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Confessions of an Apple support tech.

While attending Electronics trade school I encountered the Commodore Vic-20 computer. The school used it to teach about using computers and basic programming languages. I had to have one. This was the year 1980. I would type in free game code, listed in geeky magazines, there was no Internet yet. I read every computer magazine I could get my hands on. These listings were almost always in the BASIC programming language. BASIC was an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. This came in handy later when I was supporting IBM PCs and their clones, whose operating system was MS-DOS. I learned to write complex batch file programs in DOS. It’s pronounced daahs. Think of when a doctor checks your throat and you say, “ahhh”, but don’t hold the sound that long. MS-DOS stands for Microsoft Disk Operating System. 

One day I went into a computer retail chain store known as ComputerLand to look for a job and met one of the owners. While talking he told me he had a degree in electronic engineering, and was a tech at heart. He hired me to work in the stock room. I helped the service department when pre-Christmas sales made us very busy. We prepared and configured computers according to individual sales specifications and made deliveries which included setting up the computers and printers for customers. Later the service manager lobbied to make me a full-time tech. ComputerLand was an authorized IBM PC and Apple computer sales and repair center. The IBM PC was only a year old. This was 1983 and the Mac was still an Apple secret. 

Apple offered schools a discount on the Apple IIe and would ship the orders directly to the school. Apple notified us of deliveries and we would make an appointment to go to the school. We’d unbox and set-up their new Apples. Apple was smart to give them a discount and get Apple product into the hands of the next generation. They also offered a discount to the teachers to buy a computer of their own for home.

Apple did sell a computer with the same graphic interface as the Mac, before the Mac was introduced. It was called The Lisa. It was much larger, heavier and more expensive than the Mac. The Lisa was a Big Mac.

ComputerLand employees were eligible to take advantage of a heavy discount on a personal Mac for a limited time. It still wasn’t cheap in my world, but I bought one. The 128k RAM, no hard drive, 400k floppy, nine inch monochrome display, original Mac was less powerful than similarly priced IBM PCs, but “Just look at those fonts!” Wow and the Paint program, how cool was that? I remember representing our store at a local business fair. I was sitting at a table, playing with MacPaint, while people, young and old were fascinated. We, the faithful, knew this was just the beginning. 

Apple is no fool, they needed Mac evangelists embedded in the retail stores who knew how to use it, demo it, sing its praises and answer customer questions. There were no Apple stores then, only authorized, private retailers. It’s amazing how fast and over such stupid stuff people will align themselves into groups. I would get derogatory notes or magazine clips in my office mail slot, maligning the Mac from right-wing, IBM faithful employees. It was like two religious sects, the Mac people and the IBM compatibles people. At times funny and at other times heated debate. I still have my 1984 Mac, in a closet at home. In 1985 the franchise I worked for went through some kind of bankruptcy, and most of us were laid-off on the same day.

Laid off, with most available computer jobs geared towards supporting IBM PCs and compatibles, it was plain where the jobs were. I was tired of driving to the city so I got a job closer to home at a store who sold IBM compatible, hardware, software and consulting. 

There were no jobs related to Apple products in my area. Outside of schools and the home use, Apples were still mostly found in small niches. Inside a new Mac box came a word processor called Write and the Paint program. 

A tried and true spreadsheet called Multiplan was available from another company, at extra cost. Multiplan had been in use on the Apple II and IBM-PC for years. Microsoft would later release the Excel spreadsheet for Mac long before it’s Windows version. I always suspected that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs used each other back then. 

Steve Jobs wanted Microsoft business software available on the Mac. This would increase the Mac’s credibility in the business world and present the Mac as more than a cool, very expensive toy for home. 

Bill Gates wanted to to gain insight into the Mac operating system and develop the graphics based Excel spreadsheet. I’m guessing Apple programmers were instructed by Jobs to cooperate with Microsoft programmers. This would help Microsoft in developing the MS-Windows operating system. I have no proof of any of this, but it seems likely. 

