The Mobius Strip of computer support

I’ve learned that one of the biggest office-cluttering offenders when you run a company is receipts. The government wants to see them for tax purposes, so you hold onto every last one to save every last dollar. The problem, of course, is that you’ll collect a crap ton of these stupid little bits of paper over the course of a year, they don’t file well, and certain types of paper fade over time. Enter the NeatReceipts Mobile Scanner, which I recently purchased to help eliminate my paper bloat. Scans full-size pages, business cards, and all manner of receipts. Then it will catalog them for you. Nice. I of course was one of the lucky ones to run into a weird install issue. The system uses a trimmed down version of Microsoft SQL Server to store its data, and the server simply would not install. A quick online chat with a customer support rep from The Neat Company, and a tech was remotely diagnosing the problem in a few minutes. No hoops, no “check your cables” nonsense, just a few up front questions and then she was on it. I was honestly impressed with her speed and professionalism. Until we diagnosed the problem, anyway. Allow me to summarize the end of our exchange. (We used LogMeIn Rescue—great software—and I did not realize until afterwards that chat logs are not saved locally. Lesson learned.) While attempting to run a fixup batch file, she consulted with her manager on an error that popped up. The meat of the message was that wmiprvse.exe hit an error at a “procedure entry point” in fastprox.dll. I don’t speak Microsoftish fluently, but she was helpful enough to point out that the core problem lay with my installation of Windows Management Instrumentation, or WMI for short. This was a specialized issue, would require direct intervention from Microsoft staff to correct, and I would have to contact Microsoft to fix the problem. The end result: I was on my own to fix the problem. At that point, I had entered the feared “other guy zone.” This is what you enter when you have an issue that offers an “out” to the support line you called. You know, “It’s not us, it’s the other guy. Our [printer / router / hardware] merely uncovered a preexisting issue with your existing [operating system / internet connection / software], and you’ll have to contact [insert vendor name here] to get the problem rectified.” In a former life I did phone support, and I continue to provide direct support to end users in homes and businesses, so I’ve been on both ends of this conversation countless times. The problem here is obvious: with the “right” problem (or the “right” explanation from the poor end user), your can end up in an endless loop of support calls. These problem seems to exist just outside the boundaries of whichever vendor to whom you are talking. [A] refers you to [B], who refers you back to [A]. God help you if [A] refers to [B] who refers to [C]; I advise you throw you up the white flag right and just return the product. Your remaining mental faculties may be at risk if [D] enters the picture. The reality, of course, is in the middle. Some problems really are outside of the control of [vendor], but there are also plenty of times where [vendor] is simply being lazy. The customer is stuck in a Möbius strip of support teams, each blaming the next. If anyone is going to break the customer out, one of them is going to have to step up to the plate, take charge, and see to it that the problem is fixed. Otherwise the customer will eventually give up, return the product, and send their business elsewhere. As end users, we are all screaming the next question: “Why don’t companies recognize this? Now, why doesn’t every company take this to heart in their support structure? Why do we hear endless horror stories about ‘customer service’ that’s anything but?” Meanwhile, a lot of support guys respond to this line of discussion with something to the tune of, “The customer bought it, they ought to take responsibility for making it work.” For the support reps out there, your end user question is a non-starter: all they want to do is use your widget, they could care less about how it’s done. The fact that they spent money to purchase your widget is evidence of this fact. They bought a product to simplify something in the life. Did you ever buy a product to make your life more complex? For you end users, banging your head on the wall while on hold, let’s go back to my WMI issue. Technology is a series of dependent systems, one part builds on another. The Neat Company uses SQL Server, which uses WMI, which sits on top of Windows. If one part doesn’t work, the whole thing comes down. Neat couldn’t get SQL Server running because of WMI, and punted to Microsoft. Technically, they have pretty solid ground for doing so. The issue was “below” SQL Server, a part