10 Confessions Of A Telephone Tech Support Quality Assurance Guy

Read in awe as a former Quality Assurance Specialist divulges the deepest, darkest secrets of outsourced technical support centers. Learn what happens to “rogue” call centers who refuse to give terrible customer service, why the tech support guy stops listening to you after you say certain keywords, and so much more.

The only thing worse than being a level 1 tech support rep is being a quality assurance specialist who listens to level 1 tech support reps ALL DAY LONG.

Here are my ten confessions from when I worked at HyperQuality, a quality assurance contractor for Accenture and AT&T DSL outsourced tech support call centers: Sykes, Teletech, Teleperformance, Telvista, and a few other smaller ones I can’t recall.

1. “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes” applies to about 0.01% of all tech support calls.
This is considered to be “good sampling.” Calls are recorded and then given to QA agencies for playback and scoring later. The idea is to select a group of call centers for monitoring and review at least two calls for each agent. In reality, call center management is allowed to select the recordings to send out for QA. Guess which ones they sent? That’s right: 20 calls from their best agent over and over again. Good sampling, indeed.

2. Agents say stupid things because they’re required to.

That excessively long branding at the beginning and end of the call, the annoying use of your formal name, the pointless verification of useless information? All are requirements forced on the agent by brain dead internal QA policies. Firms like Accenture and HyperQuality who are hired to improve these policies and procedures to improve customer service ratings, but are actually paid to reduce customer service costs. Instead of improving procedures and training so that agents know what they’re doing, QA spins its wheels trying to figure out the nicest sounding script for why an agent needs to transfer you to yet another wrong department.

3. Outsourced call centers and QA agencies are in a race for supremacy.

AT&T executives know they can’t trust their own internal QA, so they outsource. QA wants tech support agents to be outstanding for the executives. Outsourced call centers interpret QA agencies as threats (rightly so), and will do any amount of lying and number fudging to make QA look incompetent instead of fixing their broken support team. Brain dead AT&T junior executives who are on the hook for hiring these defective call centers will then question the QA agency’s methodology and recommend that the QA experiment be scrapped in favor of returning to an internal QA process, which they know has no power to change anything whatsoever. Corporate politics, clusterfuck is thy name.

4. Offshore (non-U.S.) agents are trained to clue in on keywords, not comprehension.
Offshore agents have highly varying proficiencies in English. They can speak it better than they can hear it. In order to help agents overcome this limitation, they’re encouraged to pick up on keywords and formulate support solutions around them. The problem is that agents frequently stop listening after they find the first keyword that they understand, even if there’s five more minutes of talking after the keyword.

For example, if you say, “Whenever I sign on, my modem starts making noise as if I were dial-up, even though my DSL is okay.” An experienced tech would say, “hmm, this sounds like the browser is set to always dial a connection. Let’s open up Internet Properties.” However, a keyword-focused tech would hear “sign on” and try to verify your account information so he can reset your password. Another keyword-focused tech would hear “dial-up” and try to transfer you to the dial up department. Google is not their friend, apparently.

5. Onshore agents get to be as racist as they wanna.
One challenge of the QA team I worked on was a Midwestern U.S. call center that was outright rude to any customer who sounded Latino, Puerto Rican, Chinese, or even Finnish. This call center would use the customers lack of mastery of English against them, repeatedly saying in very loud drawls, “ma’am, I — I can’t understand what you’re saying. You need to find someone who speaks English and have them call in for you.” (Lie! There are plenty of translation departments within AT&T.) We red-flagged calls on a weekly basis for six months, citing overt racist behavior. At the end of six months, the call center’s contract was finally terminated. When we inquired why, the official reason was “Quality Assurance issues.” The un-official reason was “cost control.” The day after the onshore center was terminated, a new offshore center was hired for 1/10th the cost.