While a usable version of MS-Windows was still a couple years off, Microsoft did release some early versions of it. The install disks were included in the bundle of disks that came with the MS-DOS package came with most PC clones. Almost no one bothered to install it. Microsoft was soon to dethrone Lotus 123 and WordPerfect, with Microsoft Word for Windows and Excel for Windows After Windows 3.x and MS-Word for Windows hit the scene and Windows gained momentum. WordPerfect missed the Windows bus.

I don’t remember applying for a job at Apple, maybe I applied online. When Apple called me, I was both excited and panicked. I had been working contractor jobs, supporting PCs and Windows in corporate environments for years now. I had lost touch with all things Mac. They offered Skype or FaceTime for the interview, but the only Mac I had didn’t run FaceTime, not by a long shot.

When I met my fellow trainees, they were PC and Android people for the most part. Apple provides training which starts at square one and they offer a very generous employee purchase plan after an initial period of time. Shortly before training begins, they ship you an iMac for work and an iPod touch and headset for your landline phone. Apple later migrated us to VOIP so we could plug a new headset into the iMac and not need the landline. The iPod touch does everything an iPhone does, except make cell phone calls. It can make FaceTime calls if you have Wifi available, so having one was great for iOS support. Eventually I did buy an iPad Retina and a MacBook Pro with my employee discount. It took at over a month before I finished interviewing and started training. The day for the Skype call came during the two week period I had borrowed a few Apple products so that before the call, I had the stage set. I framed the Apple products I had in the background. On a desk behind me stood my original Mac, a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPod Touch, all with colorful, swirling screen savers or home screens lit up. There’s no business like Show Business! The Apple interviewer was no stranger to stage craft either, he had various engraved glass trophies from Apple, in camera view, on his desk. Lucky for me, we had good chemistry and I was somewhat relaxed despite the circumstances. He asked why my resume was mostly PC work for the last couple decades. “That’s where the jobs were.”, I said and he understood. He asked me a couple ‘what if’’ troubleshooting scenarios which were familiar to me. They were general questions that could apply to any kind of computer, Mac or PC. His first question was “What would I do if the customer’s computer wouldn’t boot?” Not knowing enough about OSX recovery mode, safe mode, or PRAM and SMC resets, I said, “I’d try turning off the Mac then unplug all USB devices, then try to start it up. That seemed to go well, then he wanted to role play. He said he’d play the customer, calling me for help. “Ring”, “Thank you for calling Apple, how may I help you?”, I said. Pretending to be a customer, he said something like, “I lost my iPhone, what can I do?” I remember the first thing I said was, “I’m really sorry to hear that.” – He immediately gave me a thumbs up. Empathy, I later learned, is Job One with Apple. The dogs and cats were banned from my room during the interview and no one barked.

A few days later, I received another call and was hired, training started in a couple weeks. I continued to practice with the Apple products and dived into every question that arose while using these amazing gadgets. I went Google nuts, and used far too much ink, printing information and organizing small notebooks into every topic that came to mind. These habits continued through training: notes, flowcharts and notebooks with tabbed categories. I didn’t need to do that as Apple has a rich, deep, searchable online knowledge base for advisors and lots of troubleshooting flowcharts to follow. The bad side is that the knowledge base will soon be used to replace level one advisors, as soon as artificial intelligence can fool people into thinking there is an empathetic, human on the other end of their call. The training assumed you knew next to nothing and the training was excellent with Apple.

The main thing needed was the ability to learn new stuff or be good at finding the right answer – fast.

