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A Very Special Telephone Conversation

September 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Today, while at work, I had occasion to remember the strangest and most frustrating telephone conversation I've ever had with a coworker.  (Yet, anyway.  Given time, I'm sure this can and will be surpassed.)

It happened a few summers ago.  Along with another coworker (one who is neither crazy nor rude, and actually quite the opposite of both), I've mentored several college students in summer research projects.  It's a very pleasant and rewarding experience.  But it can be a lot of work, even before the students arrive and the resarch begins.  Many hoops must be jumped before a student can get up and running.  These hoops involve (but are by no means restricted to) establishing a workspace for the student; getting a workstation configured for the student; and ensuring the student is up-to-date on all required training.  That last point can take half a day or more, depending on circumstances.  If things don't go well, it can be a week or more before a student is able to begin his or her summer research.

So, because of that, my co-mentor and I have made it a point to attempt to be as efficient as possible when it comes to arranging things for our students.   Which means that I once made the baffling mistake of calling the "training help desk," which is supposed to field simple questions about the training program.  Because this took place several years ago, I obviously don't remember the entire dialogue verbatim.  But I do remember the progression of the conversation quite clearly, and I do remember certain statements because I wrote them down.

May lightning strike me dead if this isn't an honest rendering of the ensuing conversation.   It's not a transcript, but it's a good-faith effort to convey the sense of the interaction.  It's also an honest rendering of the tone of the conversation, on both sides.

Me:  Hello.  I'm mentoring a student this summer, and I'm wondering about the most efficient way for him to complete his training.  He arrived today, but his computer workstation won't be ready for another couple of days.  Does the training office provide a place where he could use a terminal to log in to fulfill his training?

Training "Help" Desk Person:  It's obvious you've never taken any training before.

(I swear to God this is verbatim.  This was the very first thing out of her mouth.

Note that at any given time, since I took my job here years ago, I've been enrolled in several training plans which amount to well over a dozen different training "courses" that must be renewed anually.  Meaning I've taken and re-taken over a hundred courses, and possibly closer to 200. 

Needless to say, at this very early point in the conversation I am already perplexed.  For two reasons.  One, I don't understand the conclusion, which appears to be a non sequitur.  Two, the "help" desk person has automatically adopted an unnecessarily aggressive and confrontational tone, to what I thought was a simple and polite question.)

Me:  Uh...? 

Training "Help" Desk Person:  Admit it.  You've never taken training before and now you're asking me about it.

(Yeah.  She actually said, "Admit it."  Now I'm really perplexed.  My mood is rapidly going downhill, but I'm still far more perplexed than angry.  At this point I'm mentally backtracking, trying to figure out why my question was deeply offensive, absymally stupid, or both.) 

Me:  Uh...  I'm a staff member.  I've been here for a number of years.  I've taken plenty of training. 

Training "Help" Desk Person:  Then how could you possibly think it's possible to take training without a computer?

Me:  Ah.  Ok.  I think I see the problem.  We might have had a miscommunication.  I didn't mean to ask if there was a way for my student to complete the training without doing so online.  I apologize for the confusion...

(I'm a fairly polite person most of the time.  Not always.)

...I was just asking whether there are dedicated computer terminals available for people whose workstations aren't yet up and running, so that they may fulfill their training requirements while waiting for their personal terminals to be installed and OK'd by computer support.  That would enable my student to begin his summer research a little sooner, you see.

Training "Help" Desk Person:  Everybody has to  take the training online.  No exceptions.

Me:  Yes, I understand that, and I'm not disputing it.  I'm asking about locations where such online training may be conducted.  My problem, you see, is that my student will not have a functioning workstation for several days.

Training "Help" Desk Person:  We're the training office.  We don't do computer installations.  You need to call computer support.

Me:  Yes, I understand that.  I'm not calling to ask for computer support.  I have already been in contact with my division's computer support people with regard to setting up my student's workstation.  I'm calling about--

Training "Help" Desk Person:  Then why are you calling us?

(Yes.  She really did interrupt me.  And now I'm getting tired of being polite.)

Me:  Could you please listen to my question?  Please listen to the question I'm actually asking, and not the question you seem to think I'm asking.  Okay?  Can you do that? 

Training "Help" Desk Person:  *sulky silence*

Me:  Now.  Is there a location where new hires, who don't yet have their own personal workstations, may complete their required online training?

Training "Help" Desk Person:  I've already told you that it's not possible to complete the training without a computer!

Me:  Yet again, that's not what I'm asking.  Let me put it another way.  Has the training office made computer terminals available for new hires who need to complete their training?

Training "Help" Desk Person:  We are not computer support!  I've already told you--

(At this point I hear a faint "click" on the line.)

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  Mary, can I be of help here?

(Mary disappears from the line, never to be heard from again.  I hope, deep in my shriveled raisin of a heart, that she was eaten by a Grue.  Or that she died of rabies.  I'm good either way.)

Me:  Yes.  I have a question about training for new hires. 

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  Okay.  I'm listening.

Me:  Is there a location here where new hires, who don't yet have their own personal workstations, may log on to complete their required online training? 

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  Yes.  There are a couple of such terminals available in the research library.

Me:  ....Well, that was simple, wasn't it?

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  Yes.

Me:  Your employee didn't seem to think so.

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  Well, we get a lot of questions when the students arrive each summer.

Me:  Yes, I'm sure you do.  But it's much easier to answer a question if you actually listen to it first.  As you did just now.  So thank you for actually listening to my question.  Your employee doesn't appear to understand that concept.