6. When you call in and get a different answer every time, blame the internal documentation.
Agents are required to research answers against the internal doc system, which is essentially a poor implemented wiki. But it functions oh so much more poorly. If only AT&T had taken their $150,000 investment in a proprietary documentation system and invested it in a free wiki package. There are several documents for any particular issue. Documents should be labeled for use by specific departments and teams, but frequently aren’t. What’s worse is that QA can’t score down an agent for reading the obviously wrong document if the document is poorly categorized, or has been available for less than a day. After all, you have to give agents a reasonable amount of time to catch up on the litany of “OMG NEW EMERGENCY FOLLOW THIS CRISIS PROCEDURE” bulletins and documents that are published every day and then never maintained or retired once the crisis has been abated.

When an agent tells you you have to rebuild your modem firmware because your speed is a little slow, he’s probably reading from a 4 year old technical bulletin. He’s probably been working off that bulletin since the day he started.

7. Agents consistently failing a particular attribute? Obviously it means the bar was set too high.
When scoring agents, we look at forty different attributes, ranging from objective standards such as using the member’s name three times during the call, to softer skills such as how positive and upbeat the agent sounds. Male agents in India always fail the upbeat attribute. Many regions in India are highly homophobic, and sounding American-style upbeat and positive apparently means you’re gay over there. Sounding monotone and disinterested is the height of masculinity. Agents would rather fail this heavily weighted attribute than make such a transgression, so they fail the call.

Call center managers, instead of helping their agents adopt a more internationally-minded open attitude, will campaign to have the attribute dropped altogether. Their reasoning? “Oh, he sounded very upbeat and positive *to me*.” Yeah, because you’re a great representation of the customer, pal. The sad part is this reasoning will win, call scores will rise dramatically, and outsourced call centers will receive “great improvement!” trophies and bonuses.

8. Quality Assurance could use some quality assurance themselves.
Nothing says “the blind leading the blind” like outsourcing your quality assurance staff to the lowest bidder in India. Which is precisely what HyperQuality does. Here’s how it goes:

Me: “Hey Rashim, don’t send out that powerpoint. It has some old data in it, and I need to update it before tomorrow’s meeting.”

Rashim: “Okay, I won’t.”

*next morning*

Client: “why does this powerpoint have such old data on it?”

Me: “Rashim!!!!!”

Rashim: “Wha? I sent out the powerpoint like you said to.”

Ugh. Where did Rashim work previous to HyperQuality? You guessed it: call center for AT&T DSL Tech Support.

This happened constantly across the board. I don’t want to sound racist on this point, though. We did have a couple of incredibly smart staff that came from India. They were a pleasure to work with and we paid them well. I’m sure the rest of the staff could have come up to speed with more training.

9. Smart call centers would rather go rogue and receive a failing grade than assimilate into the clusterfuck.
The true and singular pleasure of this job was monitoring a rogue call center from the Southwest. They used their own documentation, had their own scripts, and hired incredibly smart and capable techies. We “red flag” failed each and every one of their calls because they did not follow the prescribed metrics that we scored against. This team had some of the best I’ve ever seen from both an infrastructure and service standpoint. They shrugged off action plan meetings, ignored saber rattling execs, and just kept delivering amazing service. Their average QA call score was 23%. For whatever reason, this contract could not be terminated, so they were slowly starved of calls until they could not support themselves and had to lay off staff.

10. The QA metrics themselves are the battleground for a power struggle between different AT&T factions.
So some AT&T junior exec gets it into his head that he’s going to single handedly rescue all of AT&T’s support issues by transforming the entire customer service paradigm into a baseball metaphor, and insisting that each call result in a “home run.” Said exec then proceeds to start injecting this philosophy into as many agent documents as possible, overriding all of the work that QA and other management teams have done. None of these overriding documents say what has to actually be done to achieve this home run, only that achieving the home run is key to the success of the team.

The fatal flaw in this plan is revealed when multiple off-shore call center managers respond with, “vait, vhat is dis base-boll? Ve do not know American shports games.”

(Photo:sun_dazed)

Comments

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  1. SmellyGatto says:

    wondering what I was supposed ot be ine “awe” of.

