Previously, we looked at some do/don’t scenarios when asking for help, mentorship or just to go for coffee. It seemed to strike a nerve with quite a few people. Hope it helps.

This time around, we’re going down a rabbit hole that’s near and dear to my heart. By day, I manage customer support for a domain registrar. Combined with previous community management, that translates to people from all over the world, with all levels of expertise, asking for help. All day, every day.

So, let’s talk about seeking customer/tech support. This will have a bent towards online services, but the key points will be relevant for issues with anything from your bank to your blender.

When you need to contact support, the most fundamental thing that we need to know is who you are. If you use our support form while logged in to your account, great. Authentication achieved. But if not, we’ll need to confirm identity. Emailing us from an address not associated with the account, for example, isn’t very helpful.

You wouldn’t call a 1-800 number and say, “Hey, it’s me.” The more time we spend confirming who you are, the longer it takes to start fixing things.

Security, my friends, is critical. We are not just going to give you access to an account. Maybe it does have your name on it. Maybe not. Could be that you’re trying to login with the wrong credentials. Or the account expired, or the security system blocked you as a fraud risk.

You will be asked to follow steps and provide information. Do not get bitchy about this. If someone else wanted us to give them the keys to your account, containing things you’ve paid for, access to your intellectual property, personal and financial information – would you want us to just hand that over based on, “Hey, it’s me”? Didn’t think so.

Different companies have different security requirements, but you want them to be inflexible and meticulous about them. Stories like this might seem insane to the average consumer, but to those of us on the other side, there’s a grain of understanding.

Lest you think I’m being dramatic, a co-worker once had a woman fake her mother’s death certificate to try and gain account access. Seriously. So many scams… sob stories, lost credentials, stolen credit cards, dead people… The only constant is that most scammers aren’t very detailed or creative. (A good one is almost fun.)

Now that we know who you are, next be clear about what’s wrong or what you need. Yes, we can look up a lot of things, but are all your websites broken? Did you want all your products updated? Were you trying to do something entirely new?

I know you may be frustrated or panicky, but take a breath and try to be accurate and specific. Because, y’know, isn’t actually your domain name or website. We usually can’t help if you don’t even know what you’re asking for. (Though occasionally I’m a friggin’ wizard, I will say…)

If you want to be truly beloved, be like a detective telling us all the relevant case info: what kind of account you have, which product, etc. Depending on the issue, even things like serial number or model number can be useful. Sometimes we’ll know what’s up immediately. Sometimes we’ll have to ask a bunch of questions.

Don’t ever just tell a support person “my website is broken” or comparable. Again, be a detective. What were you doing? Where? How? Was there an error message? Did you take screenshots?

Also, before you contacted us, did you try to research things yourself? A little RTFM goes a long way. As someone who’s written vast reams of documentation, trust me, I ain’t doing it for my benefit. If the company has any sort of decent customer service, most garden-variety questions/problems should be covered in the help section.

By the way, are you sure which company or product is the source of the problem? If you honestly don’t know, fair enough. But I have received complaints ranging from someone trying to send a money order to Iran, to demanding to be #1 in Google search results. I wish I had that kind of power.

When we require you to identify yourself, or ask for specific info, or have to tell you no or that we can’t fix it, don’t be rude. Don’t email me in all caps 10 times. Don’t swear at my co-workers. Don’t “ask for help” by insulting us, making demands, assuming we’re just being lazy, or that there’s some conspiracy afoot. (Like we have nothing better to do…)

It’s not going to get you better or faster service. It’s not going to convince us of how important you are. And no, you’re not going to sue us. (But man, do Americans love to threaten that.)

Finally: we are not going to call you. Many tech companies, especially small ones, do not offer phone support. There are good reasons for this: technically, financially, and operationally.

Plenty offer email and/or chat support options. Some companies can guarantee to get back to you very quickly, some can’t. If you have very stringent support requirements, research this before you sign up or buy something. Only you assume everything is drop-dead urgent.

These things should help you get help more quickly and efficiently. They’ll also prevent you from getting a reputation within companies you deal with. (We remember). And most importantly, they limit how much we need to drink at quittin’ time.


Photo: Help is on the way, elevator, Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL by Cory Doctorow is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or