Troubleshooting Troubleshooting: Yes, There Is Such A Thing As A System Problem

Does your blood pressure rise when you hear the phrase "There is no system problem" being uttered by a tech support rep of an online service?A spike is probably inevitable.
Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, Contributor

Does your blood pressure rise when you hear the phrase "There is no system problem" being uttered by a tech support rep of an online service?

A spike is probably inevitable. Because then you know the conversation will entirely focus on you personal setup. Because, as far as the rep is being informed, there is no problem with the site's service, whether it's handling a sales transaction or passing email on, or what have you.

But just because the "there is no system problem" alert is not on, doesn't mean there is not a problem with the system.

It means you need to recognize that you are going to have to help the trouble-shooter troubleshoot.

Because, yes, the system just might have a problem.

This surfaced twice last week, in my use of email and online shopping. And, even though the customer service reps were unfailingly polite and helpful, the bottom line is: they find themselves at a loss, when there is an incipient problem they should report up the food chain. Instead, they are trained to focus on how the food is being eaten.

One case involved a problem sending and receiving email. The other involved trying to place office supplies in an online shopping cart.

And the biggest lesson is this: Be prepared to spend a lot of time troubleshooting the troubleshooting, if "there is no system problem."

In the first case, an Earthlink customer rep actually initiated the "trouble ticket.'' The rep was calling on behalf of an Earthlink customer who had complained that he was receiving email from me, but the attachments were shorn off.

We spent about 45 minutes running tests that involved resending email with and without the original attachments, with fresh versions of the attachments and such. It didn't look like an Earthlink problem.

So I spent another 45 minutes or so with a very nice support rep from Cablevision, my Internet service provider. She even ended up ordering a truck roll for a latent problem with my Internet telephony service, which I had never reported. But with similar tests, we did determine the attachments were leaving Cablevision's outgoing mail server with my outgoing mail.

The last stop was another long session with two different levels of support at Apple Mail. As reported earlier, the problem had to be my settings, so the conversation went, because there was no reported "system problem.'' Even if I couldn't even send email with or without attachments and have it arrive in my own email box, through the Mac servers.

Until, just before getting off the line, the last service rep saw a message come up on his screen that there was indeed ... a system problem. MobileMe mail was being delayed, for unspecified reasons that were being investigated.

The other problem occurred with the Staples office supply site. I could only get one item into my shopping cart. When I tried to add a second item, the page with that item showed "$0.00" in my cart, even though there was a package of toner cartridges already in it. And when I clicked on the "add to cart" button, the item's price would show up in the cart. But, if I went to the cart, only the cartridges were there. Not the new item.

Online chat support person #1 said "there is no system problem" and wanted me to delete all cookies and refresh the browser. I didn't want to delete everything -- and she couldn't find the best procedure in her book, anyway. So I just refreshed.

That disconnected us. And when the browser came back up, I got two more items in the cart. But I couldn't get the fourth and last in.

Chat rep #2 also reported no system problem and insisted on the delete cookies bit again. This, even though I asked just for help getting the fourth item in the cart so I could conclude the transaction. I deleted the cookies and refreshed the browser.

Which of course disconnected her. And, when the browser came back, did not fix the problem. I still couldn't get the fourth item in the cart.

Chat rep #3 was very lively and was determined to get to the root of this. But, his approach basically boiled down to deleting the cookies, which already had been tried.

So I tried a better test, which I told him about in the chat window. I would try Office Depot's site and see if I could add items to the cart there.

In about three minutes, I added all four items to the cart and completed the transaction.

Staples rep #3 promised to send the problem up the chain of command and sent a discount coupon as amends -- through my restored email.

Let me iterate my great respect for the troubleshooters. They have to deal with plenty of user error, user emotion and user illogic, all day long.

You gotta love their attempts to use laughter to keep their stress levels down, as well. Here's my current favorite from Tech Support Comedy. It happens to be an in-office problem, not a Web service issue, but I'm sure there's an equivalent:

"Tech services, Coyote speaking - the F in problem stands for fun!" I answer the ever ringing phone of death with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. "There is no F in problem..." The stupid end of the phone chimes. "Then why'd ya call?" I grin at my own stupid joke as I wait for the humor to sink in. They don't get it. And rather than explain it to them, over and over again, I ask them what the issue is. A slot loading CD-Rom tray will no longer accept CD's. Guh. I hate those friggin' things. At least with a nice tooth-tray ROM you can SEE what broke. When a slot loader breaks, it breaks for good, and its secrets are forever hidden behind the stupid little felt curtains where you feed the disc. Grabbing the magic bag and a couple parts, I head down to the user's area in what I am praying will be a quick swap and pop. Ignoring the user's diagnosis of the issue, I grab the unit to investigate, only to notice the lip of a CD sticking out of the curtain. Grabbing it with the tweezers it takes a LOT of effort, but it eventually slides out. And another one pops into view. ....what the? "How many frigging CD's did you stuff in this thing?" I ask the user in disbelief as I dislodge the second disc only to be greeted by a third. Now, in most cases the user will lie. They'll say that they didn't do it, someone told them to do it, or that they just magically found it like that - but this user? "Four. And that last one went in HARD. I had to hold the machine and use the back of a stapler to get it in there!" She says proudly with a grin as if I should marvel at her ingenuity under pressure. I want to marvel her in the (f word deleted) head with a stapler.

All fun aside, though, just because '"there is no system problem" does not mean "there is no system problem."

Any tips on how to best go about helping troubleshooters troubleshoot, when the problem is not inside your machine?

IMAGE SOURCE: Popartmachine.com

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