  2. halloweenjack says:

    Offshore agents don’t really understand what you’re saying? Execs come up with stupid “philosophies” that don’t make sense? Good work is punished? No news here. Unfortunately, with the likes of AT&T creeping back into a monopolistic position, there’s no motivation to change.

  3. B says:

    How does making scripts for the Agents to endlessly transfer clients to the wrong department reduce costs? I would think that getting the customer helped quickly would be cheaper. I guess the plan is to frustrate the customer until they end up solving the problem themselves.

  4. floyderdc says:

    I agree with #2. As a person who has worked in customer service/call centers for years as I go to school knows they always have these annoying “soft skills” that you need to follow. A person who solves customer problems who does not do these annoying things will be graded lower than some dolt who does nothing to solve issues, but brands with proper greeting and closing.

  5. Jim says:

    #2 confirms my favorite act of “security theater” though. I always have to give my password/SSN/something to 8 random people AT&T (or one of their contractors) has entrusted so no one else but me can fix my billing problem.

    #3 just made my eyes cross and I won’t comment on it until I can take an aspirin and draw myself a map.

    #4 makes it seem like I’d rather just spend my time with an automated system. Wouldn’t that save the company more money to just set up an Eliza program and skip outsourcing altogether?

    And #9 intrigues me greatly. Who are these people? They should be reunited under some intelligent company. A customer-service all-star type of team.

  6. friendlynerd says:

    #9 makes me feel stabby. Way to get punished for good work.

  7. azntg says:

    Hearing from my parents, #5 is true enough. They complain of tech support deliberately ignoring them due to accents. This was not with an AT&T CSR and this was not an intentional test, but I was listening into one of the calls that my parents made to a Verizon CSR. I could tell that tech support guy was playing dumb, pretending not to understand what my father was saying. I intervened (imagine the shock), made a harsh comment or two and all of us hung up at once. I can imagine similar things happening with an onshore AT&T CSR.

    Of course, my parents use the reverse technique for telemarketing sales calls. “I no understand English” and hang up.

  8. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    #7… ROFL. I work with tech support people from there every day and wondered why they sound so robotic. Now I know.

    #9… What is everyone’s surprise? Call centers are no place for the creative. Creativity and problem-solving go hand in hand. Problem-solving is anathema to the purpose of a call center. The real purpose of a call center is to 1) pretend to offer a service that makes the company appear competitive 2) make the potential customer feel more comfortable about buying technology that is new and scary 3) avoid legal liability issues 4) help them gauge what features make future products popular.

    #4… This is how their training software is written (my brother used to help write it for Accenture and blistered my eardrums regularly complaining about the stupid guidelines he was required to follow). Blame the people who are in charge of making up what needs to go in the training materials.

  9. The script thing annoys the shit out of me. While I don’t deal with customers (I deal with in house techs and contractors), I am made to use stupid open ended questions when taking equipment calls. I’ve often asked my management the reason why and it’s because the script is some QA scripture that must be used. As a former field tech myself I can ask certain questions instead in a very respectful manner and get the info in about half the time when not required to regurgitate the script. The benefits are good though, hehe :D

  10. Crymson_77 says:

    @friendlynerd and @Jim: Agreed!

    If At&t were wanting to solve their problems, it sounds like the best way to do it is close the call centers with the highest QA rating. Sound like when I used to work there…sheesh…

  11. oakie says:

    #4 “Offshore agents have highly varying proficiencies in English. They can speak it better than they can hear it.”

    so you’re saying they cant hear shit either?

  12. dwarf74 says:

    I used to do QA for an outsourced (American) call center. First, I monitored calls for Verizon Communications (landlines), and later for the uber-sleazy Excel Wireless (Amway meets Cell Phones).

    My experiences were quite a bit different – but then again, the calls were completely different.

    Since we were with an outsourcing company, the clients of course were much more worried about call times, idle times, sales attempts, and the basic formalities than they were about customer service. So yeah, it was crummy.