During training our hours were a normal 8 to 5 with an hour lunch, Monday to Friday, all paid. The next to last stage of training was the final exam and we each had to pass the final or no job. Everyone had two chances to pass. I remember a guy who, I thought, knew it all, wasn’t there one day after the test. I heard he didn’t pass, someone private chatted me. A note here; the trainers can see everyone’s private chats. It was an open book test. I could use the web and my notes, but chat was forbidden and the passing grade was eighty percent. There were about fifteen of us in this training group and we had two trainers who worked like a wresting tag team. Usually the one at rest would actually be helping individuals who had issues with their equipment or training software. During training we could chat each other and the trainer. We could also, electronically, raise a hand and go on mic or for the really brave: mic and camera and ask questions. The trainer would solicit answers to questions and we would click the raise your hand button and be queued in order of click. I was purposely slow in clicking, but not too slow, since sometimes they called on us in reverse numeric order. There were plenty of eager, “teacher, teacher! I know, I know”, students. Often the trainers would insist we at least go on mic and sometimes camera as well. During training, when I chatted to the whole group, often someone would type the answer to my question. After graduating from training, this teamwork would reappear with all of the on-duty Apple advisors, in the chat room at once. Two heads are better than one and sometimes there were more than a hundred people in chat. There were chat rooms for OSX, iOS and other groups. It’s important to remember ninety-nine percent of these people were pre-occupied with their own calls. I say ninety-nine percent, because I think Apple had some Jedi type people just helping in chat and not taking calls. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems a useful idea and Apple didn’t miss many good idea opportunities.

Everyone in class had an iMac and the same training software so there was continuity.The last few days of my initial training were refered to as nesting. Nesting is when I would start taking real customer calls. I would sit-in on three-way calls consisting of myself, a veteran AppleCare consultant and the customer who called about a problem. I would put myself on mute and listen to a call. The senior advisor handled the call and afterwards we discussed the techniques used to resolve it. Later, I would answer the calls and the veteran AppleCare advisor would listen and send text suggestions to me silently, in our private chat room.

It was like talking to two people at once, the customer and the senior advisor. I could ask the customer verbally how I could help while, in a panic chat to the trainer, “What to do?” Often the senior advisor would type suggestions in chat before I even asked. They definitely had their act together. 

Having passed the mandatory tests, and doing well enough in nesting, I was officially in. Now I could start a shift as a normal AppleCare tech, the official term is AHA for At-Home-Advisor. You can still find the job listed on the Apple website, although they seem to be advertising for active college students these days.

It was time to bid on a shift. This is an interesting process. First of all, all shifts include at least one weekend day, Saturday or Sunday and some shifts included both. Everyone worked at least one weekend day. Everyone bid on a new shift every six months. 

If one hundred advisors bid on a particular shift that had only eighty openings, who would be the lucky eighty? To get priority over other advisors who might bid on the same shift, our metrics were compared. The advisors with the better metrics won, more on metrics later. Most advisors wanted day shift. I used my VPN connection and Apple’s shift software to see the available shifts to bid on and I would bid on six or seven different shifts and rank them as my first choice, second choice and so on. Everyone did this. After the first time I did this, people would win their desired choice by judgement of their metrics averages during the past six months. I don’t know how a new advisor was assigned a shift, since I had no metrics statistics yet. After I was there six months I would bid on several shifts ranked by me in order of desire, a little like rank choice voting. So the better my metrics, the more chance I had of the shift I most wanted. It was mandatory to bid on a new shift every six months, so I never got to keep a shift I liked. It might change for the better or worse. Apple would call it fairness, I see it more as a whip to improve metrics, it was both. Seniority had nothing to do with it.

So in off-peak seasons, the part-time shifts were fours hours, five days a week, which includes either a Saturday or Sunday, if not both. It seems very democratic and it is incentive for advisor’s to strive for better metrics. No one spoke of the flaw in using metrics to decide who gets the better shift. AHT, average handling time, is a big metric, so advisors are incentivized to cut a call as short as possible. That way they’ll have a better AHT metric. If an advisor can keep the call as brief as possible, without pissing-off the customer then – mission accomplished. A skillful advisor could get a customer on and off a call with a superficial fix as long as the customer was not wise to the terse treatment. There are different levels of testing a fix, almost all require rebooting, which takes time, remember Time = AHT. I don’t blame the advisor for this. Apple’s metric ‘whip’ tacitly puts the advisors between a rock and a hard place, and everyone loses. I tried not to do this. I knew I’d probably get a lecture or maybe even a warning about the length of my calls, not to mention a less than desired shift after the next bid.

