Evil Genius helpdesk humour
"We care a lot"

Give the kid a clue

At the first ISP I worked for, we had a mailing list with a periodic newsletter that would go out with links, technical hints and information on changes to our service -- the usual fluff associated with an ISP servicing residential customers. Good for newbies, but probably not very interesting to experienced users. While I was working in the email department, one of my jobs was to remove customer addresses from our mailing list. It was a task I looked forward to, because unsubscribing an address was a good thirty seconds of effort, which made my work stats look much better.

The only time it became aggravating was when the occasional customer would forget that they'd signed up for the newsletter and get a little... emphatic in their efforts to be unsubbed from the list. I often had to reply to remind people they'd asked to receive the newsletter, could request removal at any time, and language like that in email was a violation of our terms of service.

One user that sticks in my mind was a teenager I'll call Bob -- because Bob has a finely-honed paranoia and I wouldn't put it past him to google for instances of his name. Bob contacted me about our newsletter from an email account held with another ISP, using more than the usual number of four-letter words for emphasis and warned me that I was 'in great danger' unless I carried out his demand immediately.

That gave me a couple of chuckles, and I replied to remind him he never told me what address he wanted removed.

He came back to me with even more four letter words and a few choice comments on my intelligence. Why, he wanted to know, didn't I try looking for a similar address on our service? Why didn't I reverse lookup? Why didn't I go through a number of other long, involved procedures of doubtful effectiveness to find the right address?

Rather than telling him I wasn't willing to spend more than five minutes on a simple unsub, I just replied again to tell him it was the customer's responsibility to specify the address to remove -- and mentioned that the tone of his message wasn't appreciated.

That proved to be a mistake.

Over the next week, he proceded to mailbomb the email helpdesk. Every day he registered half a dozen new hotmail accounts to spam us from. I was actually kind of impressed by the amount of effort he was putting into it, but that didn't lessen the annoyance of it all. He doubled the size of our 'no action required' folder all by himself.

One of our managers got in touch with Bob's mother, but doubted if she would be able to help us -- she seemed to have great difficulty understanding the situation he was trying to convey to her. Events confirmed his doubts, as Bob continued to spam us. Eventually we found ourselves speaking to Bob's father (who had joint custody) and threatening to lay an official complaint with police. By this point, we had enough evidence of harrassment to get every phone line Bob had access to cut off.

That was the last we heard from Bob -- for a while...

Give the kid a clue - part 2

Bob's mailbombing stopped, but not his continued calls to the helpdesk making impossible demands -- passwords for accounts with other ISPs, broadband speed through a dial-up modem, etc. He never lost his taste for the melodramatic, either. He continued to make veiled, ominous threats about 'taking us out' and 'you're going down'.

By this time we'd made something of a pet out of Bob -- he had his own vanity domain name and website, with an online diary to detail the goings-on of his daily life. Reading that was what made us suspect Bob's elevator didn't make it all the way to the top floor. He wrote obsessively about things you or I might have shrugged off... like people entering his room without permission.

I made a habit of checking the site once or twice a week when things got quiet, just to see what was new in Bob's life, and some five or six months after the mailbombing episode, I was interested to note that Bob had decided the time was right to find himself a part-time job. Wondering what kind of job a teenager with an unwarranted confidence in his technical knowledge and the social skills of an Asperger Syndrome patient would look for, I had a sudden burst of intuition and checked our incoming email for that day -- yup, there he was. This time complaining about an obscure routing issue with many more gratuitous imprecations and insults... and finally insisting that we hire him 'so customers don't have to put up with incompetent f#@ks like you'. He finished off by warning us again that unless he received a call from the company's general manager within his deadline -- which had already expired -- we were inviting a whole world of hurt down on ourselves.

For one glorious moment I allowed myself to visualise Bob sitting in my seat, dealing with customers like him... but no. There were so many good reasons not to let him through our door.

I took some quiet satisfaction from regretfully informing him there were no available positions.

Give the kid a clue - part 3

Bob was quiet for a long time after that. No more site updates, no more profanity-laden email. He'd left the country to spend time overseas as an exchange student. He didn't return to trouble us for almost a year, and this time -- it was our fault.

Shortly after New Year, things were quiet and my entire department was a little bored. Having exhausted all my usual blogs and comic sites, I found myself back on Bob's homepage. He was back! And updating again. I was interested to see that Bob had spent New Year's Eve and several days after that in a prison cell. Bob says it was a mistake on the part of the cops, but naturally I had my own ideas about that. I pointed this out to some of my co-workers.

"Hey, look," said one of them. "He put his cellphone number on the page. I'll just send him a little text message... rattle his cage a bit." IM COMING 2 GET U
"Great. What are you going to do if he complains to your provider?"
"I'll just say I was texting a mate and got the number wrong."