    I’ll agree 100% that doing QA work is pretty much crap. :)

  13. outofoffice says:

    The only customer support or customer service within AT&T that is outsourced overseas is for DSL and dial up tech support.

    Rest assured, if it’s regarding your landline or wireless service, you’ll recieve the same horrific service as always with an American accent.

  14. socalrob of the 24 and a half century says:

    From what I was told by a friend of mine who works for a large corporation, the owner of said corporation (makes computer accessories btw) is getting pissed at their india tech support. They give bad advice, mess up documentation on calls since they are paid by call and lose money if customer calls back, constantly hang up etc..

    This is all after that company fired all their US based lower tech support in favor of india based tech support at 1/3 the cost (at least). I was actually trying to get one of the lower tech support positions there and work my way up like my friend did. But i didn’t get the position and a month later they fired everyone and shipped it all to india. His job was OK because he works in a higher tier of support. But he tells me how he gets calls all the time escalated to him and his office due to india tech support actually breaking their products while trying to fix them.

  15. Zagrophyte says:

    This is pretty crazy, in a bureaucratic comedy sort of way.

    Ogres have layers, and layers, and layers.

  16. Corydon says:

    6. When you call in and get a different answer every time, blame the internal documentation.

    Partly this is caused by too many people having their finger in the documentation pie. I worked for a company where each city they served was run like its own independent little fief.

    So there was documentation that came from the corporate office. And then each separate area came up with their own documentation that often duplicated and/or contradicted the national stuff.

    And then all of this was mixed into a gigantic clusterf**k of a database, poorly labeled by city, and not maintained.

    Then, some areas ran with their own internal websites, which I suppose was great for them, but completely left any outsourced or corporate escalations folks out of the loop.

    The other side of this problem is that new stuff (billing plans, features, products, procedures) come out all the time. But lots of reps learn one way of doing things and never, ever want to change. They will accept no new information at all. This also leads to different answers all the time.

  17. wesa says:

    This was so much more amusing for me than I think for 99.99999999+% of the people out there. Thanks for making my day “EvenBetter”

  18. dantsea says:

    Hrm. I probably know who this came from, and I’m amused — especially at the points about HyperQuality’s internal processes. They’re one hundred percent true. The company tried to shift as much of the backoffice work to India as possible, which screwed the Seattle teams in every which way you can imagine. To this day I was never sure if it was deliberate incompetence or just plain incompetence, though I’m leaning toward a mixture of both.

    One example: When I was tasked as a team lead in the middle of a new backend deployment, I had Jenell Quick, then the US operations manager (who was later given a choice between being fired or resigning, for other reasons not too distantly related to this), bring me into the office and start screaming — literally, yes — that I had overstepped my bounds and was never to directly ask our development staff for status updates. Never mind the fact that my team of ten people were sitting around with nothing to do for a week, updating their MySpace profiles and gossiping on LiveJournal on the client’s dime.

    In November, HyperQuality managed to convince the last of its clients insisting on a US-based process to move that work to India and laid off all but a handful of people, who are being kept on for the sake of client relations (more than likely because combined they’re cheaper than the one VP who did all this work, but quit abruptly).

    Now that the US team is gone, I wonder who they’re going to blame their lack of profitability on this time?

  19. dantsea says:

    @wesa: thank you for kindly doing the needful and making me lol.

  20. wesa says:

    LOL “doing the needful”. Oh man, I haven’t heard that in a long long time.

  21. @B: Just a guess, but they’re probably breaking out department-by-department cost metrics, rather than an overall customer service cost thing (and if they see numbers in overall customer service cost rise, they’re not seeing transfers as a cause because it’s not broken out). So it’s to each DEPARTMENT’s (or outsourced center’s) benefit to pass the customer off ASAP to a different department or center, so their DEPARTMENTAL numbers stay low.