I was hired to support OSX, but after I was there a couple years, we were all trained – on the fly – in iOS and mobile device support, iPhones and iPads. We did get time for computer-aided training courses on various subjects, not only iOS but the latest OSX introductions. Training never ends, really. We were scheduled for what is called SGT time. SGTs usually had a quiz at the end requiring 80% correct for a passing score. You could retake these test as often as necessary to break the 80%, but often it required your manager to reset permissions for you to re-take the test. Your manager might mention during a one on one meeting that you have X number of overdue SGTs to complete and they had to be passed in a timely manner.

When a customer called AppleCare, the call would be routed to my phone, if I was in ‘Available’ mode and I was next in line to receive a call. I would select Available using a menu on my work logging software. I would answer the call, “Thank you for calling Apple, my name’s John, how can I help

Apple was very generous. I needed an expensive health treatment which cost me almost nothing thanks to the healthcare I had with Apple. Today it appears they are cutting costs by using outside vendors to employee their advisors. The vendors wages and benefits are nothing compared to Apple’s. I think this will hurt Apple’s support reputation in the long run.

A Vendor is a big company that has a contract with Apple to hire and train people to do the exact same job that Apple employees do, with the exact same software and connections to Apple and the callers call the same number; 1-800-MYAPPLE. When someone calls Apple, they often get a vendor employee who says, “Thank you for calling Apple.” The only difference for the employee is about half the pay he would get from Apple and they offer anemic, if any benefits and no employee purchase plan. Apple pays the vendor more for you than the vendor pays you. It saves Apple money as well as the cost of benefits. I think they will get what they pay for, a lack of loyal, long term, experienced advisors resulting in decreasing public opinion of Apple’s support, but A.I. is on the way to save the day!

I logged each call with the customer info, the hardware, the problem, the troubleshooting steps I took and the solution. The computer form had to be filled in completely. It would not save and I could not go back to ‘Available’ status if I skipped filling in the form. Apple tracked number of calls verses number of completed forms as a metric also. Apple has excellent software, albeit often obstinate and the stubborn. Often as I filled the form out, it would pop-up more question with blanks to fill in. Often obtuse questions that seemed endless. It insisted on having everything answered which often screwed up my ACW metric and slowed things down. No one liked the logging software. I was expected to type the form in as I spoke to the customer, before I understood the problem or had the solution. I don’t chew gum and walk well at the same time while troubleshooting. When I’m listening to a customer’s issue, I’m listening and looking for clues to help me probe deeper into the problem and get to a solution. I’m there for the customer, not the damn metrics! So I often would fix the problem, let the customer go on his or her way and then I finished filling out the form after the customer hung up. This causes a longer ACW average as ACW is measured from the time between when the customer hangs up and the time I signal I’m available for the next caller – Available mode. It was even suggested to me that I keep the customer on the phone longer than I needed to. That way I could finish filling in the form before they hung up and thus shorten my ACW average, I kid you not. That’s not customer service to my mind. Two symbiotic metrics were how often I transferred to Tier 2, senior advisors and how long my average call length was. Usually, for me, when I had my weekly meeting with the team leader, another term for manager, we would discuss either call length (AHT) or tier 2 escalations. Usually not both in the same week and there’s a reason for that. At the time, Apple expected an average call length of eighteen minutes per call. Ask yourself how long it took you to solve your last computer issue. They would say, well that’s average, you’ll get lots of easy calls. Really? If a call seems like it was taking too long and I was running out of ideas, I escalated the customer to a tier 2 senior advisor. Some calls were mandatory escalations. By transferring the call, well, that increased my tier 2 escalation metric. There is an inverse relationship between either having too long a call time average or too many tier 2 escalations. If I hung on to the tough calls and resolved them, or did my best, it would take longer, that’s AHT. This was an area of stress.

CSAT or Customer Satisfaction was also a metric. If I didn’t handle a call just right or the customer was not happy with Apple for any reason – bad CSAT. It could be due to the hold time before the call even reached me, or some other reason, it didn’t matter, there goes your CSAT survey metric. I tended to have good survey metrics and lousy AHT metrics. There was a correlation there also. I loathed the weekly meetings with my manager.

