works documents off my hard drive, and Explorer doesn’t get my mail, and my machine is slow even though I’ve only had it for six years, and I can’t program my data off my CD. Can you just fix it?”

That’s no excuse for not listening well, and it’s no excuse for being rude. If you suck at dealing with the public, the boss should make sure you never have to. But if the boss also sucks at it, he doesn’t even realize that’s a problem.

And there you go.

My computer sales brain spasm

Back in the years of the XT, AT and early 386 clones, I used to sell computers. Sales had its moments. I was never a big star in sales, but I did it well enough that when I left after two years, it was of my own choosing. Remember the Microsoft/IBM wars? I was a foot soldier in the trenches of those, five miles from the M$ campus. One of these days I’ll write about just how tremendously out of touch IBM was with dealers and clients. For now, I’m going to make fun of myself instead.

One of my best clients was an underwriting firm south of Seattle, run by two brothers named Doug and Dick Rodruck. Great guys, steady customers, the sort of people a commissioned salesperson could make a living by helping. I looked forward to all their calls.

The sales floor could be chaotic at times, with people needing help on the floor, calls announced for you while you were helping them, stressed-out receptionists desperately seeking someone to help the biggest salesman’s clients (with zero hope of profit or appreciation from him), and warehouse staff moving forty boxes in for storage wherever space could be found. One could lose one’s focus. Sometimes real badly.

Of course, I knew most of my customers by voice. When I wasn’t going in six different directions, I picked up on who I was talking to. At the same time, I had a lot of customers, very loyal ones, amazed that I could ‘remember’ what they bought a year and a half back. (I wrote it all on rolodex cards. I cheated.) So when I heard the page “Dick is on line 1 for Jonathan,” I didn’t think. I took the call and said hello.

“Hello, Jonathan, it’s Dick. [Here followed a bunch of specifications for new hardware they wanted to buy.]” I listened and started working up pricing, but after a time it occurred to me: I do not know who this is. I can’t place him. Well, I’ll eventually pinpoint him.

Which I did. Unfortunately, that was before I learned in life that not everything on one’s mind needs to be blurted out at random, especially stuff like evidence that you had no idea who was on the phone. I watched my mother do it all growing up, so in addition to the blurt genetics, I had an unhelpful example. I was still learning how to shut the hell up rather than spit out my latest revelation.

Thus, when Dick finished describing whatever computer need he was describing, and asked me a question, it was blurtin’ time: “Oh. Dick Rodruck! You’ll have to excuse me. There are a lot of Dicks out there.”

A very awkward silence. I realized what I’d just said.

Now what? The silence was mine to break. Or, at least, it had better be me.

“I do hope and trust you realize, Dick, that in no way did I intend that the way it came out. I apologize profusely.”

How you can know that Dick Rodruck was such a great guy? He forgave me. He said not to worry about it, and continued with the substance of the discussion. The bullet of a ruined relationship whistled past me.