Holding for Support

Cleanup week in the maintenance shop means debris, dust and denial. Weeding the effluvia of years past may yield the odd saleable item, or, more likely, an ironic paperweight from past technologies.

Mostly, though, it yields graveyards. A camera graveyard with filters, diopters and even matte boxes, all of which no longer fit any cameras we own. A hard-drive graveyard, on its way to the recycler.

Another graveyard is a tall, black cabinet full of service manuals, relics of a day when every television professional would attempt at least some of the maintenance chores his gear required. Alongside the cabinet on a shelf is a ragtag collection of extender boards—tall, short, long affairs with guides, stubby right-angle adapters. Upper-drum jigs, tape tension gauges, dual-trace scopes and clip leads—all moldy throwbacks to a time when capacitors were king, and the smell of solder meant something broken was going to work again real soon.

These days, when something breaks, we don't run for the workbench any more. We grab a beverage of choice, maybe a bowl of nuts or chips, start a game of Minesweeper, and curl up with the telephone.


The transition has been a gradual one, but it's finally complete: Like those warning stickers from long ago, there are "no user-serviceable components" inside our hardware today. There are no replaceable parts, nothing to tweak or calibrate, and as a result, no hope for a quick fix.

Time formerly spent with volt ohm meters, extender boards and schematics has been replaced by time spent waiting for phone support—that temporal vacuum known simply as "The Queue."

Over the course of a hundred or so hours in The Queue, I've learned a thing or two about dealing with the phone support team, whether they're in Minneapolis or in Mumbai. Mostly, I've learned how truly horrible low-bandwidth IP telephony can be, and how it distorts elevator music into a nightmarish, toy-piano-on-acid syrup of sound… but I digress.

The first thing I've learned is… to anticipate what the first thing is. Triage—that's the job of the Level One associate.

Level One seeks to ascertain whether you really belong in The Queue. If all you really wanted was a spare power cord, they'll redirect you; they'll make sure you've got model and serial numbers in hand, lest you waste Level Two's time.

First tenet of my new, patent-pending approach to phone support: Be kind to Level One; provide patient and polite answers for their childishly simple questions. Save the bile and sarcasm—plenty of time for that later.

With Level Two comes a bit of gamesmanship. After a few visits to The Queue, you'll be able to anticipate the questions, and crib the answers.

Is it plugged in? Pilot light green or amber? Did you cycle the power, reboot, reinstall? You'll save time by role-playing the Level Two dialogue in advance… anticipating the baby steps they'll demand you take, and like that old lawyers' maxim, never let them ask you a question that you don't already know the answer to.

This approach has worked particularly well for me. With careful preparation, I've been able to brief Level Two with a concise, 20-second spiel describing the day the system broke down, what I was doing, what I'd had for breakfast, and all the diagnostic measures I'd run through—including the fact that, yes, the power cord was plugged in.

Level Two's response, after a stunned silence: "Wow… I guess it really is broken. I'm sending you another one." Victory.


But for the other 95 percent of support calls, your tech problem is mired in seemingly unsolvable riddles. Multiple variables, some of which you can't directly control, mean thousands of diagnostic permutations, more than can be handled by a single overseas phone call, or a live interactive chat, or a day spent searching the support knowledge base.

In our fantasies, a replacement unit is being loaded in the belly of a plane before the call is over; but the stark reality is you're less likely to be able to cash out at Level Two, and more likely to descend into levels best described by Dante, a support hell from which you may never emerge.

There's a pretty big frustration factor there. Your inner eight-year-old steps forward and says, "But I did everything you told me to—how come it doesn't work?" Good question.

But here in the world of unspeakably sophisticated circuitry and applications, with all the attendant blessings and advantages, it's never surprising when techno-karma craps out… at times, it's all just a bit complex to track and troubleshoot.

And maybe that's the real psychological dilemma here. Our yearning for bygone days in the ol' maintenance shop with the hot iron is less about solder and more about control—our complete loss of control over technology gone awry, and the frustration of trying to make it work once again.

But before I launch into my next two-hour support call, maybe I'll plug in the old soldering iron right here on my desk… a little aromatherapy to soothe the trauma to come.

Walter Schoenknecht is a partner at Midnight Media Group Inc., a New York-area digital production facility. You can reach him via e-mail atwalter@mmgi.tv.