It is a well-known fact that more and more companies are outsourcing work to other countries where wage rates are much lower. Advances in communications technology now make it a profitable and attractive practice -- at least it’s attractive to the companies who are outsourcing. I can recall a time not so long ago when, if I had a problem with a product or a service, I could call a 1-800 number and get helpful instruction from some knowledgeable person who was able to communicate with me.

There were early warning signs that support services were going global, but I failed to recognize them. It was only a few years ago that I called to place an order for a product that I saw in a catalogue. The ad said that I could order simply by calling the toll-free number at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was about 1:30 AM when I decided to purchase a product from a business headquartered in New Jersey. I happened to live about an hour away from this company, but it only sells through its catalogue. The woman who answered the phone was very pleasant and helped me with my order. After the business transaction was complete I casually commented on her late working schedule. It turns out she lived in Canada and was working out of her home.

Not long after that I experienced a problem with a product that I was having shipped by Airborne Express and gave them a call. I was calling from Pennsylvania, the product was being shipped from Edison, New Jersey, and the guy who answered my call was in New Mexico.

If this outsourcing had limited itself to English speaking countries, there probably would not have been any problems. But nooooo, they had to go much further than that. There is an old expression that people are often promoted to their level of incompetence. The high tech version of this is that services are outsourced to their level of incoherence. I’ll pick on AOL for one of many examples.

Compuserve, now an AOL company, was my Internet service provider (until this happened) and had been for at least seven years. Their headquarters was in Columbus, Ohio, but I don’t know where it is now. From all indications they moved to India. It seemed to coincide with their purchase by AOL. When I first started using them I could call their technical support and talk to an expert in Columbus, Ohio. The expert understood my problem and usually talked me through a solution. Then one day I called and talked to a guy with a thick accent. He was obviously from India. Little did I realize that he was actually in India. I was on the phone with him, and then with his supervisor, for approximately 45 minutes, explaining and re-explaining my problem without success.

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to computer technology. I’ve taught computer courses and even wrote a book on programming in BASIC back when that was popular in the 80’s. I bought my first computer, an Apple II, back in the late 1970’s when the closest computer store was a second floor apartment an hour and a half away in Manhattan. For most of the 1980’s I ran two computer labs at the college where I teach, and did most of the maintenance myself. It is rare that I have a problem requiring a call to tech support, but when I do, I think I am well qualified to describe the problem so that a “tech support person” can understand it.

My most recent attempt at this had to do with my frustration over the fact that AOL treats us Mac users with almost total disregard. Their “latest” E-mail software for the Macintosh was, like all previous versions, fraught with poor design and minimal effort. Anytime I tried to attach a single file to an email, regardless of whether it was a text file or a graphic file, it compressed it into a Zip file and the receiver gottwo files and was often unable to read either of them. If I used Compuserve’s feature that allowed me to include a graphic as part of my email text, non-Mac users could not view it. I usually worked around this problem by logging on to the Internet through my school’s server – avoiding the use of Compuserve’s software. Then using Internet Explorer, I would go to Compuserve’s web site and access my account utilizing their web mail.

For about a month, when I logged on to their Web mail using my screen name and password, my password would reappear in unencoded form on the URL bar while the next screen was loading. The screen that then loaded was not web mail but a Federal Express web page that allowed me to search for the closest Fed Ex shipping point. I noticed that this only occurred when the Compuserve home page had the Fed Ex ad showing. (The ads changed every 10 minutes or so.)

I called Compuserve's tech support to report this odd problem. Once I pushed all the right numbers and held for the next available support person, I spoke with a very pleasant and ultra-polite lady in India. Our conversation went something like this…

TS: Thank you for calling Compuserve. How may I help you?

Me: I would like to report a problem with Compuserve’s Home Page for Web Mail.

TS: What version of Compuserve Software are you using?

Me: I’m not using Compuserve Software. I’m accessing Compuserve via the Internet using Internet Explorer.

TS: I need to know what version of Compuserve software you are using.

Me: I have Compuserve for Mac OS X Version 5.1.3 (Revision 4113.12 (US)) on my computer, but I’m not using it.

TS: What operating system are you using?

Me: I’m using Mac OS 10.3.2

TS: What is your problem?

ME: (I explain the problem with Compuserve’s home page)

TS: Go to the lower left corner of your screen and click on the start icon.

ME: There is no “start” icon in the lower left corner of my screen.

TS: Is your computer on?

ME: Yes, it is on and I am connected to the Internet using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

TS: Exit the program.

ME: Okay, I’ve quit Internet Explorer and logged off the Internet.

TS: Okay now click on the “Start” icon in the lower left corner your screen.

ME: There is no “Start” icon in the lower left corner of my screen. I have a Macintosh. I think you are using instructions for PC users.

TS: Please hold on…

TS: What operating system are you using?

ME: I am using a Macintosh and the operating system is Apple’s OS X version 10.3.2

TS: Please hold…

TS: Are you sure you are using a Macintosh?

ME: Yes, I’m quite sure I’m using a Macintosh computer.

TS: Please hold…

TS: Compuserve does not support Macintosh. You need to call Apple.

ME: Compuserve is still selling software for the Macintosh. Have they stopped supporting it?

TS: I’m sorry sir. You need to call Apple.

ME: The problem is not with my software or Apple’s software. The problem is with your web site and the Federal Express ad.

TS: We do not support Macintosh. You need to call Apple.

ME: Thank you. (click)

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