At the end of 2004, I managed to get a job at a Canadian hosting company technical support. I didn’t work directly in Canada. Thanks to modern technology, I could work in my own country, far away from the main office, with other young employees just like me.
Here’s my story.
The office whereabouts was kept in secret, not even a hint of information. I found the advertisement in a newspaper, called the indicated number, arranged an interview, and only then was given the address.
There were several vacancies at that moment, as the company did multiple online-business tasks as well (design, web-design, web-programming). I chose to work as a technical support operator. They required knowledge of English with fluent speech and basic skills of working in the Internet. Our operators answered only questions, which concerned the technical aspects, no sales or billing departments.
The office had several rooms and a total of 30 employees, working in different fields. A truly American atmosphere, when you can freely walk around the office and talk to people. We drank coffee and tea in a special corner, and the dress code was quite democratic. The average age of my co-workers was 25 years, which means you could find 17-18 years students, as well as experienced, 35-years old people.
At the beginning I talked to the chief, who was the shift supervisor and coordinated the work of all departments. He sent me to the day shift supervisor, a boy, younger than me, who was responsible for the technical support. He offered me to fill a form and describe in 10 sentences what I see around myself in English. In about 20 minutes he interviewed me and asked a confusing question. Did I ever work in shifts? Did he mean to ask if I used left or right ‘shifts’ on my keyboard? But then he explained me that by shifts he meant my work graphic, and the only vacancy they had was a night shift – from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. GMT.
Only then I was told the purpose of their work: to provide support to American and Canadian hosting users, who usually have questions about the services and features of the hosting their sites are located at.
As a technical support operator I’d have to answer phone calls, e-mail messages and live-chat conversations. I’d be given all the necessary information on money plans, access to the data base (Knowledge Base), that contains basic answers to frequently asked questions.
Of course I had to ask: ‘How can a hosting company be located in the U.S. and its tech support in Ukraine?’ The answer was simple enough: Ukrainian operators are paid five times less than those in U.S. or Canada. Plus, organizing a business in Ukraine is a lot cheaper. Technical possibilities of IP-telephony allow us to lie that our offices are located in Michigan or Alberta, without being busted.
I got to work on the next night. Immediately, I found out that there were 3 shifts (time indicated – GMT):
1st shift – from 1 p.m. till 11 p.m. (most responsible) – 6-8 operators;
2nd shift – from 9 p.m. till 5 a.m. (least responsible) – 3-4 operators;
3rd shift – from 5 a.m. till 1 p.m. (most peaceful) – 2 operators.
Why so? When it’s night in Ukraine (2nd shift), it’s evening (4 p.m. – 11 p.m.) on most Canada and U.S territory, where 99% of the company clients are located.
At this time we mostly got to talk to customers using live-chat and e-mail.
The first shift (day at U.S.) mostly receives calls from corporate clients, who experience problems with their site processing.
The third shift (night at U.S.) has least appeals, because rarely a client will spend his night at the computer, checking the availability and functioning of his website. But as the tech support positions itself being 24/7, we had 2 operators in this shift.
On American holidays and weekends, the shifts work as usual, but with less employees. This means that if on ordinary work days there were 6-8 operators (first shift), on weekends the number lowered to 2-3. The same goes for other shifts. On holidays the number of employees is decreased by half. Many people refuse to work on holidays or weekends, though the payment is twice that on an ordinary shift.
Hope I cleared out everything concerning shifts. Let’s move on to the work process.
Every employee has his own work place that he shares only with other shifts: permanent computer, table, chair. You need to register your time of arrival at work on the company’s server. There was a special subdomain for this purpose, so it was easy to calculate the salaries based on the work hours. You have to check on the site when you leave, as well. The access to the site is limited to the office computers and subnetwork, so you can’t carry on these procedures while you’re at home. The mentioned website also contains information on all employees: photo and basic info.