    (You see this so often in budgets and in measurement metrics, where the department-by-department is closely monitored but the overall numbers are never engaged with in a way that looks at how the departments INTERACT. They say “We want to spend less on X” and ask all departments to spend less on X, which they might well do by passing their X off to another department or stealing their X from them, and since X isn’t looked at cross-department, or how departments interact isn’t considered, the solution is worse than the problem. Like when I was at law school, the school was like “We want to spend less on faculty printing costs” and limited faculty ability to print … so faculty started snagging paper from the student computer labs, and the budget people were puzzled as to why student printing costs were skyrocketing. Stupid stupid stupid.)

  22. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    @B:
    You’re close.
    The plan is to get you to never call for tech support again.
    That’s how they really save money.
    By outsourcing it to India, The Philippines or wherever, you never call again because they can’t understand you, you can’t understand them or they don’t know what the hell they’re doing!
    Their first response is always to reboot the computer or modem or both.
    I have friends that call AT&T DSL support & they call me when the Indians can’t fix it. What’s really funny is that the few times the Indians don’t tell them to reboot, I do & that’s the problem.

    I once had a really intractable DSL problem & spent 40 minutes on the phone with the Indians. Finally it was escalated to Tier 2 [in St. Louis, I think] & they had the solution in a couple of minutes. It was a routing error caused by a person at AT&T that caused thousands of DSL lines to go down in Chicago. It took them a few hours to correct it. The Indians knew nothing of this.

    Last year, Kraft Foods outsourced most of its tech support to India. It’s been a tragedy of errors since then. Some senior vp, a clown named Lee Coulter keeps sending out bullshit emails saying they’re working on it & trying to improve the Indians English language skills. HaHaHa!
    About 30% of the calls still go to US based support & when people get them, instead of India, they tell them not to hang up until we’re sure that it’s fixed, they don’t want to have to call back & get India that time.
    The Indians just don’t understand the language or Kraft’s internal policies & fuck up everything!
    And the company keeps going down the crapper & the morale is atrocious as everyone knows Kraft won’t exist in five years!

  23. cortana says:

    Amusingly, AT&T’s *IN-HOUSE* call center for internal network and 911 circuit issues is run by the weirdest setup I’ve ever seen.

    How AT&T’s ROCC (regional operations control center) is run:

    There’s an Indian outsourcing company that has a response center in 2 or 3 locations in India, that takes the majority of the problem calls, BUT!….
    – there’s an INSOURCED mostly-Indian shift of people who work at AT&T HQ taking some calls and alarm reports, and also works with the Indian outsource group to actually page in people for conference calls and handle problems. They also have a few leftover AT&T employees from the days when it was staffed fully by employees, there to train and be available as a last-resort for a big issue. The Indian company also hires a handful of Americans in, to liase with their remote staff on problems, as well. I’ve never seen any place run quite so strangely.

  24. komies says:

    While some of AT&T’s FastAccess DSL support is overseas (in the Phillipines, among other locations), there is a fair bit of it in the US. Just for the nine-state southeast region, there are at least three US call centers.

    As a CSR, I agree. The scripts are shitty, our mock-wiki of solutions is hard to follow and sometimes missing steps. I understand you’re frustrated, and that you hate to hear this script, but unless I want to auto-fail, I am required to say it. This includes things such as displaying empathy (“Yes ma’am, I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, and I’ll be more than glad to help you with that today,”) rebranding the call, and asking probing questions that are often useless.

    However, we do have a lot of barely-english speaking calls, both from customers and outsourced technicians. I’m reasonably sure that there’s an option for other languages in the IVR- I know there’s at least one for Spanish, as we have specific Spanish-speaking agents. If you speak another language, know how to ask for a rep that speaks that language- all attempts will be made to find one for you. It is impossible for me to troubleshoot you if you can’t comprehend basic English sentence structure.

    As for monitors go, in my center each agent is supposed to recieve at least 3 monitors a week. I don’t know what gets sent to corporate, but we are graded based on these, then our supervisors discuss what we need to improve on.

  25. coan_net says:

    I just called AT&T earlier today. Let me recap.