Some managers seemed more concerned about how their teams overall average metrics reflected on them. I was there almost four years and had great customer surveys, so I must’ve been doing something right. I wasn’t fired, I quit. The stress of satisfying metrics got to me, not the customers and not the technical challenges. I was stressed by these metric pressures and a metrics crazed manager, but I could deal with it in four hour bites. That would leave me time at the end of the day to take the dogs for a walk in the woods and unwind. Life was good. It was different when the mandatory 40 plus hour weeks came around. Stretches that could last four months or longer. Apple wanted us to ‘volunteer’ for more than forty hours and my managers made that plain. I know what you may be thinking, everybody works forty hours, this guy is just another disgruntled employee. There’s truth in that, no argument. Yeah and I could stack hundred pound bags for more than eight hours a day once. I had an eighty hour work week doing that and many sixty hour weeks. It’s the stress that makes it hard and the root of the stress are the metrics.

Now it seemed my team would get a new manager every few months or less. I had a good relationship with all of the managers along the way, except the last one. The final straw was my last manager. She would make thinly veiled threats of ‘seeing people lose their job over metrics’. My metrics weren’t that bad, In fact under a manager before her, I was offered a full time tier 2 position which I declined. My last manager with Apple let the proverbial cat out of the bag when I realized our overall team average was decided by the twenty or so under her, including myself, and that her manager judges her metrics by her teams combined average. Her remedy was to bust balls. I’m guessing her manager got on her about my resisting full-time as well. I told her I was collecting Social Security and didn’t need this aggravation. Some people shouldn’t be managers, I didn’t say that second part. Knowing I couldn’t fight city hall and my Benzodiazepines tolerance had exceeded my prescription limit, my doctor suggested I address the source of anxiety, so I quit. I wasn’t fired. In fact, I received a call the next day from a nice manager, I didn’t know. I explained the stress, she asked if I was sure and offered alternatives. In retrospect, I should’ve taken her advice.

A couple years later I wanted to make more money than my Social Security, so I looked around online. I knew Apple wouldn’t hire me after quitting. I came across an Apple vendor. Vendors are middle men, you don’t get paid by Apple, you get paid by them and I’m sure they make and keep a large portion of what Apple gives them per head. I think of vendors as pimps, the difference being I don’t get paid by the john and then give half the money to my pimp, no, the vendor gets paid for my work before I ever see a dime. The vendor then gives me eleven dollars an hour. What Apple pays my pimp for my services, I never see and don’t know.

In conclusion, I’d like to predict the future for Apple support and other customer service companies. Imagine how incredibly fast these farm sized computer networks are that Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Dell and other large companies own. They can look up known, logged customer scenarios and the best logged procedures to try when trouble-shooting. Every call a human advisor now receives must be logged, including the specific hardware and software the caller is using, what the issue is, the steps taken to fix the issue and the results of how it was solved. The form is mostly multiple choice selections making it very A.I. friendly. Apple says that it is geared to help ‘the engineers’. Sure, the hardware and OS engineers are helped by it, but are there A.I. engineers incorporating it into troubleshooting steps? You bet! Don’t get me wrong, if I were Tim Apple, I mean Cook, I’d might do it too. A.I. replacing tier one advisors and maintaining a tier two support group of humans for escalation as needed makes business sense. The logging won’t stop after A.I. handles the calls, it’ll get better and so will the A.I.

The technology is already here. Corporations would prefer it if the general public would accept it, but until then, they’d rather not get caught using it. Most people need to get used to the idea, but thy will. The solution is to fool the caller into thinking they are speaking to flesh and blood people. That technology is here now and it understands context and nuance and can imitate speaking like a regular, flawed human. If you don’t believe me, Google: “Google Duplex: A.I. Assistant Calls Local Businesses To Make Appointments”. I’m assuming companies won’t have to pay A.I. by the hour and no healthcare. 

Also see IBM’sWatson doing customer service.

The customer will benefit by longer time allowed for calls and presumably A.I. won’t get stressed, but if it does, look out!

IBM Watson: Final Jeopardy! and the Future of Watson -this was 9 years ago