Industry : If it weren’t for ignorance…

peteOk, this one has been on the tip of my fingers for a long time. I’ve written about it in a less obvious way on countless occasions, and anyone who knows me well will know my stance on this. It’s something that actually pains me in multiple ways and I often feel like such a hypocrite just because I’m involved with the IT industry. Ok, it’s not something that keeps me awake at night, but it has taken up a significant amount of my thought process over the last few years. Thankfully that last statement was relative and I’m not required to divulge the actual figure of cranial activity over the the aforementioned time period. I’m talking of course about ignorance in the field of IT.

My apologies to begin with dear reader, as this article may become a bit of a rant, but I assure you a) there is a point and b) it’s making me feel a damn sight better actually getting all of this off my chest. My closing statement of the first paragraph was a little ambiguous so allow me to clarify. I’m primarily talking about the way that sales of almost anything technological are driven by the ignorance of the end-user. Granted over the past decade or so, the end-user has become less of a techno-seive, by this I mean information relating to technology is actually starting to sit in their brains, but overall I still find it maddening how large chains of stores, as well as smaller shops are taking the end-user for a ride by supplying them with false information in order to make that one extra sale.

I know business is business and all that, but there are some things I just can’t help standing up and fighting against. A few years back I used to write articles for the Linux Gazette, one article in particular featured a section on just this topic. I described a conversation between a sales clerk and an old lady, looking to buy something for her grandson. He’d mentioned something about wanting a joystick for christmas, (does anybody actually use those anymore??? Put your hands down flight sim geeks, no one’s talking to you :p) By the end of the conversation, the poor old dear had been conned into buying a $60 joystick, a USB/Midi converter, a cleaning kit and the latest copy of Windows XP, in case his wasn’t compatible. Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a little, but I don’t think it’s entirely beyond the realms of possibility.

“End users don’t know the difference between Hyper Threading and Dual Core, what they do know is a general trend that the higher the number, the better the product„

When you go into shops don’t you find it fun to tease the staff, trying to find out just how much they know, versus how much they are spewing forth from sales training sessions. “This new Pentium Processor has new HT technology.” Oh really? Just what does that allow you to do? “Run…more….stuff” (Obviously this part of the training session had been missed due to one of a growing number of reasons. Let’s settle on boredom.) How does it help you? “Well, it’s better init?” In what way is it better? (Boy do I love this part.) “Well it’s more expensive so it has to be better.” Alright Einstein, back to ya twinkie.

Is that scenario so unfamiliar? To be honest I’d be lying if I personally said yes. The other day I was fairly rushed into an electronics store to buy some parts to make up and audio cable. I needed 2 phono connectors, and a 3.5mm jack socket. So I grabbed the items and went up to the desk. “Can you give me a metre of audio cable to make up this lead, nothing too expensive, I don’t want DeOx?” I asked in a hurried tone. The store clerk stood there for a few minutes bobbing up and down before remembering something and darting for the elevator. I waited for a while until he came back. I paid for the items quickly, which were already in the bag, and left. Upon trying to make up the lead a few weeks later I discovered to my horror that the cable he had chosen was entirely inadequate. Not only was the sleeving too big to fit into the cable protectors on any of the connectors, but he’d given me a twin core design with a centre and braid on each channel. Not helpful at all. Upon thinking about it now, even if I’d told him at the time it was wrong, it’s more than likely they’d have tried to charge me for it, as they cut it before showing it to you.

Ok, so that one was partly my fault, but I still can’t help but feel that the technological industry thrives off of the ignorant. End users don’t know the difference between Hyper Threading and Dual Core, what they do know is a general trend that the higher the number, the better the product. Hence throwing in that this machine has four cores instead of two means they are more likely to buy the four core machine, despite the fact that missus Jones only uses Word and isn’t even on the Internet yet. Taking another tact entirely, sales of the iPhone and iPod Touch are driven not because the user knows what they want, but because every man and his dog wants one. It’s been a very successful marketing campaign and I have to agree they do seem to be good products, but who in their right mind is going to recommend another model to an end user that costs half the price?

