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Jacob Rogers isn't particularly shy about admitting what most people long have realized: "Computers," he says. "Can be annoying and frustrating."
But trying to make them less so is his job. Rogers is one of about 4,000 technical support people who, armed with headsets, technical manuals and Microsoft's formidable database on computer woes, try to make computing the satisfying and entertaining experience it can be when things go right.
In fact, entertainment is Rogers' mission. He's a technical support engineer for Microsoft Flight Simulator '98, Microsoft's joysticks and children's games such as the popular Barney series.
But that doesn't mean the problems are any less important to his callers. Take one of the first calls to come in early in his 6 a.m.-3 p.m. shift. It's a woman named Andrea with a gentle Southern accent. "My little boy wants to play with 'Fun on the Farm for Barney," she says to Rogers, a plaintive tone in her voice. "But the sound quit working. Please help me."
Rogers has her check a few computer settings, then asks her to manually install the Barney CD from the "run" command box in Windows 95. "I hope this works," she says as the disk installs. "My little boy is going, 'I want Barney, I want Barney.'"
The "Golly, You're So Good!" Calls
The game loads properly, but still no sound. Rogers thinks he knows what's happened - the youngster may have turned down the volume by inadvertently tapping the volume-control keys. Audible clicking comes over the phone line, followed by that inimitable Barney theme music. "Golly, you're so good!" Andrea exclaims with audible relief "Glad to be of help," says Rogers.
Alas, not all problems are solved so quickly. A few minutes later another caller who has installed a new sound card suddenly has the sad desktop accessory of a dead mouse. Repeated runs at the problem fail to resuscitate, and Rogers finally must advise the woman to call the sound card vendor or the Windows 95 support group in the hopes of reconciling the card and the mouse. " Ah, I hate that," he mutters about his small failure, then heads to the vending machine for a Sprite.
Across the parking lot from Rogers' building near downtown Bellevue, Hiroo Umeno works on developer support - dealing with highly technical, software-savvy folks. And he does so on some of the more vexing issues that confront computer users: Port communications and modems. The cubicle-filled room where Umeno works is quite different from Rogers. It's quiet, with no phones ringing. Instead, Umeno calls developers who have e-mailed or called in problems. Not quite house calls, but close.
Zen-Like Problem Solving
Things can get thorny quickly for Umeno and others in his department. Computer communications, he notes "can be fairly complex issues, and often there is no easy answer. Sometimes I get almost Zen-like when discussing a problem - sort of 'what is the sound of one serial port clapping.'" Indeed, minutes later he calls a developer who is trying to get the ports on a computer to identify themselves to simplify a program he is writing. "Just how do you define a serial port?" Umeno asks. The two talk in detail about COM ports and how they work, with Umeno finally suggesting a method for counting ports in the computer. "That sounds like a plan," the customer says.
Umeno's callers are by nature computer-literate, even super-literate. After all, it's their job. But Rogers notes that while it's true people may once have used a mouse as a foot pedal or tried to jam all seven floppies from Word 3.0 into the disk drive at once, today most people are pretty PC-savvy.
"Take that Barney call," says Rogers. "She said she was stuck, but when you asked her to run commands she said, 'OK,' and went right to it. That makes things a lot easier."
And as a support engineer for Microsoft's wildly popular new Flight Simulator '98, Rogers gets some unusual feedback. "I get calls from guys in their 60s who are pilots," he says. "They'll say, 'You know, if you had the rudder in this position and the wind is coming from that direction, the plane really should be doing this.'" Rogers laughs. "I say, 'Well, OK.'"
Earpiece for the Customer
Feedback such as that, though, often proves to be a valuable tool to Microsoft developers. "We are the earpiece for the customer," says Benjamin Flowers, team manager for Rogers' group. "We're able to pass on to development groups customer complaints, as well as what's successful."
Flowers is a seven-year veteran of customer support, having worked in that area for WordPerfect and other software developers before joining Microsoft. And Microsoft, he says, has made a strong commitment to good customer support. "Microsoft has identified customer support as one of the absolute keys to maintaining customers and guaranteeing repeat customers," he says. "So our goal is to have a very satisfied customer. We call them back and ask them how happy they were with the engineer and the product they called about."
As might be expected, Flowers notes, working as a support engineer requires a fine balance between technical skills and the ability to empathize with a frustrated and perhaps even angry caller. "Communication skills and customer skills are No. 1," he says. "You need to be able to think and learn fast. And because there's no way for any engineer to know all the issues, they have to know when to search the Knowledge Base (a vast trove of online technical info), when to bounce things off their peers and when to take it to a supervisor."
Microsoft's technical engineers also are learning to handle the growing amount of online support through the Internet and e-mail. "That's really been increasing," says Flowers. "And it takes written communication, which we traditionally haven't looked at. What we've found is that some people can do that, and some can't."
Rogers is back at his desk now, ready for the next call after his earlier setback. The phone rings: One more balky mouse. "OK," says Rogers, "here's what I want you to do..."