back to article Strong-willed field support op holds it together during painful customer call

Roll up, roll up, to the best part of your day, nay, your week – On Call, where Reg readers share Eureka moments and gleeful memories in tech support. man photocopies own head, pic by shutterstock User secures floppies to a filing cabinet with a magnet, but at least they backed up daily... right? READ MORE This week, we meet …

  1. BebopWeBop

    Commendable. My own story - NOT IT based, is as a stripling being sent back to a chinese restaurant to collect the sauces that had not been delivered. My friend and I wandered in and asked and they denied ever doing that sort of thing (providing take out sauces). But I insisted. And after a little muttering they went into a back room and emerged with an enormous container of sauce.

    I got it home to much aclaim. But it turned out I had gone to a completely different restaurant who did not even do take aways.

    Needless (?) to say I did write a letter apologising to them and explaining my mistake and thanking them for their courtesy. Not that my parent insisting I did it had anything to do with my response......

    I suspect I was the butt of their jokes afterwards - but my parents did then use them for restaurant meals for years afterwards.So every good deed and all that

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Well they do say you should always check your sauces...

      Mine's the one with the book of awful puns in the pocket.

    2. Lee D Silver badge

      A good example of when customer services (which is an *expense*, remember) really pays off.

      It probably didn't hurt that much for them to do, and if they got a couple of meals out of it, likely it paid dividends for them.

      On several occasions I've done the "Look, honestly, it's nothing to do with me/my employer, but I'll help you out..." and given equipment, advice, phone numbers, referrals, my time. Not to everyone (you have to be polite still) but it got a few people out of really hairy situations not of their own creation when I could have just shrugged and walked off. It usually resulted in a much bigger payback, whether that be a box of chocolates biscuits at Christmas or them singing their praises to my boss.

      1. llaryllama

        Cheers to that

        Also life is too short to be a miser about some help or information that takes 5 minutes or less to give. I sometimes worry if I am taking it too far, but I work in a very specialist industry where a lot of old knowledge is dying out. I am more than happy to help out a competitor's engineer especially if they are a young'un. My karma meter being full does pay dividends when I'm the one who needs help.

    3. chivo243 Silver badge

      I lost count of idiots calling the pizza place I worked at, complaining about their pizza, wanted a refund. They ordered their pizza from another restaurant...

      Caller to another in the room: Dude, where did we order this pizza from?

      Other person in the room: We ordered a pizza?

    4. herman Silver badge

      So it was Free Open Sauce?

  2. chivo243 Silver badge

    Great example

    Not my monkeys, not my circus! She handled that well, considering the magnitude of the facepalm! I don't know if Jean likes beer, but she can have one on me!

  3. Daedalus


    I'm not buying this at all. Who would shell out for what was then a very expensive piece of hardware and leave it in the hands of a numty? The manually entered bootstrap places this in the era of paper tape (though I may have seen mag tape input systems with manual boot loader entry). When we restarted our NMR machine which had a Nicolet mini in it, all concerned had received proper training in entering the boot loader, and in any case the procedure was written down.

    And instant phone support? You're kidding, right? If your PDP went funny you called the local office and got a tech sent out at great expense. I don't remember any phone banks being involved.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seriously?

      "Who would shell out for what was then a very expensive piece of hardware and leave it in the hands of a numty?"

      Many people, I am sure, would like to know your secret recipe for never working in a company with a PHB.

    2. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Seriously?

      > If your PDP went funny you called the local office ... I don't remember any phone banks being involved.

      So how do you think that call happened? Magic monkeys? Mental telepathy?

      1. Shadow Systems

        At Gene Cash...

        Magic monkeys with mental telepathy!

        Mine have wings & can fly, how about yours? =-)P

        1. Adrian 4

          Re: At Gene Cash...

          Scratch monkeys ?

          1. waldo kitty

            Re: At Gene Cash...

            Scratch monkeys ?

            this reply is highly underrated... i'd like to +1 it numerous more times! ;)

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            With the attendant Risks of posting it...