Minutes later...

"Now who could be calling me?"
"Ha! You know who it is."
Beep beep "I'm low on power... hope I've got enough battery to take the call." Beep beep "Hello?" Beep beep "Hey, he hung up!"

Seconds pass...

"Uh... guys? Check out this text..." U CANT SCARE ME I NO U HAVENT GOT A BOMB
"A bomb? What did you say to him?"
"Nothing, he hung up as soon as he heard the low battery warning... jeez, he just sent two more texts."

Five more minutes go by...

"Seven more texts. These aren't making any sense -- this kid is screwed up. Damn, the battery's gone."

Half an hour after that the co-worker got a call from his cellphone provider in response to a complaint of death threats received from his number. He chatted quietly with the caller and was able to satisfy her that it was a misunderstanding without too much trouble. (Faint sounds in the distance of someone crying "Wolf! Wolf!"...)

The happy couple

One memorable customer I've assisted on far too regular a basis was a semi-literate middle-aged man who was always careful to be polite to me, but had no patience at all with any problems that cropped up at his end. This included his PC, so when he wanted to disconnect from the internet and couldn't remember how, he would open up his networking or modem settings and start changing things at random, hoping it would disconnect him. It would then be our job, over the course of twenty minutes to an hour, to help him change all his settings back to the correct ones.

It was a laborious task, because reading anything took him ages, and sometimes his wife would try to help him out by reading out the words which were giving him difficulty. I don't know why she bothered, because he was never grateful -- in fact, he would start swearing at her, using the most vicious and hateful language I've ever heard outside a schoolyard. Then she would immediately start whining about how she was only trying to help, only trying to help, but wouldn't go away, which was obviously what he wanted. The two of them could go on like this for up to ten minutes! It was impossible to feel sorry for either one of them, when they did everything that was humanly possible to invite their problems...

Gimme the money

Working on a helpdesk means you get to see the worst side of human nature with more regularity than the best, since people who aren't in some kind of trouble don't tend to be the ones calling you. This goes double when you're working in billing rather than tech support. By the time six months on the job had passed, I thought I'd seen pretty much every dodge I was likely to. Unfortunately, that turned out to be overly optimistic. This is one of the stories that fills me more with disgust than with bemusement.

I found myself speaking to an older man with a French accent, who seemed quite distraught from the moment the call began. He'd just received his invoice for the previous month, and found that the amount was quite a bit more than he'd expected. It seemed that during that time he realised he'd been using more online time than he'd anticipated, being housebound and sick with the effects of chemotherapy for a tumour he'd had removed.

To save money, he switched over to our flat rate account, apparently not realising that on regular monthly plans, we required customers to pay a month in advance, and believing that a change of pricing plan would be backdated so that his period of high usage would be covered as well. It wasn't an unusual belief among our customers. ("I'm on the flat rate!" "Yes, but these charges are from before the change to flat rate." "But... but... I'm on the flat rate!")

That next invoice nearly gave him a heart attack -- with the excessive usage, plus the flat rate charge for the remainder of the month, plus the advance charge for the following month, the amount was nearly triple what he was expecting. It wouldn't be a big problem for someone with a steady income, but as he pointed out, he was an elderly stroke victim with cancer. It was clear that he was going to find these charges a problem and it was causing him distress -- at one point I had to wait for him to regain his composure after he broke down and began sobbing into the phone. I couldn't help but feel for the guy -- first a stroke, then cancer, then financial problems, and with no family to help him.

Not having a password for the accounting system, I couldn't refund the money myself and I knew for a fact that if I put a request through to our billing department, they'd reject it and point out that we took all reasonable steps to make sure customers understand the terms they're agreeing to. The only thing I could do was email customer service, explain the situation, and ask them to bend the rules into knots on this customer's behalf. Still fighting back tears, he told me that our policies seemed very cruel (this time I had to agree), but if that's all I could do for him, he would take it.

The answer from CS: This customer has been calling once a month with the same story for more than a year. NO MORE REFUNDS.

You catch more with honey

This woman called and launched into a tirade about how bad the service was before I could even say hello. Five minutes and a determined attempt to make myself heard later, I finally got her to stop and tell me what the problem was: a phone line which wasn't able to receive incoming calls. Armed with that knowledge and details of the account in question, I made an excuse to put her on hold so I could do some investigating without listening to her continued tale of unfairness and oppression by her telco (ugh).

It took me a while to find her in our database, as she'd chosen to quote me a phone number she'd cancelled over a year before in favour of another, but I was able to find the reason for the problem, and the solution to go with it. I brought the customer back from hold -- and was surprised to hear her in the distance... on another line... complaining about what bad service I was now giving her.