“it’s not the employee’s fault that the retail industry hires them and doesn’t train them properly„

Thinking about this further and we hit the monetary arguments. It costs more to hire experienced, knowledgeable staff. This is known and is a common business factor and there is nothing we can do about it. However, I fear that maybe there are some more business ethics going on here, ones which are perhaps not quite so unavoidable, but still benefit the retail industry very nicely. Consider the following; Liam buys a camera from a high street electronics store. He doesn’t really know what he’s looking for and so relies on the sales clerk for advice. He gets sold an extremely dated model with limited functionality, which I must point out may not necessarily be the fault of the sales clerk. We must remember that a lack of training and experience isn’t something to be frowned upon. After all it’s not the employee’s fault that the retail industry hires them and doesn’t train them properly 😉 Back to Liam, and 6 months later he goes into the store again to buy another camera as he is fed up with the limitations of his current model. Who wins? Definitely not Liam. It’s the retail industry of course. By selling the wrong product, but still one which fulfills the basic criteria of being a digital camera, they have succeeded in sowing the “seed of return”. By this I mean they have increased the chance that the customer will return to the store to upgrade in a very short period of time. Had he been sold the right product for him, he may have been quite happy with it for 3-4 years, as I have been with mine.

Taking this to the PC market and we find the most common myth of all once again being a huge advantage to the retail market. “If your PC is slow, then you need to buy a new one” This statement is wrong on so many levels and starts to lean on another IT industry which I will get to later. Generic troubleshooting is the worst culprit for driving un-required upgrades and sales. The fact of the matter is if a blanket solution will work, whether it costs a lot of money, or takes a lot of time and effort, then it’s usually the one that gets recommended. Sandra goes into her local PC store and complains that her computer takes a long time to boot up and use. Bob, the sales clerk wants to make a sale and also doesn’t know that much about computing. “Sounds like your CPU is under powered”, says Bob, “You should buy this new Phantom GX43 with eight cores.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. What really happened, is that Sandra had been installing and un-installing hundreds of shareware applications, testing them out for photo editing and music playing. Her installation of Microsoft Windows had just gotten clogged. In my experience, a Windows PC needs reformatting every 2 years minimum, to keep it running smoothly. In essence she just needed to backup her data and reformat it. Problem is neither she, or hopefully Bob, knew this priceless (quite literally) nugget of information.

“I know a ton of situations where rebooting will solve the problem, but finding the real reason behind the issue not only improves the knowledge of the user and the support technician„

This problem of blanket solutions extends into the PC support industry too. We’ve all seen shows like the IT crowd where the famous “Have you tried turning it off and on again” phrase is used. The effects of this are twofold. Firstly, though the solution may work in 95% of cases, it’s often just a workaround and never really solves the underlying issue. I know a ton of situations where rebooting will solve the problem, but finding the real reason behind the issue not only improves the knowledge of the user and the support technician, but also can lead to faster resolution of the problem and less support calls in the future. Once user X finds a proper solution to the problem they will tell it to their co-workers. Secondly, the media has cottoned on to this myth that all technical support do is tell people to turn it off and on again. The problem with this being that often when you inquire as to whether a user has tried that as a legitimate solution, users will often lie and say they have already tried that, simply because they believe you are just fobbing them off. It also goes for similar solutions like, logging off and on again, restarting an application, process, anything. It’s seen by end users in general as a cop out, when in 20% of cases it may actually be a real solution to a problem. This notion of restarting has been perpetuated by low quality under-skilled technicians who cotton on to an easy fix for a problem and stick to it; Restarting your PC being the most common of all because it starts everything from a clean slate, it covers, log off and on again, it covers restarting applications, networking, printing, everything. Some technicians rely on the fact that nine times out of ten, the user knows no better and ignorance rears it’s ugly head again.

So what’s the solution I hear you ask? How can we solve this problem? In my mind we can only begin to solve the issue, it’s definitely not an overnight fix. It starts by technicians and people involved in selling and supporting technology learning more about their industry and beginning to leverage the knowledge of all the resources available to them. People often have way too much pride in this regard. When someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I don’t just fob them off with a blanket solution or give them a rubbish answer, I’ll often be heard saying, “I don’t know the answer, but I know some people that do, let me jump into a chat room and ask them.” We need to help people realize that the IT industry is a huge family of people who all have experience in different areas. No one person can be an expert in everything. Learn when to be an expert and when to call in a favour from others. In this ever changing world of IT it seems to be not so much what you know, but whether you know how to use google properly.

  1. As a note, this morning I saw a TV show for kids where Daddy Pig fixed the computer by turning it off and on again…… never ends.*sigh*

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