of the chain that they, on some level, have to assume is there and functioning properly. However, has anyone with a standard desktop copy of Windows ever actually gotten through to Microsoft Support? I’ve been doing technical support for almost 14 years, and I have yet to get a real person on the phone, India or otherwise. If this WMI problem is “removed” for Neat Company, it’s on the moon as far as Microsoft is concerned. In this instance, Neat Company suffers from the reality that it only has one point of view: their own. Every human being naturally looks out for themselves first (moral arguments about caring for your fellow man notwithstanding). Businesses are people, and thus are subject to the same follies. On top of that, you have the financial realities of running a business. One of those realities is that support structures take up a cost column in the company ledger. Support is an expense, not a source of income. A business is naturally going to do everything to minimize costs, which can (and often does) affect service quality. I’m not making any claims about Neat in this regard, only pointing out what most people don’t stop to consider. Now, all that explains why customer service sometimes fails, but it doesn’t do anything to explain why things go so awesomely well a lot of the time. My tech support agent, AJ, was great! She was on the issue immediately, and had an obvious grasp of what she was doing and how to fix the problem. When she remote’d into my desktop, I’m fairly certain the mouse was moving too fast for her to simultaneously read a stepwise guide. She also seemed genuinely disappointed that she was unable to solve my problem, maybe almost as bummed as I at the prospect of having to contact MicroMassivesoft. She didn’t finish the call until she gave me as much information about the problem as was at her disposal. Two reasons why this happens. First people like AJ genuinely enjoy what they’re doing, which makes them better, which translates to a better customer experience. Second, there are companies out there who do in fact appreciate the value of good customer service. Think about it; the company whose customer support solves the problem, and pulls the user off the Mobius strip, will have their undying gratitude. As the problem persisted, the value in a solution increased. By going the extra mile and solving the problem, the “winning” company walks away from the situation with a raving fan, instead of just a customer. A fan tells great stories to friends (who loves viral marketing, show of hands?), comes back for more goods and services in the future, and is harder pressed to seek alternatives from competitors. If that’s not financial incentive enough, your company might as well call it quits now, because your head is a little due south. My rule is that a company should be an expert at diagnosing and fixing the systems with 1° of separation from the product. Running a website? You better know browsers inside and out, and have some operating system knowledge. Advertising Design? You better have a rock solid understanding of printing, and know your way around a computer. Chimney sweep? You better understand roofing and a little masonry. In our example, Neat Company’s 1° here would definitely cover WMI issues (SQL Server -> WMI). WMI certainly overlaps enough ground that support staff should be at least versed in how to correct the most common issues. As it turned out, AJ’s info on the issue was enough to get me going down the right path, and eventually I landed on a solution: rebuild WMI. After getting myself sorted out, I sent the steps to fix the issue back to Neat Company to help anyone else with this problem. I’m a geek, I take pity on any layperson faced with this kind of issue. For those of you here because your own instances of Windows Management Instrumentation is busted, here’s what I did to rebuild the WMI:

    * Start > Run: net stop winmgmt * Rename %windir%\System32\Wbem\Repository folder to something else (e.g. Repository_bad) * Start > Run: net start winmgmt * Start > Run: rundll32 wbemupgd, UpgradeRepository * Start > Run: cd /d %windir%\system32\wbem * Start > Run: for %i in (*.dll) do RegSvr32 -s %i * Start > Run: for %i in (*.exe) do %i /RegServer * Run (or rerun) Neat Database Setup.exe from your Neat Company setup CD or download * Make sure that the SQL Server (NR2007) service is started (Start > Run: services.msc)

And here’s where I got it. People with more complex issues may also want to check out the WMI Diagnosis Utility. I also highly recommend that people with issues relating specifically to Neat Company products contact their customer service first. They definitely fall in the exceptional category (I’m giving AJ’s supervisor the benefit of the doubt). 5 hours later, I’m off to track down that receipt shoebox…