I waited patiently for a couple of minutes, trying to catch her attention by speaking louder and louder into the phone -- no success. She was too intent on filling in my supervisor on my incompetence to pay any attention. At that point I noticed another call come into our phone queue -- and hung up on this one without guilt.

For all I know, she's still not getting her calls...

Not that kind of help line

On a helpdesk, you become used to occasionally receiving calls from people looking for some human contact rather than some technical support. They're usually elderly people, calling late at night or on public holidays. None of us like taking these calls, because they're difficult to end without being rude and we have our work stats to think of, but at the same time we all feel a little bit guilty about blowing off someone who doesn't have friends or family to talk to.

I say talk to, but really I mean talk at. Lonely callers generally don't need any invitation to start telling you about how their day went, and they'll continue talking without feedback.

One Good Friday when we weren't experiencing much demand on the helpdesk, I muted my phone to see how long a lonely caller would talk while getting nothing but dead silence from the other end of the line. That guy kept up his monologue for twenty-two minutes before pausing to ask if I was still there...

Another call began with an elderly woman complaining that she couldn't get online to use her brokerage account, then slowly metamorphosed into her telling me all about how she'd been hospitalised for six weeks with an infection of necrotising fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) while I desperately wondered if I could somehow accidentally hang up on her with the centre manager sitting at a PC behind me, working on the weekly reports. This kind of thing is why your children never call you!

Welcome to RIP, here's your CD and tinfoil hat

Some of the people I talk to have a... unique point of view. They see things in a way others don't. Putting it less delicately, they're raving loonies.

I once spoke with a gent who was having some difficulty convincing our collection department to reactivate his account and it was very important that I speak to them on his behalf because he really needed that connection. He couldn't use any other ISP.

They're all part of the homosexual conspiracy, you see.

He then went on to confide that he was the programmer who wrote MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, not to mention the businessman who'd originally started the company I was working for. One day he'd get the recognition he was due -- after finding a lawyer willing to represent him in court.

I wished him the best of luck with that.

Tinfoil hat part 2

Another customer who occasionally called us with unusual requests was an ex-SAS soldier who must have spent a little too much time sneaking behind enemy lines -- he was convinced the government was using his wife's internet account to spy on him. He wasn't a difficult person to talk to, because he was always attentive and rational-sounding -- the craziness crept up on you gradually until you finally realised the discussion had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

He wanted to know things like whether a modem could intercept phone calls, what kind of hidden information could be encoded in email, whether a computer can detonate explosives...!

I tried to keep in mind while talking to him that, unlike other callers who've said they'd hunt me down and kill me, this one probably could.

When grannies attack

If you say you haven't changed any settings, your ISP's reaction will be polite disbelief. If you say you're going to blow up their building, they'll start taking you a lot more seriously.

Our users would do well to keep that in mind: one Thursday afternoon I found myself taking a call from a police officer who wanted us to know they'd traced the threat we reported, and didn't think it required any more follow up -- the 'mad arsonist' was an 86-year old grandmother who needed a walking frame to get around...


On the email helpdesk, we had a few regulars -- people who would write to us on a weekly or even daily basis. Most of them were complainers. Few people are willing to sit on hold for five or ten minutes in order to let a company know what they think of its services, but they had the time to dash off a quick email whenever they had to enter a password twice or experienced a delay in messages arriving.

One of our regulars was 'Mr Bitchslap'. He wrote six or seven times a month to tell us what he thought of us, and always used a graphic physical comparison to make his point. Having email bounce back to him was like a 'sadistic bitchslap to the face'. Having his connection drop was like a kick in the guts. A ping to an FTP server timing out was like a sucker punch.

He never had trouble emptying his email outbox, but I'm sure he would have found an interesting metaphor to describe it.

For the millionth time, exaggeration

Another regular was 'Mr Noisy'. He was our most dedicated complainer, and I'm certain that a secret appreciation of what he saw as abuse was the only reason he stayed with our service. To hear Mr Noisy tell it, every other ISP gave better, cheaper, more reliable connections, their technical staff were paragons of education and dedication, their customer service lines were quick, polite and attentive.

And yet somehow, he'd closed his accounts with them in favour of us. I think it's time he admits he doesn't come here for the hunting, as the saying goes.

Mr Noisy was also convinced that our service was raddled with faults, and that we would do anything to cover it up. He would write complaining of a particular issue, we would write back with a solution, then we would receive two or three more messages from him detailing how unbelievable it was that we would try and con him this way before we could finally persuade him to try the advice we'd provided... and then when he did, he'd follow up with a sarcastic little missive thanking us for finally acknowledging our problem and taking steps to fix it, but don't try and string him along this way next time!