            It's nice to see that the Scratch Monkey reference can still be made swimmingly...

    3. Trollslayer

      Re: Seriously?

      Grow up.

    4. Martin Gregorie

      Re: Seriously?

      The manually entered bootstrap places this in the era of paper tape

      Not necessarily - paper tape was earlier than that. My Universitiy's early/mid 60s Elliott 503 used paper tape for everything, - bootloader, Reserved Area Program, program binaries and data, but ICL 1900 mainframes, current from the late 60s to the late 70s, had handswitches that could be used to enter bootstraps or patch programs. Binaries were on mag tape, disk or (more rarely), cards.

      The old 1902 we used in 1968 also had a single button for bootstrap entry that, when pressed, pulsed a wire threaded through the first few words of its ferrite core memory. This wrote the bootstrap into memory. Then turning the big switch to RUN was supposed to boot the system. However, the pulse entry often failed: in fact this happened so often so often that the operators had memorised the sequence of handswitch settings needed to input the bootstrap.

      1. swm

        Re: Seriously?

        The LGP-30 used paper tape (around 1960) and the initial bootstrap consisted of storing three instructions in memory. You type c0000, press A-> I, i0000, execute instruction, c0004, A -> I, c000j, execute instruction, c0008, A -> I, c000j, press 4 buttons OCNS, and, with luck, the bootloader (10.4) would load from the photo tape reader. You would see c0000i0000c0004c000jc0008i0000 on lots of scrap paper. (I am skipping some of the button presses.)

        Around 1968 we got a GE-635 (a machine that filled a room) and the boot procedure consisted of stopping everything, setting the mask register in the memory, loading cards in the card reader, setting the processor to be able to run, goto the IO controller and jump to a card boot location, hit run on the IO controller and one card would be booted (we had bootstraps that that only needed to boot one card) then do this again for the second card. They eventually put some boot buttons on the console to simplify this.

      2. Dave 32

        Re: Seriously?

        That predates me, by a bit. I started in the era of the "Three Card Loader".

    5. MOH

      Re: Seriously?

      Own up. It was you, wasn't it?

    6. keith_w

      Re: Seriously?

      that happened my first week on the job programming a PDP-11. The service tech was in the night before and had reset the boot address to 0s. The operator, a very nice lady, but not a trained IT person, was at a complete loss as to how to proceed. I managed to set the address switches based on the hardware manual - it was my first introduction to PDPs and got it up an running in an hour or 2.

      1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Seriously?

        The instructions for the boot loader were either memorised, or on a bit of TTY paper, taped to the console.

        If not there, somewhere in the PDP-11 Hardware Manual, a little paperback book printed on paper cheaper than Teletype but pricier than bog roll.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seriously?

      Are you calling bullshit on this?

      Always a joy to read posts from people who weren't there but know better

      1. Daedalus

        Re: Seriously?

        If there's any truth to this it might have involved an orphan system. I remember when the shiny new DEC-10 arrived at uni in the 70's, the ICL 4130 and its PDP front end didn't get thrown out. Instead it got moved to where the CompSci peeps could have their way with it. Extrapolate that a few years and you might well find somebody at a loss trying to get a system going that had no manuals etc. Most minis were placed on site with a full set of manuals and, hopefully, trained attendants.

        1. Stoneshop

          Re: Seriously?

          If there's any truth to this it might have involved an orphan system. I remember when the shiny new DEC-10 arrived at uni

          That's a machine that had to be put in a controlled environment, lots of power and cooling, and dedicated staff to tend it. However, DEC became big by offering systems that one could put next to a production line, a lab experiment or in the broom closet next to a small office without such amenities. One internal NOTES file had stories about what harsh environment some systems were found in (sawmill, grain elevator, cement factory; I once replaced the power supply in an 8/e that was controlling chlorine gas production) and just kept chugging. And those wouldn't all have dedicated staff 24/7 knowing what to do and who to call if something went wrong.

