When calling any sort of customer service / tech support / service provider, please try to keep the following in mind:

With these things in mind, here is some advice:

  1. Have whatever account number or confirmation number you have been assigned. Long hold times are often a direct result of operators having to wait while they hear rustling over the phone while saying "mmm hmm" to people who just can't remember what they did with it, and must find it now. These people also seem hellbent on using the MIA account/confirmation number even when given another option, such as providing their home address or phone number. Don't be that guy. Find your information before you pick up the phone.
  2. Have some idea of what you are calling about. "Uhhh... (pause) uhhhmmmm..." is not an acceptable response to "How can I help you?" This applies not only to phone service but also to food service. If you are the dufus who goes to Taco Bell and stands in front of me drooling and mumbling "uhhh," don't be surprised when I kick you in the back of the knee and order a combo meal for you. If you don't know what you want, don't call and don't get in line.
  3. Okay, you have a legitimate problem. You need help. Try to call from a place where you can apply the help you need to your problem. Don't call from work to your ISP to let them know you can't connect from home. They will ask you if you get error messages. They will ask you what your configuration looks like. How do you know if you're standing behind the counter at TCBY with a waffle cone in your hand?
  4. If you know you don't have the information you will be asked for, such as the account number for your electric bill, be prepared to offer up some personal information. Have your drivers' license number or your Social Security number handy. For Pete's sake, memorize your address and telephone number. Don't argue about not wanting this information given out. You're the one who can't keep their bills in order. You gave them this information when you opened the account, so don't argue a bunch of conspiracy theory and mailing list bullshit with someone who absolutely cannot help you if you don't provide some sort of information (which they already have, and only want to confirm).
  5. Despite popular opinion, asking for the supervisor right away will not always get you a more knowledgeable and sympathetic ear. What it will do is cause the person you just talked to to inform their supervisor that another punk is coming up the pipes who thinks he's better than Joe Average. You will not get better treatment. You will get the same, or worse if the supervisor is in a bad mood for having been interrupted from their job to deal with someone who could have been helped by a lesser paid employee.
  6. Above all, be polite. Yes, you need this service performed or corrected. The person on the phone was not the one who caused your problem. The world is a nicer place when people are nicer to each other. On top of that, if you are a snarling beast to the guy who's about to align your tires, you may get an unpleasant surprise a few miles down the road when your tire falls off. People are not all forgiving of your bad mood. Most are accepting, but not all.
Further, here's some advice for ringing an ISP's support line:

  1. Remember, the person you're about to talk to has probably been sitting it front of that computer wearing a headset for a good five-six hours already. Be nice to him/her. They are there to actually help you.
  2. Have your login name ready. If you have a case number, have that ready too. In most companies, the program used by the CSR's will not let them go anywhere unless they put your login name into that first screen. It's not the CSR's evil intentions to ask you for this stuff - in most cases they have to.
  3. Try ... try to explain your problem giving the helpdesk person as much information as possible. Instead of saying "... my computer won't connect to the net" say something along the lines of "... I'm running Windows 98 and it's giving me a 604 error every time I try to dial up". Seriously, you'll make their job much easier, and they will be more inclined to offer you genuine help.
  4. If at all possible, try and ring the appropriate department. If your mouse doesn't move, or there's no sound coming out of the speakers, there is very little point in ringing the internet helpdesk. Sure, they are capable of helping you, but also remember that there's usually a hardware support line. And please check that your speakers are plugged in ... that was the most common problem I encountered with people ringing me for help.
    There may be phone menu options, with you having to press an appropriate key for the department you want. Listen to them. Somebody put them there for a reason.
  5. As gahachino mentions above, there's little point in asking to talk to the supervisor straight away. Most likely this will result in you being put on hold, and the CSR's saying things like "Hey Aaron, I have this ****er on the line, can you tell him that he's a complete moron?" to their supervisor, and then you end up being put through. Obviously, not the prettiest scenario.
  6. In most phone-based customer support companies there's a phone-queue, and the number of incoming/answered/dropped calls is logged. The CSR's get in trouble if too many calls are dropped, or if the queue waiting time is too long. So after you've solved your problem, say goodbye and hang up. The helpdesk phone operator may not be as happy to talk to you about the weather in the Middle East as you think.
  7. Overall, be nice to the CSR's. They generally have a worse job than you do, and have to deal with annoying and abusive customers all day. Saying something like "Hey -insert CSR's name here-, I really appreciated your help. Have a nice day!" will sometimes make somebody's day. And it will also make you feel better, and chances of you being null-route'd by your ISP will be a lot slimmer :-)
Further to the very salient points already raised, here is one more:

Do NOT lie or leave out information ... ever

I've been on both sides of tech support and the number of times I have had users try and tell me some tall story about what went wrong is amazing.

