You won't find anyone who knows what you do to be willing to answer phones for customer support.

I answered the phone and heard a familiar voice. “This is Andy from Connecticut. Remember me? I kept calling until I got you. You won't believe this.”

“Hi Andy. What am I not going to believe?”

“I called a technical hot line, and I'm amazed at what they didn't know!”

“What they didn't know?”

“Yeah, I know more than that guy did. That's not how it's supposed to be.”

Andy knows a lot. He's one of those field guys that keeps thinking and experimenting, and thinking some more. So I asked, “What makes you think they're supposed to know more than you do?”

“Well, they're the hot line. They're supposed to be the experts. Why don't they hire people with some experience?”

“Well, gee, Andy, would you be willing to be a hot line guy?”

“Heck no. Not on your life. You couldn't pay me enough to do that.”

“Andy, I'll bet they can't find anyone who knows what you know who'd be willing to do what they do. Tell you what, though. I'm going to see if I can talk to some hot line folks and find out what it's like to work on a technical hot line.”

First I talked to Mike Bruce, who's new to Honeywell as a supervisor on the residential hot line. He's been on various technical hot lines for six years. What would you suppose is Mike's background? He's within one course of finishing his college degree in psychology. Maybe psychology helps!

I asked Mike what's going on when the hot line knows less than Andy the contractor.

Mike answered, “Of course a contractor knows more about lots of things. Contractors have lots of field experience. We couldn't find anyone who knows that much who wants this job.”

I relayed Andy's frustrations to Mike. Andy had said, “I asked if I could wire the control this way and the tech guy said, 'The instructions say to wire it this other way. Or this other other way.' I said, 'Yeah, I know that, I called you to ask if it could be wired this other way.' And he said, 'Not that I know of. The instructions say ...' That's not what I wanted to hear. I wanted someone to tell me if my way would work and he couldn't say. I want him to have the answers!”

Indeed the technical hotline guy does have the answers, supervisor Mike says, so long as they're in the technical documentation.

I interviewed veteran commercial technical hot line supervisor Charlie Theis. I asked Charlie what the people are like who call in.

Charlie said, “We get calls from two extreme ends of the spectrum and not much in between. We get the folks who start out really negative; they're mad about something. And we get the folks who are really happy and want to know something additional about the product.”

That sounded like dealing with more than just technical information, so I asked Charlie, “What is a tech rep selected for?”

His answer was surprising. “I need a rep who really wants to get through the call. I want him to answer the question well, but he also has to get on to the next call. There are always more calls waiting.”

Wait time was another of contractor Andy's complaints. He'd had to wait for 20 minutes, he said.

“That's right,” Mike Bruce says. “That can happen, especially if we're staffed low. Tech reps stay one, maybe two years. It's a burn-out job.”

A rep can't be replaced instantly, either. Besides the time it takes to find and hire a good candidate, training the new rep can take from six weeks to a number of months.

“What takes so long?” I asked.

Charlie replied, “There's a lot to this job. They have to get trained in product knowledge. And they have to get trained in what we call the soft skills.” That's the ability to listen and hear what the customer means, not necessarily what their words say. That's because many times people calling in don't know the technical language.

Because of the “language barrier,” tech reps learn pretty quickly not to say, “See that green L-E-D?” because chances are the person on the other end doesn't know what an LED is. Rather than trying to teach the customer the terminology, the rep learns instead to say, “See that little green flashing light in the upper right corner ...”

Where do tech reps come from?

Mike said there's quite a variety. One has a computer background. One was doing troubleshooting for a satellite company. The third was in customer service in the printing industry.

The technical reps work very hard, according to Mike. The ability to get technical answers is perhaps the easiest part. More challenging is dealing with the tediousness of getting the same question maybe 10 times in a row and handling it each time as if it's a fresh problem. If only the customer would open the manual ...

On that note, Elaine Hoffman, hot line supervisor at Uponor (formerly Wirsbo) says many of her customers start out the call with, “I did it just like you said in the book, but ...” Elaine's most common question is, “I don't have any heat.” Elaine definitely sees the humor in her job. She says the problem often turns out to be with other manufacturers' equipment in the system, but the caller will say, but the tube is yours!

Elaine has a list of suggestions for the contractor to make a call useful and quick as possible. These are some of the basics:

• If possible, be in front of the equipment when making the call. Cell phones make this pretty easy.

• Try making a drawing of the system before phoning. The drawing alone often makes the problem evident, and can save a call.

• Bring your test meter along on the phone call.

• If possible, have a headset or speakerphone so your hands are free to work with the equipment and meter.

• Get the tech rep's name before you finish the call - just in case you need to call back.

Since tech reps at Uponor deal with complete systems, their background is a little more systems-related. Most have attended technical college. All have either hydronic or electronic experience. Even that, training takes about six months before they work on the phones. And where does a rep then start? On the hot line with homeowners.

Even with all the technical training, the big challenges still are about people. How do you handle a frustrated customer? Let 'em talk. What do you do with the guy who wants to talk on and on? Say you're willing to bounce around some ideas, but could he send you an e-mail?

Elaine says her funniest question was from a wholesaler from Alaska who asked what to do about water frozen 20 ft. into a slab. When she asked why the contractor didn't use glycol, the wholesaler laughed, “He was afraid glycol would get slushy.”

And her most notable question? “Can I keep manure liquid on a slab?”

Yes you can, and thank you for calling!