          It's not just perfectly plausible that sometimes a customer would erroneously call DEC for whatever other system they had, given the proliferation of PDPs (and later mVAXes) and the enormous spread in clue level for the environments they were used in, a misdirected call like in the article was moderately common.

      2. jelabarre59

        Re: Seriously?

        Always a joy to read posts from people who weren't there but know better

        What, my 13 yr old daughter is posting here? I *never* have to look anything up, because she knows EVERYTHING.

    8. ricardian

      Re: Seriously?

      In the mid 1980s I was working at a Government facility in Scarborough (N Yorks) and we had a new PDP 11/23 Plus on which to develop new "C" software. It must have been a "Friday build" because it frequently died on us and wouldn't re-boot. This meant phoning the office in Leeds who would despatch an engineer. We were charged £50 an hour from the time the engineer left Leeds until he eventually got back to Leeds.

      1. Ken Shabby
        Big Brother

        Re: Seriously?

        The Prime P450, keyed in the disk loader and ran, no paper tape involved. Similar to PDP 1130 process, though that pulled in a paper tape first. Some places may have had both

      2. Ol'Peculier

        Re: Seriously?

        Ah, Government Facility. That's what they are calling it nowadays?

        Took me ages before I met people that worked here to work out what CSOS stood for...

      3. Tim99 Silver badge

        Re: Seriously?

        You were lucky, our HP engineer was charged out at £95 an hour to drive his Ford Cortina Estate from base and back, and £135 an hour when on-site. Needless to say we only called him out when we really needed to.

    9. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Seriously?

      "Who would shell out for what was then a very expensive piece of hardware and leave it in the hands of a numty?"

      I always thought it was compulsory - the numpty in charge.

      But of course, you're really taking the 'P', aren't you? I see the subtle clue in the mis-spelling of numpty.

    10. Stoneshop

      Re: Seriously?

      If your PDP went funny you called the local office and got a tech sent out at great expense.

      There's a few steps missing around the 'and' in your sentence.

      During the call to the local office they would ask for the model and serial number. This to verify that the machine was under contract as well as making sure the right parts would be sent out: you can't fix an 11/45 with the parts for an 11/83 or an 8/f, and the system being down because of a crashed system disk would require a totally different parts kit again. If the system wasn't under contract and it was indeed a system made by us, not by some OEM that had built a system based on PDP parts, the customer would be asked if he was OK with being billed. The call would then be transferred to the site responsible engineer, if present, who would further diagnose the problem, determine the urgency and make an appointment. If he was elsewhere he'd get a call from the office that customer X had logged a call on machine Y, and he'd take a few minutes to call the customer, ascertain the problem, and arrange for one of his colleagues to be sent out.

      Later we changed to central call handling, with field engineers doing call analysis two or three weeks every couple of months; call intake (verifying customer data and contract status) was done by administrative staff.

  4. Trollslayer
    Thumb Up

    A great example of professionalism

    As per title.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reminds me of the time ...

    ... I had to deal with an irate customer who was seething about not getting a trade show give-away USB hub.

    And I mean really pissed. (Do these guy have nothing better to do?!)

    After much searching and a couple of calls it turned out the give-away was from a competitor.

    Must have cost about a grand in support/engineering time for both parties.

    Not even a thank you when I pointed this out, suggesting he call the competitor's AE support line.

    Ho hum.

    1. Matt Ryan

      Re: Reminds me of the time ...

      No one more righteously indignant that someone who is in the wrong.

      Ever been swore at by another driver who cut you up - that's them (all of you).

    2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Reminds me of the time ...

      Missed an opportunity, there.

      Ask him for his mailing details, ship him out a generic USB hub with YOUR company's name on it :-)

      1. Nunyabiznes

        Re: Reminds me of the time ...

        Better yet, send him a generic USB hub with the competitor's name and some special software. Perhaps a couple of charged capacitors...

  6. fidodogbreath

    Secret transmitters

    Back in the early 90s I worked in technical sales for an Apple dealer. We were a smallish company, so the sales folks like me helped out with support stuff.