Training "Help" Desk Manager:  She's had a long day.

Me:  Yes, and thanks to your employee, I've had a much longer one, because my blood pressure was spiking.  But I can see I'm not getting an apology for what was clearly rude and unprofessional behavior.  So how about instead you tell me your name and the name of your line manager?  I think this incident should be documented.

Training "Help" Desk Manger:  *click*

Me:  ....grrraaaaraggghhhhhhhhAAAAAGGGGGGHGHHHHH HULK SMASH


Mary Rodgers September 1, 2011 at 9:31 pm
Ha ha ha ha ha ::ahem:: hee hee hee...::makes valiant attempt at regaining composure-FAiL:: Oh Ian. I have so been there. And dammit why do you have so many machines that go "ping" on this site. I have felt it incumbent upon me to flip switches, press buttons and enter random bits of text every where I look. What's next - a cipher a la The Gold Bug?
Ian September 1, 2011 at 10:25 pm
Go ahead and laugh at my trauma. Trauma, I tell you. Though now that I reread that exchange, I almost wonder if she wasn't being deliberately obtuse. It's almost the only explanation. Have you seen the 404 error page? >;-)
Brit Mandelo September 1, 2011 at 10:48 pm
Hah. Oh, wow. That's pretty ferociously bad.
Ian September 1, 2011 at 10:57 pm
I know, right? That's why I'm starting to wonder if maybe the "help" desk people didn't have me on speakerphone. Maybe they do this when they're bored. There's probably a betting pool based on how long that can string along poor suckers like me. It's the only thing that makes sense.
Susan September 2, 2011 at 1:28 am
First of all, wow. Just reading this made my blood pressure rise, but then drop because of your interspersed, hilarious asides. I have to say, it's never occurred to me to wish someone would get eaten by a grue or contract rabies. I believe these are the BEST bad-wishes ever, and I cannot wait to hate someone so that I can then think of them nastily. Just kidding about that...sort of.
DMS September 2, 2011 at 7:19 am
Her name is not actually Mary. She has red hair and doesn't work there any more because she got a sweet job here. In addition to frustrating people she's supposed to help, now she also gets to send out pithy memos to let us know what she thinks of us.
Steve Halter September 2, 2011 at 7:33 am
"Help" desk--so very often not. Although, your question did seem to be really easy on the surface. I think the problem was that you had three sentences before the actual question. Clearly her stack depth was less than three. Once you blow your stack it's hard to go back. :-)
Jake September 2, 2011 at 8:24 am
Jesus. I actually felt *my* blood pressure rise as I was reading the conversation. That's almost like something out of a failed Laurel and Hardy routine. Did you ever follow up with anybody up the chain (difficult, without their names, but not impossible), or did you just let it go?
Charlie Greenberry September 2, 2011 at 9:06 am
Well, all things considered, I'd say you handled that well. I would have been tempted to prank call them for a good month afterward any time my blood pressure started to go up.
Scott Denning September 2, 2011 at 10:02 am
Power. Small amounts. Given to those who have never had it before, faceless.
Ian September 2, 2011 at 10:10 am
Susan: A flatmate of mine from long ago dated a woman whom I still, to this day, hope dies by drowning when her convertible is sideswiped by a sewage truck. She was truly one of the most unpleasant people I'd ever met (until this telephone conversation, anyway). DMS: Wow, the memo thing sounds like a major bonus! Clearly right up her alley. (Also, wtf? What kind of person would do that?) Steve: I think you've figured it out! You're totally right-- my lead in to the question was longer than it needed to be. Way too long. I think you're right: the symptoms point to a major buffer overflow error :-) I ought to have just started with the question and not worried about context. Seriously, that might be a contribuing factor here. Jake: My dad was a huge Laurel and Hardy fan. But I find those routines are much funnier when I'm not playing the straight man. (Have you ever seen the Kids in the Hall skit with the two vaudvillians attempting to do Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" Utter brilliance.) I did actually get the relevant names and information, but gave up when I accepted that pursuing this would achieve nothing except make life harder for me. So instead I just deal with anybody from the training office with a bare minimum of courtesy. Very adult of me, I know. Charlie Greenberry: I feel that urge every day. (The late, great Infocom used to have a game called "Bureaucracy", which was co-written with Douglas Adams. The plot of the game involved simply trying to cash a check at the bank and then catch a taxi to the airport. That's it. Yet the game is hilarious and unbelievably frustrating. But the genius bit is the blood pressure counter in one corner of the screen-- too many frustrations in rapid succession caused your BP to spike and your character to stroke out. Sheer, twisted genius.) Scott: Amen, brother.
Alex Brown September 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm
Sounds like every single conversation I've ever had with Dell support services. I spent the first 6 months of my new laptop having to call them every month because I'd suddenly lose WiFi access. Dell then told me that the chip they installed wasn't compatible with Windows 7, and when I asked why they installed it in the first place they said because they hadn't gotten around to making a new chip. Then they told me that if I wanted to use WiFi the best place to be was away from any electronic equipment. I jokingly said, "What, like in the middle of the woods?" He responded with utter seriousness "Yes, that is the best location." And my brain promptly exploded.
Ian September 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm
I jokingly said, "What, like in the middle of the woods?" He responded with utter seriousness "Yes, that is the best location." That makes my head asplode, too. WTF, Dell? That also reminds me of another very special telephone conversation I had with the phone company itself, some years ago...
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