Everyone who just got a job at the company was offered to study the Reference Guide on all services and features provided by the hosting company. The guide contained about 200 pages with illustrations. It contained information on hosting history, organization, OS, network organization, and services. 80% of information was specialized technical documentation, which was unlikely to be used by support. But it was mandatory to read.
Everyday you come to work – you read the guide and time spent on it is considered as working hours and is paid respectively. After you read the whole guide, you’re instructed and trained on live examples. You sit your whole work day near the shift supervisor and watch the way he works. He doesn’t tell or explain you anything. You should take the initiative yourself and ask questions. This kind of teaching lasts 2 or 3 shifts. Then you’re given permission to answer simple letters yourself. An example of a simple letter: the client’s question is already answered in the ‘Help’ section on the website, so instead of sending him a RTFM, you just copy-paste the information and send it back to the client.
Complex questions require counter question to clarify the client’s problem or combining several parts of basic information to give an answer. For example: How to configure a mail account? What money plans do you provide? What mail client do you use? Did you create a mailbox using your website control panel? Answers to these questions are separately given in the ‘Help’ section. But we’ll have to combine them to give a clear answer with instructions.
We also had a base of standard questions and answers, so, even if you didn’t know all details of hosting features and services, you could find an answer anyway. Newbies begin with simple questions. Their task is to study the question and find a correct answer. If you can’t find an answer in the base, it only means you didn’t pay enough attention and the situation is described in other words with the same meaning.
Rarely there are cases when a question requires addressing another operator for help. An ignored message to the technical support is a catastrophe. If you didn’t provide an answer, this speaks of your incompetence and inability to work. The seniors checked ignored messages by time and if it was your shift, it’s your fault and you can get punished.
The office had a system for monitoring the working process of employees: your actions on the computer were recorded using printscreens every 15-20 minutes. The time constantly varied, so it was impossible to know when you need to close your solitaire. Our answers in livechats were also recorded, and each e-mail reply had to be signed with initials, so they always knew who answered the message.
If anyone tried to use someone else’s initials, it was useless. The company was always aware of the shift you’re working in, reply time and they had access to the printscreens. The shift supervisor always knew what letters have been answered and by whom (IMAP4 protocol). Also, as a rule, only a small circle of people answered messages, other experienced employees were responsible for chats and phone calls, and rarely answered e-mail. Anyway, unfair workers were always caught and punished.
There were also moments, when employees transferred part of their work on other shifts. Everyone knew that the maximum reply time was 24 hours. If the message was too hard to handle or one didn’t want to bother finding an answer, the e-mail was left in the postbox to the day shift, where more experienced and qualified employees worked. The day shift didn’t like this, but their salaries were twice higher than ours.
The next step was providing help via livechats. Only employees who’ve shown their diligence, received no penalties or complaints, and were promoted by the shift supervisor, could work with livechats. This type of communication required more skills and language knowledge, because you had no time to check your grammar. But you could always use template answers. You had to be attentive and try your best, because anytime you could be replaced by another employee, replying to e-mail messages.
The best livechat employee was eventually allowed to answer phone calls. It’s the last level of the office hierarchy. The candidate had to be fluent in English speech and passed all levels of work – messages and livechats.
The shift supervisor answered phone calls, but his main duty consisted in answering livechats and monitoring those, who replied to e-mail messages. To become a shift supervisor, one had to be working at the company for half a year, have language and technical knowledge, and skills to organize the work of subordinates, and teach beginners.
If somebody of the employees couldn’t come to work, the work was divided among other operators based on their professional duties. The phone calls, which is the most difficult part of it, were answered by the shift supervisor.
Also, I’d like to tell about the work process of providing help to users.
First step: the operator tries to describe the actions step-by-step to the client, so that he can solve his problem. But often it’s not enough, and the employee has to use the hosting control panel and check all defects himself. There are simple tasks, like adding new subdomains or e-mail accounts. More difficult problems include checking the website’s performance capacity. In these cases an operator can prove himself worthy and get a promotion.