    One of my customers brought in a Mac II that he said had been crashing. He was vague about the exact sequence of events ("it does it all the time") and we weren't able to reproduce the issue on the bench, so I called him to pick it up.

    'Howard' was an old hippie with a very dry sense of humor and we had always gotten along well. When he came in, he asked me, "how come this thing never crashes when you guys have it?"

    Displaying my mad skillz as sales-trained, highly professional relationship seller, I pointed to an ultrasonic motion alarm sensor on the ceiling. "That's a service transmitter. All the stores have them. When a computer is in range of those, it won't crash."

    Howard's head snapped up, he smacked his fist on the counter and went ape-shit. "WHAT?!?!? WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU HAVE SOMETHING LIKE THAT?!? THAT'S BULLSHIT!!!"

    The other employees drifted closer to enjoy the show, and the store manager (aka The Dragon Lady, of whom we were all terrified) appeared out of nowhere. I hastily stammered out an apology -- "no, sorry, bad joke, that's just part of our burglar alarm" -- and comped his diagnostic fee. After he left, the manager reamed me out for comping the charge, even though the guy was a good customer.

    Epilogue: Howard called me later and confessed. He knew I was joking, but he was short on cash and figured if he acted pissed and made a scene I'd probably comp him. Age and treachery, for the win...

  7. ColinPa

    Help thy neighbour

    I visited a VSE customer in the US running a 4331 (shows how long ago) for a City's IT department.

    We were not allowed to make any changes to the software around a weekend, as they ran the payroll on Saturday. No payroll, no Police, teachers, etc, simple as that.

    The sysprogs were telling me of these new tape drives they had got in to replace the IBM ones. (These new tape drives appeared at the same week the IT manager got a new car, pure coincidence of course).

    Come the running of the payroll - and the tape drives did not work. They phoned the support desk, but there was a problem with the maintenance agreement, so they could not send an engineer till the paper work was fixed on Monday. After an hour of us standing around looking at the tape drive willing it to work, the IBM engineer quietly came over, opened the cover, fixed it, and went back to his proper work. He didn't say a word, but was rewarded later by a crate of beers from the sysprogs.

  8. MOV r0,r0

    Used to get this, when rumbled the caller would usually say:

    Business, "But you supplied our other computers"

    Personal, "But you supplied our previous computer"

    They would never be interested in support contracts either - those weren't free.

  9. Andrew Moore


    Back in the day when I used to do tech support for Psion Kit, I would regularly get Palm Pilot and Apple Newton owners ringing for technical support because: a) the support lines from the manufacturers of their kit were useless; and b) we did support for Psion and that’s a PDA so they are the same thing...

    Most of them would get very belligerent when I point out that they had not paid me for any technical support as they had not purchased our equipment. For the real arseholes, I learnt early on how to do factory resets on a variety of competitors gear.

  10. Suricou Raven

    I've been that client.

    Mixed up Acer and Asus. They sound so similar! I called the wrong one.

    Asus tech support insisted that their company is pronounced A-Zeus, so I think they get that a lot.

    1. DavCrav

      Re: I've been that client.

      "Asus tech support insisted that their company is pronounced A-Zeus, so I think they get that a lot."

      Do they happen to know Hyacinth Bu-cket?

  11. anthonyhegedus Silver badge


    The problem works in reverse too... when the support person is convinced I’ve rung the wrong number. I once had a xerox LCD monitor that died, so I called the helpline. Got straight through to a support person in the screen dept. Or so I thought. I explained the problem that the screen was completely dead.

    Xerox: “can you give me the serial number?”

    I give them the serial number,

    Xerox: “that’s not a serial number”

    Me: “yes it is, it’s right where it says serial number”

    Xerox: “no, can you find the serial number?”

    Me: “there is no other number, it’s right on the back of the screen where it says serial number. There are no other numbers apart from the model number”

    Xerox: “What’s the model number then?”

    I give them the model number

    Xerox: “that’s not a xerox model number.”

    Me: “yes it is. It says xerox”

    Xerox: “what type of photocopier is this exactly?”