    I pay my bill by they automatically debiting my card for the amount. Well apparently last month, they decided to debit it late, and change me a late fee.

    The late fee was only $0.48 – I was thinking about not calling at all, but I had the day off and nothing better to do.

    So I called them up – - – thinking it would be easy to get them to see that if they decide to debit my card late, I really should not be charged the late fee.

    Well they did finally remove the charges…… after almost 50 minutes on the phone.

  26. dragonfire81 says:

    #9 is the bane of my existence. I’m a terrific problem solver, but some of my solutions don’t exactly follow policy, hence I score lower on my QA reports.

  27. create says:

    heh, its kind of funny, i work in a call center for a very large company, and our tech support is local

    one day after spending a considerable amount of time on the phone with a customer, we decided the problem was not on our end, and that she needed to speak with the company who handles her internet service (not at&t in this case to be clear)

    to be polite, i called the company for her, explained my situation (i am calling on behalf of … and this is the problem … this is what we did … here is what you need to do), well of course the guy who answered was in india, and he was totally blowing me off and not listening and was very flat and monotone, honestly i don’t think he even piked up on my whole description of the problem, even though i explained it slowly and clearly (i am unfortunately used to this)

    if i remember correctly, it was a dns server issue plain and simple, and all he could do was keep asking for the customers login/password information (totally off-topic as i had explained he could get that info from her in a moment)

    now i understand, he likely keyed in on something i said at the start of the call, and then tuned me out for 5min, it was bad… like to the point of me yelling at him to stop asking me the same stupid question (the customer was simply not comfortable explaining technical things such as dns server settings … can you blame her?)

    i felt bad, but was totally frustrated, and finally transferred her, with absolutely no confidence she was going to be helped properly, but that there was securely nothing more i could do to make this individual understand

  28. nitemareglitch says:

    All of this is very true. I can tell you as someone who works for the former BellSouth region of AT&T, getting this company to make decisions on more than just marketing juxtapositions is just impossible.

    It seems as thought the people running the show here, can not take a cue from Dell and Apple, two companies who found out the hard way a customer’s perception on outsourcing.

    It’s a total train wreck, this company is being run into the ground intentionally.

  29. redhand32 says:

    I don’t want to appear bigoted because this is true. I get this heavily Slavic or Eastern European voice on the phone “Hi I’m Tony from [garbled "company name"] in Wilmington and need your son B’s Social Security Number.”

    Yeah, and I’m the Dahli Lamha from 2 blocks over. Where did you say you were from ? Is that in the US ? How about you give me your address and phone number and I’ll call you back later at 2:00 PM.”

    Oh is this a bad time for you, someone can call you at a more convenient time. All I need is B’s Social Security Number.

    And all I need is to hang up, Boris. [click]

  30. spunky_redhead15 says:

    egh…sykes. you say a dirty word. i used to be a tech, then helpdesk technician and then a “trainer” for a sykes site in the US. let me tell you…outsourcing took away the only account i worked on that didn’t suck that bad. in the almost three years i was there, i worked on FIVE accounts and the quality assurance metrics for all the accounts were different and all insanely ridiculous. i never did much monitoring, except for when i was in the classroom when i was both the trainee and the trainer. some of those calls made me want to slit my wrists just listening to them…

  31. mrbiggsndatx says:

    I am a Quality Analyst for AT&T Mobility, and although not all of these are applicable to our standards, the theme runs concurrent. Blind leading the blind…..

  32. mrbiggsndatx says:

    @mrbiggsndatx: oh yeah, i work in a building that has mold and a giant “exhaust” pipe that is not covered (you can see outside with it, literally looking at the sky!!) and has no exhaust fan. AT&T FTW!!!

  33. Anonymous says:

    This is so hilariously funny that I almost spilled my coffee on myself. I work for ATT Mobility and face ridiculous QA’s that rather focus on what scripting is used vs. solving the problem. I don’t make all the QA’s and now I know why.

    Favorites: #2, 6, 7, 8, 9.