The Wayback Machine -

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Customer Support, Take 1

by Ctein

Funny thing about customer support. Customers all tend to assume that they are more competent than most. Some really are, but there's a nice study that shows that truly incompetent people rate their performance unrealistically well. And it's well known that average folk tend to rate themselves just a bit better than that: the Lake Woebegone Effect.

This leads to the plethora of "is it plugged in" customer support calls from irate customers who have done something silly and are convinced that it must be a manufacturing error, because they could never do something that foolish.

I bought my Umax Powerlook III scanner when I was preparing the second edition of Post Exposure. The first job was scanning in all the illustrations from the first edition of the book, to make up a guide for the publisher and the printer showing which illustrations needed to be changed.

With that done I decided to run my usual bevy of tests—dynamic range, uniformity, sharpness. The scanner worked great for quick-and-dirty layout scans, but now I wanted to know what it could really do.

The sharpness was terrible! Even with the scan pitch at a real 1200 ppi, I wasn't seeing much better than 300 ppi worth of resolution in the scans. Not something I would notice doing the low-resolution stuff for the page proofs. But clearly not acceptable in a high-grade scanner.

Something's wrong with my scanner?! On the left is a scan
before my scanner was "fixed." On the right, after being "fixed."

I played with it for several hours, to no avail. It was kind of upsetting. I knew Umax was a good company and would stand behind their product; I could even drive the unit to their offices myself (killing an afternoon of time) if I needed to. But it was very frustrating to have a scanner that didn't work well.

Just before I made my call to customer support, I sat down with the scanner again to write down the exact procedures and settings I was using (specific procedural notes are vital to having a non-frustrating tech support session).

That's when I noticed that I had turned on the descreen filter in the scanner software when scanning in the illustrations from the book. I had forgotten to turn it off when I was done.


I was that close to being one of those aggravated (and aggravating) "is it plugged in" customers who is positive they're right when they aren't. But, then, I am above average, right?

Lake Woebegone, indeed.

Posted by: CTEIN

Featured Comment by Gabriel: Oh, yeah. I hear ya. I recently installed Photoshop on a new computer, only to have it crash every time I resized an image. Only after reinstalling it...twice...that I realized I was resizing in inches instead of pixels. 3000x4000...inches? That'll bring any computer to its knees. Horray for forgetting about the default settings!


Alan Rew said...

This suggests that the Umax software user interface could be improved by having some sort of visual warning displayed when you have turned on the de-screening.
This is a common problem with any menu system where 'deep' settings can be forgotten.

8:49 AM  
Player said...

Ctein, thankfully you avoided one of those, "Uhh, nevermind" moments with tech support.

But you are definitely WAY WAY above average, but not infallable.

Oh the humanity. :)

8:49 AM  
Phil said...

In case anyone is interested, I think Ctein is referring to the study
"Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments".

A link to the paper is


I keep a copy in my office just in

10:21 AM  
Derek said...

Is that an Apollo era moon rocket?

10:27 AM  
fivetonsflax said...

An engineer close to me once made an is-it-plugged-in call. Was quite mortified.

But I've done customer support. I told him that even the best customers do that once in a while. What separates the good customers from the bad is their reaction when you ask them if it's plugged in.

Good customer: "Hold on, I'll check."
Bad customer: "What do you mean, is it plugged in? Do you think I'm some kind of idiot?" etc.

10:28 AM  
Simon said...

Reading this makes me recall my own 'is-it-plugged-in?' story.

Almost 10 years ago, I worked at the customer support for a company selling ISDN modems. Once, I had a customer on the phone, whose modem passed all internal tests flawlessly, but just couldn't connect to the outside world. Naturally, I asked the is-it-plugged-in question. "Yes", was the answer (type: polite customer).

However, no matter what we tried, we couldn't get it to work. So, naturally, over the course of nearly three hours(!), I re-posed the same question in a few different ways, but the cable was really plugged in. We also moved the computer around the house and exchanged cables and so on. Nothing worked.

Then, when we were both getting quite desparate, she made an offhand comment about the little red LED next to the connector on the modem....Hmmm... There was not *supposed* to be a red LED on the modem!

It turned out that the cable was indeed plugged in, but not into the correct card! It was plugged into the - unused - network card instead. Note that this was 1997, when only people who needed them had network cards... At least, that's what I had implicitly assumed. :)

That's when I learned to always ask *everything*, even the most stupid-sounding or weird questions. Oh, and I learned that engineers in standards bodies can be moronic enough to use the same connectors for totally different standards. [at different voltages as well (5V vs 45V!) - the network card was probably fried]

Just had to think of this again reading this post...

1:02 PM  
Ken Tanaka said...

Aw, jeez. A couple of years ago I had a sickeningly similar experience with my Nikon 5000 film scanner and the Nikon software. My road to revelation took perhaps a day, at the end of which I decided, finally, that film's future in my cameras was very limited.

8:01 PM  
Bruce McL said...

Here's some of the best customer support humor I've seen around the web. First, "Introducing the Book"
Second, a TV series from Britain called, "The IT crowd." "Is it plugged in?" and, "Is it turned on?" are running jokes in this series.

8:15 PM  
Mike Johnston said...


Ctein answers:

"Yup, sure is. Apollo 17, the very last moon launch."


6:34 AM