    Me: “it’s not a photocopier, it’s a screen”

    Xerox: “what? We don’t make screens! This is photocopier service. “

    Me: “I can assure you that you do. It’s definitely a screen and it definitely says xerox on it in big letters”

    Xerox: “well why did you ring the photocopier service department then?”

    Me: “I didn’t. I rang the number on the back of the screen and pressed the option for screen department”

    Xerox: “no you didn’t. We don’t make screens and there is no screen repair department! Stop wasting our time !l”

    And they hung up on me!

    I eventually found another number on the internet.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not sure who to call

    Because there are so many TV channels now and different organisations handle them and then these change from time to time and get taken over etc etc, there were times in my old job (TV playout) when I would call up <organisation X> and have to ask sheepishly - "do you uplink [channel name] on DSat?" or similar - even when it was one of the channels we played out... It would happen the other way round as well with other organisations phoning us as saying "have you got a problem with [channel1235]?" to which my answer was "not one of ours I'm afraid....try Sky, Arqiva [or someone else]"

    You'd think we'd have a big chart of all this info, but whenever I'd finished updating it, it would change again and my colleagues seemed reluctant to update it...

  13. gordonmcoats

    late 80's, working as operator in a Bank's operations centre, large IBM laser line-printer requiring further investigation for some paper stuck deep in the bowels of the paper path somewhere..

    Me: "Hey, friendly Siemens engineer, can I borrow a screwdriver? There's some paper stuck somewhere and I need to open up the printer to reach it.."

    friendly Siemens engineer: "Is it one of ours?"

    Me: "No, it's the IBM one"

    friendly Siemens engineer: "Here you go..."

  14. Eric Kimminau TREG

    Software Install Technical Support

    It was ~1990 and I was working in the technical support department for a computer & software warehouse company that changed its name during IPO and no longer exists.

    I was working the technical support help line and have a very distressed user call in trying to install a product called Paradox that had about 35 x 5.25" floppies for the install.

    Mr. Customer: Hi! I'm having a really hard time installing this software product called Paradox and I'm hoping you could help.

    Me: Sure. What seems to be the problem?

    Mr. Customer: Well, I'm following the on screen prompts. The installation started just fine after I put in the first floppy. It keeps telling me to "insert next disk" and so far I have put in 6 and I'm trying to insert #7 but there just isn't room for any more disks.

    Me: What is the error you are getting? Is it saying "out of disk space" or is it some other error?

    Mr. Customer: It isn't giving an error. It just keeps popping up a little window that says "Insert next disk" with an OK button. Ive put in 6 disks so far and then clicked OK but there isn't any room for any more disks.

    Me: I'm not sure I under stand. How do you know there isn't any room for more disks if it isn't giving you an error?

    Mr. Customer (starting to sound really miffed): Because there isn't any more room to fit any more disks. I keep sliding them into the slot for the next disks and I can't fit any more into the slot.

    Me: Can you hold on a second. I want to go grab the build sheet for your computer so I can confirm something. ( I place the customer on hold. I go pull his build sheet. He has a single 5.25" floppy drive and 2 empty drive bay slots below with blank covers on them. I'm pretty sure I know what has happened now.)

    Me: Mr. Customer, I think I understand what is going on now. Is there any way you could please bring in your computer and the remaining disks and we can help get you through this as quickly as possible?

    Mr. Customer: I guess if I have to. Can't you just tell me how to solve the problem?

    (By this time, I have 5 guys standing around me with smiles on their faces. They have figured out the problem as I'm sure most of you have as well)

    Me: Well, I'm not 100% positive, because I am going to have to see your machine to be completely positive but I'm guessing there is a small space below your primary floppy drive and the empty drive bay below. Have you opened the locking lever and taken the first floppy disk out and then inserted the second disk and closed the locking lever again, then when it asked for the next disk you opened the locking lever, removed the second disk, inserted the third disk and closed the locking lever, etc. etc.?

    Mr. Customer: No. It didn't tell me to open the drive and remove the first disk. It just said "Insert next disk" so that's what I have been doing.