To enter the control panel, the user will give you his login and password. The operator should be very careful with client’s accounts in order to not affect the site performance. If you plan on logging in under ‘root’ and deleting all files, remember that your access level depends on your position and level of training, and don’t forget about backups, chat logs, signed contract and criminal liability.
All operators of our shift received almost equal salaries. The difference could only be found if one worked more than the others – replaced someone, worked on weekends and holidays. The shift supervisor’s payment was twice higher than of ordinary tech support employees.
I worked in the night shift (9 p.m. – 5 a.m. GMT), so I can judge the volume of work only from my group of operators. There were 20-30 e-mail messages (except spam), 3-10 livechats and 1-5 phone calls, though there were days when none was received.
The technical support helped clients from 4-5 hosting companies at a time. This happens when some companies are resellers of the main one, and while selling services, they didn’t have their own tech support and used the one of the mother company. Maybe these hosting companies have the same owner, who develops his business under several brands. Either way, the volume of our work depended on the total number of customers of these companies.
I talked to operators in other shifts and was able to find out their volume of work, though at the beginning of my work, the personnel department urged to comply with professional ethics and not tell other employees about their size of the salary. While writing this, I remembered to be told not to disclose trade secrets to third parties. It’s no wonder the company, which has been operating for about 10 years, is known only to a fairly narrow range of students at computer departments. Not sure if it’s related to doing business in Ukraine and realities of the market economy. The salary was transferred to a plastic card, which means the company used "white" accounting, on the other hand, I signed a work contract. There probably was a section about non-disclosure.
So, the day shift (1 p.m. – 11 p.m. GMT) had 70-80 messages, about 20 livechats and no less than 10 phone calls. The clients had a tendency to communicate using e-mail messages.
The morning shift (5 a.m. – 1 p.m. GMT) had only 2 operators, and there were times when they received only a max of 10 letters, without any livechats or voice calls. Polite Americans probably didn’t want to disturb us in the middle of the night (UTC-5).
The salary. The rate was $ 200 U.S. You could get additional $20-40 for working on holidays and weekends. The shift supervisor received $300 U.S. The day shift operators’ rate was $300 U.S. and the senior received $450.
There was also a real opportunity to get to work in the main office, located in Canada. I’ve heard of at least two of workers go there. But for this you had to become not only the shift supervisor, but the chief of the entire tech support. This could take a year or so. Were there any additional criteria? Probably, yes. After all, it was necessary to prove yourself worthy here, in Ukraine, for the employer to take you to Canada and obviously pay more than $ 450. But since I quit after 4 months, I do not know other details.
Of course, we can continue the evening of memories, but do we need it? Think not.
It’s no secret that tech support is not always geographically located in the same place as the head office. Hosting providers often set tech support in other countries because of low wages. Whether this is a real fact, and what is the quality of such support, we decided to find out from a man who works in such tech support.
Lewis: Hello Michael, I am very glad to meet you.
Mihail: Hi Lewis, I’m also glad to be here today.
Lewis: Let’s start. And the first question that worries me the most: is it true that support is often located out of the country, from which the services are provided?
Mihail: Yes, it’s true. Here’s an example, the company is registered in U.S., their main office is located in Florida. But part of the staff is working in Canada, and part in Ukraine. So, in fact, the tech support is located in a differenе place than the main office.
Lewis: As I know, you too are working in tech support. What are your responsibilities?
Mihail: Yes, I work as an operator of technical support. In terms of my responsibilities, they consist in assisting and providing help to potential clients of our company, who purchased hosting or other services. That said, I must help the client resolve any of his questions, which concerns the technical aspects of the hosting provider.
Lewis: That’s very interesting. How do you choose candidates? That is, how do you recruit?
Mihail: At first, we choose from candidates who completed a questionnaire. Then, have an oral interview with them. In the end, we give them a written text to check their English skills. In addition, we make sure the candidate knows the bases of the Internet, site functioning, and e-mail. And if you know the difference between domain and subdomain, or how to configure your mail client, it will greatly increase your chances to get a job in technical support.
Lewis: Are there other tech support companies in other countries that work together with you?