Come on people - I'm don't care if it was your fault - I'm just here to help you get it fixed. Don't leave out information so that you won't be blamed for causing the problems. All it does is prolong the fault fixing and increase my 'pissed off' meter. And anyway, in most cases I know what the real cause is. Heck, I'm a system administrator, I know everything that goes on in my box, and if I don't know right now, I'll know in a couple of minutes. Lying or leaving out bits of important information does nothing but piss me off.

On the other side of the coin, let me tell you of my experience with tech support. I had just bought a Aus$2400 (US$1200) Hewlett Packard laser printer for the College where I worked. While not a huge amount in corporate terms, it was a lot of money for a small College. Within two weeks of this printer being purchased, a student manually fed through paper with a plastic reinforced margin. Naturally, the plastic melted and destroyed the toner drum.

On phoning HP tech support, the thought did cross my mind to lie. After all, if a student had destroyed the printer, then our warranty was void. However, I didn't - I told the tech support person exactly what had happened. And this is what the tech support guy said:

"Well yes, you have voided your warranty and unfortunately, the toner drum is the most expensive bit of the printer to replace. However, this is what I'll do. I'll write the fault report as 'toner does not stick to paper'. If you're lucky and the tech repair people don't question it, you'll get your printer repaired for free. If they question it, you will get charged and you will have to pay."

As luck would have it, the tech repair people didn't question it and I got the toner drum (Aus$1000) replaced for free.

The actions of the tech support guy is exactly the sort of thing that I would do if I feel that the customer is genuine, polite and helpful to me. As a tech support person, I want to help you. You help me (by being polite and friendly) and I promise you we will have your problem resolved in no time!

tobtoh's point about not lying doesn't just apply to totechnical support - it applies to all industries.

I used to work for a lingerie company, and we gave clear instructions that all underwired bras should be hand washed. It was amazing, the number of people who returned damaged bras, telling us they'd hand washed things when they clearly hadn't. Listen up: if the underwire pops out of a bra, it's most likely to have been caused by a washing machine. We can tell straight away how you've washed it. We're not stupid.

Similarly, there was a girl there who used to work in the hoisery department of a well-known department store, where people used to open pairs of stockings, ladder them by mistake, then return them along with some story about manufacturing faults. As above, they can tell straight away when you're lying, just by looking at the stockings.

In summary: if you don't follow the washing instructions, you don't get a refund. Don't expect us to be sympathetic.

The advice in the above writeups is mostly in your best interests to heed, but, it is occasionally necessary to lie to tech support, in order to get out of an endless loop of questions which they're asking you, probsbly because their diagnostic software is stuck in an endless loop too, because it doesn't believe you.

For example, I once had an odd fault with my nVidia GeForce video card, where colours and intensity blurred horizontally across the screen.

The first thing I was told to do (after informing them I was using FreeBSD, and had tried swapping the monitor), was to reinstall my video drivers from the supplied resource CD.

After a moment or two, I realised the only possible route to a replacement part was to claim I had rebooted into Windows and pretend to go along with the procedure, attempting to quote dialogue boxes from memory.

I'm happy to say that it worked, although there was a scary moment when the cordless telephone's battery ran out, but she helpfully called me back - at their expense.

dtaylor speaks the truth. I worked in a call centre and while I tried to adapt my information on a custie by custie basis (so, idiots get step-by-step instructions while experienced people get told the overall plan for trying to resolve their issue).

However, not all call centre monkeys are as flexible, as I discovered when my Dell laptop broke.

The tech line was closed when the display stopped working, so I mooched around Dell's tech area instead, where they offer a message board where you can post your problem and also read other peoples', y'know, to see if anyone else has had such-and-such happen. (Incredibly, they also put complete disassembly instructions on this page, I wonder how many idiots take their Inspiron to bits and then have to somehow package it off to Dell for reassembly)

The overall impression I got was the video card (a GeForce 4 mobile version, quite unusual for a laptop) had broken. My housemates, all computer science students agreed, so I tried everything I could think of.

RAM was removed and tested, the hard drive was hooked and booted with another PC, the battery was reseated and checked. Everything checked out, it must be the video card.

I phoned Dell and told them the problem, and also what I'd done. The guy on the other end, who barely spoke English, gave me about ten steps, two thirds of which I'd already performed. That I was able to say so quickly, "That didn't fix it," baffled him, and eventually he said he couldn't put me through to second line as their database was down. I was promised a callback fo Monday.

Come Monday, he calls back, tries a few more fruitless fixes (including some we'd already done on Friday) and finally said he'd arrange a collection for it to be checked.

It was fixed, and the work order indicated the fault I'd identified, the fault they'd identified and the part they'd replaced were all 'video card'.

All I needed done was to have them collect it and fit a new video card. But they had to run through their stupid script first of all. Of course it's meant to weed out the idiots who don't know what they're doing, ("Oh, the phone line has to be dialling?") but surely if you know exactly what is wrong and can provide a veritable shopping list of what you've tried yourself, you should get to bypass the script?

Consider this a proposal for a dedicated "Almost Certainly Identified Faulty Parts Needing Replacing" helpline.

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