    Me: Exactly. So now you have 6 disks in an empty space in your case and we are kinda stuck. So if you bring in the rest of the disks and your computer, we can help you get things finished real quick.

    Mr Customer grudgingly agrees. Upon bringing the computer to the technical support window, you can see the half crumpled floppy disk #6 shoved into the small gap below his primary disk drive.

    We had to rma the "defective" copy of Paradox and exchange for a new pristine copy without folded and mangled floppy disks and the software installation proceeded as expected. We canceled the install and pulled Mr. Customer into the tech room as we started the installation and walked him through the first 3 disks swaps. We then got him a cup of coffee and asked him to take a seat while we completed the installation. 35 minutes and 22 disks later the installation finished. We brought him back one last time to see "Installation complete", boxed up his software, powered down the computer and sent him along his way. I really wanted to charge him an hours labor for "Custom software installation" but my manager chalked it up as a learning experience for both of us.

    1. Roopee Silver badge

      Re: Software Install Technical Support

      Pretty sure I've got a copy of Borland Paradox on floppies somewhere, awaiting removal to my apocryphal PC museum.

  15. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

    Central Services

    At one of my previous places of employment, management had gotten it into its head that having one number to call for internal maintenance purposes would somehow be a cost savings. Let the person taking the initial call figure out what sort of problem it was. Anything from desktop support, networking, facilities maintenance, plumbers, etc. I called one problem in about a workstation connectivity problem. They sent out an electrician (lights, plugs, panelboards, etc.) Poor guy just took one look at the system, shook his head and walked away.

    We had an internal gossip bulletin board where I posted the details of this latest folly. And ended my comment with a proposed motto: "Central Services. One number to call if your toilets back up or your servers don't." Within a few months, they went back to system specific support desks. I don't think upper management ever got the reference to Brazil when they solicited proposals for the organization's name.

  16. LewisRage

    I used to work the service desk for, as it was, Norwich Union. Being a very large company it had a whole variety of sub-divisions all with their own acronym, you'd get calls from NUI, NUGA, NUITS etc etc, there were many of these and all varied. Too many to really remember them all but it generally didn't matter. They had a computer, it had a problem, you fixed it and moved on with your life.

    One day I had a call from someone from NFU. We went back and forth, her computer didn't have an asset tag, her name wasn't in the support system, I checked which office she was in, it was Norwich and although I didn't recognise the address there were a few small offices that you might not come across all that often.

    Eventually I started getting more broad in my questioning and it became apparent that she was with the National Farmers Union and bizarrely she had a 'Call Service Desk on 01603 699999' (which was out number) stuck on it.

    9 months later my team leader shouts over and asks me if I've ever heard of NFU. I told him it was National Farmers Union and he told me I needed to stop taking the fucking piss and help, so I explained and it turned out that this person had the same sticker on their computer.

    1. jmch Silver badge

      "bizarrely she had a 'Call Service Desk on 01603 699999' (which was out number) stuck on it."

      Maybe not so bizarre, probably some old bank computer that had been sold on.

  17. TheresaJayne

    That reminds me

    Reminds me of a long time friend who regailed us of this story:

    He worked for a comapany that dealt with always on computing back in the 90s, meaning that their database servers were installed in sealed containers, with multiple actual machines , UPS and such all mounted in a shock proof case,

    He had a call one day, it went like this.

    Client: Hi, our database server has gone down, can you tell us how to bring it back up?

    Support: Sure, <security/account checks>, So you say it's down, are you able to tell me what the lights on the panel are showing?

    Client: Yes they are "working system lights"

    Support: OK?? Can you plug a cable from a laptop to the port on the front, and type the following commands?

    Client: Ok it says "Working system details"

    Support: Are you sure it's down, the system is reporting full functionality?

    Client: Oh The database is working, The building floor collapsed, its in the Basement, Where are the mount points so we can get it craned out!

    Support: <Facepalm> "proceeds to explain where to attache cables to the outer container"

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