Raving loonies

Occasionally we got email from someone who was completely off the deep end. Sometimes it was written to us, sometimes it was presented to us by a customer who'd received it, or by police as part of an investigation.

One of these was written by a man, apparently to his ex-girlfriend. It warned her that his demon was coming to get her and her treacherous friends, continued by gloating that her 'weak, pathetic saviour' couldn't help her, paused for some whining about how she'd betrayed and humiliated him, then launched back into satanic cloud-cuckoo land by describing in detail what the demon was going to do to her...

The email contained maniacal screaming. I'm convinced that anyone who would actually write sounds like 'RAAAAAAAAAAGH!' in a letter is the sort of person who wears his underpants on his head and talks to walls.

Raving loonies - part 2

Raving looney email number two was written to the helpdesk by a customer. It began by wishing in English we could all have died in the ovens at Auschwitz before switching to German and rattling on for another two screens. I never found out what the rest of this little love note meant, but what I did understand was interesting enough to refer it on to the police.

Surprisingly, the well-wisher who sent the message didn't even take the most basic precautions to hide his identity. I imagine he didn't realise that sending abusive or threatening letters or email is a crime in this country, and thought the worst that would happen would be cancellation of his account with no refund...

Raving loonies - part 3

The third raving looney was less than impressed by the service we provided -- I think -- he actually accused us of 'fucking in heaven'. And for a crime like fucking in heaven, threatening to kill our children was the only logical response. (The joke's on him, I don't have kids.) There wasn't much more than that to be gleaned from his email, he seemed to have only a passing familiarity with English.

Unfortunately, this one did take a few steps to hide his identity. First he used an email proxy service, which automatically strips header information and resends a message. The organisation running the proxy agreed with us that the email was a terms of service violation and happily provided us with the source IP address, but it turned out to be in a country where ISPs are notoriously indifferent to TOS violations. Our attempts to follow up at that end came to nothing.

Name droppers

Now and then (mostly while speaking to customers on the phone) we find ourselves talking to someone who thinks he can get better service by calling on the influence of a 'close personal friend' who's an important manager of the company or the company's parent company. I'm sure they think they're being cunning -- or heck, maybe they really do know someone who works here -- but they all repeat the exact same phrases: "That's not what my friend told me." "Would it make a difference if I asked my friend to take a look at it?" "My friend told me that was a mistake, and someone would be in trouble over it."

I've found the best way to bring them back down to Earth is to ask for the close personal friend's name and offer to conference them into the call. ("Oh, uh, well, um -- he's in a meeting right now.") Another conversational tactic which takes the wind out of a name dropper's sails is to hint that you'll have to do things strictly by the book if a manager is going to review your performance.

One of my co-workers summed up our position best, I think: "Sir, it's a big company. We have hundreds of managers, who have tens of thousands of acquaintances. We don't make exceptions for any of them."

Give the kid a clue 2

I'm going to call our second prize customer 'Tim'. He isn't very bright, but he occasionally manages a kind of lunatic insight that does the trick just as well. Tim is in his 30s, but for someone who lives in his father's basement and is considered by the state to be incapable of looking after himself, 'adult' isn't a label that fits well.

Tim is a former customer of several ISPs, including this one, because he's still having trouble processing two important concepts: when your connection is working, changing settings at random doesn't make it work better, and the more you swear at helpdesk staff, the less helpful they get. Tim was so persistent in both messing with his settings and abusing staff who tried to fix them for him, that in the end a call centre supervisor asked him to take his business elsewhere. He hung up in a huff, the account was cancelled, a centre-wide email announcement was made, and there was much rejoicing.

Until later when the company absorbed a second ISP and Tim managed to register an account with the unsuspecting new staff members.

That account lasted five days before Tim wore out his welcome and got booted again. He didn't stop calling, though -- on the day I'm writing this, six months after his account was cancelled, Tim is still calling, yelling abuse at operators, and hanging up! In a way, you can't help but be impressed by the amount of effort he's put into his hobby -- after the call centre started blocking his number, he got his telco to put a caller ID block on his phone. When the block was removed (telcos don't provide caller ID blocks as a licence to make abusive calls), he bought a cellphone. And when that was blocked, the saga still continued.

The latest line Tim crossed was recording death threats in the voicemail box of the supervisor who cancelled his account. Sick of the whole sordid affair, the supervisor in question took the recording to police -- only to be told they didn't consider it worth following up: Tim is a mental patient living in 'community care' under the supervision of his parents, and undergoing a course of therapy to work through his various 'emotional' problems. A successful conviction would be unlikely.

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