I understand your pain, Chimera, as a fellow tech support wonk. I think that I’ll pass on some of the lessons that I’ve learned.
Technical support at huge companies is a high stress and low reward situation at practically every level. That means you are surrounded, and led by, people who either are frantically looking for a way out or are unable to get employment elsewhere due to economic conditions or just general incompetence.
The MBAs who are calling the shots know two simple things about business:
- To succeed, you must maximize your profits and minimize your losses.
- It costs more to get a new customer than keep an old one.
Because technical support, customer service, refund policies, warranty service, etc. all fall in the “losses” category, this means that you have an intrinsically unstable situation. This is why you see random policy switches. At the end of the day, the idiots in middle management know that they need to minimize losses (e.g. you) but they don’t want to make the customer angry.
This means that an individual customer gets whatever they want. But in the grand scheme of things, we need to minimize losses. Somehow. They want you to figure this out; they sure haven’t.
Competent management stands up for good employees because they know that they’ve trained and managed them appropriately and passed on appropriate info and given a clear direction and generally not fucked up and what have you. They know their shit, so they can produce the memo from last month which contradicts the new one. Incompetent management does whatever is easiest to resolve a situation without looking stupid. Thus, you know you have incompetent management. Treat them accordingly. Three simple rules:
1 - Always cover your ass. Never, ever violate this policy ever. Ever. Ever.
2 - Be a good employee, rather than a good technician.
3 - You can predict the natural behavior of incompetent management by determining whatever is easiest.
Rule #1 is probably trickiest even though it’s simple. This means that every decision that you make must include CYA. You must never waver in this rule. Never give the customer the benefit of the doubt, never give your manager the benefit of the doubt. CYA every time. (Yes, this sucks, but remember: it’s the company’s customers, not yours. They don’t care about the customer or they would fix the problems, so you need to look out for yourself.)
Customers love to get you to violate #1 because it gives them an edge. Consider every customer – or, at least, every customer who is likely to escalate – as a threat. You must not let them know this, but you must take all precautions to prevent escalation. When escalation prevention is not possible, you must do all that you can to present yourself in the best possible light as defined by the company’s standards. We’ll get back to that in a second.
So, how to CYA? Learn to talk less and say little, when it comes to matters of policy and negotiation. Explain the policy and the customer asks, “But I want this!” You respond by rephrasing what you’ve said. Don’t tell the customer “you should have read X” or whatever – don’t create confrontation. Just restate. If they again ask for something outside the policy, say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have that option. Here are the things we can do now.” (Note “we”, not “I”. Make it impersonal). If they are unhappy, say, “I’m really sorry that you’re not happy” or “I appreciate that you’re really upset, I know these things can be frustrating” and then again go back to the options. Don’t add more – never talk about internal processes, never say “I’m required to do X”, don’t undermine yourself. These are the options, and that’s it. Your job is to present them. They will often ask you why the policy exists. “Why” questions are tough because you can’t debate policy (makes you talk too much) and you can’t imply that it’s not your decision (undermines yourself). You never want to imply that there is someone else that they can talk to, or that you don’t have authority. It’s best to deflect when possible, like by empathizing again and restating the options (rephrased). Have a sympathetic edge to your voice, but don’t add personal opinions or other information.
Now, how to be a good employee. Ultimately this is a matter of appearance; it is one way to get leeway when CYA fails. This means you must present yourself as Johnny Goodworker at all times – in calls, in meetings, with your supervisor, etc. This goes a long way in determining what happens.
One important thing is to show only good emotions. Don’t get angry or frustrated – this becomes something that management has to deal with (and they want to avoid work at all costs) or it becomes something a customer can use against you. In order to CYA, you want to control your outward emotional state. You want to always display one of the following emotions:
- Happiness (I am a good little drone and I am happy in my tiny cube!)
- Concern (I want to be a good drone and something is stopping me.)
- Curiosity (I want to know more about how to be a good little drone)
- Neutrality (As a fallback, if you can’t keep a straight face otherwise)
The attitude you want to exude, as much as you may hate it, is “I am a little worker ant. The leader of this company is my hive queen and therefore God. My manager helps me interpret the words of God so that I can understand what I need to do.”
This allows you to pursue rule #3 with vigor. The idea is that you want to make sure that the route of least resistance for the manager is to do what you want and need. However, to cover your ass in this situation, you must do so from the presumptive perspective of a good employee. You are not trying to be difficult; you are trying to do your job.
For example, let’s say you are given contradictory guidelines. Any person with common sense wants to go “WTF, this makes no sense, fix it!” However, good employees say, “I’m concerned about this. We were told X, and now we’re told Y. These seem to conflict. Can you explain this to me?” Incompetent managers will want to wave you off or speak in generalities. Pursue. Explain that you want to do your job and just want to understand better. Remember, leadership is God. You’re just trying, as a good little drone, to understand how best to please God, and these instructions confuse you.
Some managers will continue to dodge. That’s fine. Ask as many questions as you can get away with without seeming douchey. Then, when a specific case comes up, then you spring into action. Can you instant message the boss or call them over during the call? Great! Say, “I have a case that relates to the conversation we had before. I’m confused as to what direction we need to take here.” Make management make the call, then DOCUMENT IT. That is now your judicial precedent for all cases going forward. Make notes.
If they aren’t reachable, CYA as best as possible and then proactively go to the manager as soon as possible for guidance. “I had a case that I was confused as to what our direction is…” then ask questions about it. If they make a decision, again, DOCUMENT IT.
You may have to go through this process a few times if they are slippery. Sooner or later they will make a decision.
Then, if they try to later get you in trouble for doing what they said, act concerned (not angry). Don’t go “Aha!” but say “I’m really confused. Let me look at my notes. Oh yes. On X date we talked about Y case and you said Z. Is that no longer true?” Try to be as helpful and positive as possible. The manager knows you have caught them so you want to seem as perfect an employee as possible.
Sooner or later the incompetent manager will realize that you have your shit together and cannot be taken advantage of in this way. This makes the easiest thing to do a different answer than it was before (like nutting up and not blaming other people). However, because you’re a Good Employee, you minimize the amount of fallout you endure.
Remember, the incompetent manager is a drone just like you. There’s just different responsibilities involved. Chances are, that manager puts up with just as much ridiculous bullshit as you do and has as little power as you do to change anything. In such situations, they likely do not have the power to fire you without a good case. This is why you always want to present yourself as a Good Employee. Good Employees can get away with bloody murder.