In the mid-1990s I worked phone tech support at a call center in the Twin Cities. Though I kind of hated it at the time, it proved to be a valuable experience. At first the stress was pretty high, then burnout set in. Eventually, like most, I moved past the burnout to calm acceptance, while always planning on eventual escape.

Over the slightly more than two years I worked phone technical support I’d estimate I took around eight and a half thousand calls. Sounds extraordinary perhaps, but add it up: We aimed for 20 calls daily and for nearly a year we were subjected to “mandatory” overtime on weekends. I didn’t keep an exact count during that time but I remember my numbers pretty well and between hitting seventeen calls on average, doing some email support and doing programming tasks and the overtime, 8,529 is as good of an estimate as I can make.

We supported Micron and Zeos PCs and laptops. Micron PC bought Minneapolis-based Zeos effective in 1995 and I came on in early 1996. This was right in the midst of rolling out Windows 95 as the default OS and we supported it along with DOS and Windows For Workgroups (3.11), and Windows NT 3.51 and all the Microsoft Office software.

So what did I learn?

Aside from some really useless memories of CD-ROM driver installation procedures and Word macro viruses most of what I learned was about people, not PCs.


Imagine starting up 8,529 conversations the same way: “Thanks for calling technical support, my name is Colin, may I have your serial number or customer number?” For the first six months it fills your dreams. So I learned to greet callers in my sleep.

Attraction and Repulsion

Calls were routed to our desk phones as long as our phone was in the call queue. If we were at our desks, we were expected to be in the phone queue. (In case you’re not familiar with these phones, they are something like this, with large, comfortable headsets.)

Once we ended a conversation with a customer, we were not in the queue – unless you had the phone set to automatically go back in the queue, known as “auto-in.” We could complete brief notes or finish processing an RMA (part replacement,) but this time needed to be short. Ideally according to the management we’d do all this while on the phone with the customer. The queue was rarely empty. Normally, as soon as you put your phone online you’d get a call.

Phone technicians developed one of two very strong feelings before hitting the “auto-in” button to put them back in the queue: Strong aversion or strong compulsion. I was in the latter group. It’s strange; I didn’t love taking calls but once I got used to it, doing anything other than taking calls would cause time to drag unbearably. Toward the end of the day I’d get a perverse urge to hit that button just one more time before leaving even though I didn’t want to be there.

Exposure Therapy

Spending all day on the phone every day of the week sure will cure you of any aversion to taking phone calls. Not that you learn to love it, but what’s one more conversation after so many? Well, either you adapt to feel that way or you lose your mind. A few people did.

After a few months constantly fielding calls from unhappy customers, all the anxiety and excess emotion I felt at first dropped away. I couldn’t afford it. At that point – about four months for me – what you’re left with is a core of focused, purposeful intention to move in a positive direction as soon as you start the conversation. Empathy remains, it helps both parties; but otherwise you’re like a problem solving machine.

A few months later, I entered what I call “zombie mode” where I couldn’t even recall what a customer interaction was about five seconds after completing a call. Time would fly by. Several times I caught myself daydreaming even as I walked a customer through a complex set of steps and I noticed I had no memory of how we had reached that point. This is what’s known as “flow” if the work is prestigious. To me it felt more like Severance.

Since then I’ve never minded calling customer service. The issue I’m calling about may bother me but the call itself is fine and I know how to work with the representative given the limits of their power and ability. I’m good at discovering what their limits are. They typically aren’t given enough power to actually solve the problem but they may know what you should do. If you talk nicely they may tell you.

How to Make Customer Service Work for You

Approach the conversation as if you’re trying to solve your problem yourself. You’re not demanding they solve everything, you’re asking for help from someone, including information and advice. Most people like helping others (really!)

Since front line reps typically aren’t granted authority to do a lot, demanding that they do the impossible will put them on the defensive. Your problem is with the company, not the rep. Get them on your side. One great way to do that is to ask for their advice. What would they do in your shoes? Obviously one outcome may be that you have to talk to a supervisor to get the problem solved but don’t start out demanding this unless you know it’s the only way to resolve your issue.

You need to approach problems of a technical nature and problems of company policy differently: For instance, unless the rep you’re talking to is incompetent (certainly possible,) demanding to speak to a supervisor is pointless. You don’t solve technical problems with political approaches, but you can make getting them solved less likely by annoying anyone who could help. A technical problem either has a solution or not, no amount of yelling will change reality.

On the other hand, company policies can be adjusted. Don’t accept the first denial if you really believe you have a case. This is where talking to a supervisor may actually help. Don’t expect miracles. These days lots of large companies simply do not care and have no interest in putting any effort into individual customer situations. For example I have a problem where Amazon delivery often drops my packages at the wrong address. After talking to their customer service a lot– “Gosh that must be frustrating,” they say – I’ve determined there’s nothing they will do. My workaround was to set the USPS as the only shipping option: They actually know how to find my house. But that doesn’t solve for delivery from third party sellers.

If someone isn’t solving your problem, and you think they’re not trying, find an excuse to hang up and call back. Of course if the wait time is long, this is where you could start to lose patience.

You Just Can’t Talk to Some People

After collecting a large sample of conversations I began to appreciate that certain types of individuals cannot communicate with one another. A bad pairing is fairly rare, perhaps one to two percent of pairs of people cannot take part in an effective problem solving discussion. In my sample half that pair in my sample was me. Others may have had more or less success. I don’t know how many of those problem pairing were “my fault.”

This usually wasn’t a matter of language proficiency. Most of these people were native English speakers. It wasn’t even their level of technical know-how.

I can’t put my finger on the cause except I know it wasn’t all the “other guy’s” fault. Some of these people spoke to other techs and everything went fine. And on the other hand a number of customers some other tech couldn’t work with were manageable for me. (We’d occasionally hand off customers if things went really poorly.) Other tines a customer would call back repeatedly until they got their problem solved and you could see this in action when reading the case notes. I wonder if a psychologist could study this phenomenon systematically.

People Will do Anything You Say

Okay, not anything. But they’ll do a lot more than you’d expect. This goes back to communication. We learned to get good at first soothing customers, then talking them around to a positive attitude and eventually doing what was needed to fix their problem, kind of a mini therapy session. These were often lengthy, tedious operations. When you (the tech) are on one end of the phone and the customer is on the other your only tool is your words. The customer could hang up at any time and call customer service demanding their money back. (They wouldn’t get it after thirty days, but nevertheless a bad outcome.)

Most people, given enough encouragement would open up their computer and pull components out while on the phone. You could get them to spend ridiculous amounts of time re-installing software or typing in scripts to fix their device driver configuration.

Good Troubleshooting Requires Good Communication

Taking part in so many focused, involuntary conversations aimed at problem solving teaches you the only way out is through. So you’d better get good at going through.

The problem solving skills were part of what it took, but establishing communication – good rapport – was an under-appreciated skill as well. After all, if you had a really good rapport a customer would be more forgiving if you couldn’t solve their technical issue quickly. You relied on the customer to keep engaging with you in order to finish troubleshooting and that often takes a lot of patience.

Even if you were the best troubleshooter, sometimes a problem wasn’t getting solved on the first call (lack of replacement parts for instance.) Good communication was always key to having a good day and a good follow-up call.