Mihail: Yes, as far as I know. Two departments responsible for financial matters (Sales and Billing) are located in Canada. And then there’s a technical support department in U.S., they supervise us.
Lewis: So the client may not even know that he’s speaking with someone from another country?
Mihail: That’s right. When dialing a phone number, the customer is sure that the operator is in U.S. For this purpose we choose workers with a high level of proficiency in English. The client should have no doubt that he’s communicating with his compatriot from a neighboring state.
Lewis: Does this affect the quality of tech support?
Mihail: As I know, by policy the company doesn’t recruit people with low levels of English language skills. They will tell the employees about thr technical side of work, will show how to respond, and how to deal with emerging problems, but they won’t teach you English. There may be emergency situations, when during a conversation with a client, you can’t remember the correct word to use. In this case you’re not allowed to switch to your native language. You’ll get fired at once. After all, chats and phone calls are recorded.
Lewis: How many employees do you have?
Mihail: At this point there’s about 20-25 people, all working in different shifts. There are also people working on weekends or on holidays.
Lewis: How does your tech support work?
Mihail: It’s simple. A client who has a question regarding technical aspects of services provided by the hosting company writes us a letter, uses livechat or phone calls. He tries to explain the operator his issue. The operator must give him a clear recommendation to address the problem, or try to solve it himself. If the problem can’t be solved alone, the operator may request help from the entire department or shift supervisor. In any case, the main thing is the speed of processing information and solving problems of our clients.
Lewis: Do employees share experiences with each other?
Mihail: Of course. This is a necessary aspect of the support department. Knowing what questions the clients usually ask, and how to respond quickly can help solve a problem more efficiently. Based on customer requests the database of typical questions and answers is created. Besides, there are always "unusual" cases that can’t be solved using pre-made answers.
Lewis: Do employees have career growth?
Mihail: Yes. Everyone who comes to technical support, in theory, can become the head of the whole service in Ukraine. And if you can prove yourself worthy, there’s an opportunity to work in U.S. or Canada. The newbie gradually passes several ranks, from responding to letters to being the shift supervisor. However, your position isn’t firm and you can be replaced by somebody more hard-working in no time.
Lewis: How exactly do you work with clients who ask for help? Probably you have a lot of material to study?
Mihail: Yes, there’s a lot of material indeed. The manual describes all services of our web hosting company with illustrations. All employees must study it the first day they come to work. In the process, when you already start working with clients it’s much easier to navigate through the material. All information is structured to make it easy to find the desired section. In addition, the manual has a section with typical questions and answer.
Lewis: So, basically there’s an answer for every question?
Mihail: You can say so. Almost all questions have a ready answer. It can be formulated differently, but it’ll surely be in the database. Of course, there are non-typical situations. They often occur in chat rooms and during calls. In this case, you have to find an answer yourself.
Lewis: Your support seems to value its customers. But did you have any incidents? What happens if the customer is rude or offends the operator? Are there cases when you don’t respond to letters, livechats or phone calls?
Mihail: I didn’t experience none of the stated during my work time. Clients can be impolite sometimes by not saying ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’. I myself sometimes can be impatient to the clients. We had no choice but to respond to any letter within 24 hours, or leave it for the other shift to answer. Calls and chats were recorded, so we were obliged to reply in any case.
Lewis: In your opinion, does the work of the tech support in the main office (Canada, USA) differ from yours?
Mihail: Unfortunately, I didn’t go to offices in Canada and U.S. But from those who were there, I heard that the level of responsibility there is higher. Much higher. Superficiality is almost unacceptable, that is, besides the answer the operator should also provide detailed information on the issue so that the person fully understands everything. Language level and salary are also higher.
Lewis: If there’s no difference, maybe it’s enough to train personnel abroad, and pay them less for the same quality of service?
Mihail: The difference still exists. Their support is responsible for financial matters, that is, they have Sales and Finance Departments. Also, they only have around 5 operators. And they likely serve as control. Maybe that’s why they are paid more.