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Computer Stupidities

Calls From Hell

They're bound to terrorize all tech support personnel sooner or later -- the call from hell. These are calls from people without a clue in their heads. They call tech support lines and refuse to get off until the tech support staff members on the other end have lost all remnants of their sanity. The callers invariably exhibit both incompetence and belligerence, either of which is fully capable of driving even the strongest to the height of frustration or the brink of frenzied hysteria. The content of these calls is a conglomeration of computer stupidities of every variety, glued together with so thick a haze of idiocy, it will cause instant and complete gray hair to anyone remotely associated. Be forewarned.

Eventually, we "found" the correct backspace key and got that Z replaced with a C.

I see a horrible call ahead, and the customer is quite irate already.

One time I got really frustrated with a caller who had claimed that "the Internet had changed the color to black." Eventually I worked out that her computer had switched off.


I used to work for the computer helpdesk for a police force in northwest England, and it was there that I became infected with "Typistophobia," as a result of a typist from a particular police station who suffered from a lack of any of the social graces. She would regularly ring us with real or imagined problems, all of which were, of course, the computer's fault.

My first experience with this lady was as follows:



Gateway color codes their connectors as well as their ports. Yet:

I had this conversation recently with a lady who swore she had been using computers since forever.


I spent the next fifteen minutes re-constructing the carefully crafted setup for this lady's unique computer.


And people wonder why my mouse pad has a target on it labeled "BANG HEAD HERE."

My company develops an online education product for which we provide email and phone support. A large amount of our users are first-year college students, many of which have little or no computer experience. Our product requires that you use IE or Netscape and is not compatible with AOL's browser. This often causes some problems with our users as many of them subscribe to AOL. This phone call had me laughing for a good half hour and most of the other support staff in tears.

One thing that really got to me before I was removed from phone support for sanity reasons, was customers who wouldn't read instructions, no matter how conspicuous you made them. You could print directions on red paper and paste it on the software itself with 300 point type saying, "IMPORTANT: READ THIS!" and people would still not read it.

We packaged our software with a piece of paper with "SOFTWARE INSTALLATION INSTRUCTIONS" printed on the top, and one day a customer called me to ask how to install the software.

I worked for a company that provided billing and office management software to physicians' offices. Most of our users had dumb terminals with dial-up or dedicated lines that connected them to a stack of Unix systems at our facility. One day, we received a call transferred from the front-line help desk. The user was saying her enter key wasn't working.

My co-worker and I were the support techs for the organization. We took the call and found that when the user hit the enter key, the information wasn't accepted, and the cursor simply moved one column to the right. Now, the terminal hardware in the offices was rather old and prone to bizarre failure behavior. Keyboards and logic controllers would die in very odd ways.

We went through our hardware troubleshooting procedures. We confirmed that it was just this one key that was malfunctioning, and that the problem persisted when the keyboard was swapped out with another.

We tried checking keyboard mapping settings in the terminal and in the software she was using, but nothing worked. Finally we monitored the serial data stream by hooking another terminal up to the inbound port on the multiplexer and placing it into "dump" mode. As the user hit the troubled enter key, we saw a continuous line of hex 0x20's -- the ASCII space character.

At this point we were resolved to having to replace the whole terminal. As we had no spares and were waiting on a shipment, we couldn't do it for at least three days. The user expressed concern at being without a functional terminal for that period. We asked her to use the second enter key until we could fix the problem permanently. The following dialog ensued:

We heard a swift intake of breath, and then the user hung up.

Somehow, one day after years of working on the same software, with the same terminal, performing the same procedure, she decided that the space bar was the enter key. We stared at each other for about five minutes after she hung up, utterly disbelieving that we didn't even think about checking to make sure the user was hitting the right key and even more disbelieving that in the nearly 45 minutes she was on the phone, it never occurred to her that the key marked 'enter' might be the one she wanted.

During this conversation I found all the symptoms pointed to a server crash. But my co-worker assured me that they have had no server problems whatsoever. So I asked him to ask the customer to send a copy of the database for further examination. Surely all the tell tale symptoms of a server crash would be there, and I joined my co-worker at his desk for the remainder of the conversation.

A gentleman with a western accent called up saying that he was not satisfied with our service and wished to cancel. After telling him that he would need to call back during business hours and speak with customer service, I asked if there was anything I could do to make the service more satisfactory.

So I got his username and looked him up. Sure enough, there were two tech logs under his name, so I read them briefly. Virtually everything that could be checked had been checked. Something about the way he was talking to me made me a little curious, so I continued to ask questions.

The customer never called back. He also did not cancel his service the next day. The whole call took just over an hour and a half and I was ready to pull my hair out at several points. After the call, though, we were laughing over it for hours.

Thinking quickly, I decided to palm the call off to one of our younger support technicians, deciding this would be the perfect "field trip" for him. I told the customer we would have a technician drop by on site that afternoon to help him.

The following is what the unsuspecting young technician experienced.

The customer's house appeared to be in the middle of nowhere: there was nothing but barren land for miles in all directions. As he approached the house, he noticed a ring of cows, dogs, chickens, and pigs running loose and circling the house making an awful noise.

As he approached the house, he noticed a dead, half eaten animal near the front of the house. Later, he learned, whenever the customer needed to feed his dogs, he would step outside and shoot a calf.

Entering the house, the young technician noticed a very large pet door in the door. This was so the dogs and pigs could come and go as they pleased.

Inside the house was absolute filth. Mud and grime covered the floor and the walls, pigs lay on the couch, and dogs sat on the recliner chairs. The stench of filth was unbearable.

The customer took the technician to the back room, where the computer had been set up. A chicken was nesting on top of the monitor and droppings were running down the side.

It was too much. He ran, terrified out of his wits, and never looked back. Later the tech called me from his home, where he was still trying to wash the stench from his clothes. He hadn't been in our ex-customer's house for even five minutes, and his clothes were ruined.

I work for Microsoft as a certified Word Professional. One day I received a call from a woman who had much difficulty explaining herself and even more difficulty understanding what I was asking of her.

Pointless bickering and senseless rambling about her problem.

I had to hit the mute button to avoid letting her hear my agitated laughter.

The call lasted forty five minutes. I began to think that she didn't really know what I was saying, nor had the intelligence to question why I hadn't begun troubleshooting. Then I had an idea.

I never really found out what her issue was.

A former professor of mine was receiving a Javascript error when trying to view a particular web page. In trying to determine why he was having the trouble I asked what browser he was using.

I never did find out what browser he uses.


Great. Great start to a call. He wanted to install the Internet connection software we have, so I had him insert the CD. "It ain't workin'!" was all I heard for about two minutes of trying the drive and checking to see if it was really there.

He inserted the CD in the drive correctly, and then his computer froze.

There was no one on the line for a moment. Then he spoke up again.

This woman calls in, having a problem with her video card. Her initial rundown on the situation seems like she would know what she was talking about. But no.

I sent a JPEG from my recent vacation to my mother as an email attachment. I then telephoned her to see if she was able to view it. After attempting to get her to use the 'File/Open' command in Netscape, I realized that my 'Open' dialog was different from hers, and so I couldn't talk her through it. But I tried to determine which OS she was running.

We have one customer who is notorious in the tech support department. We all dread getting a call from her. She is truly stupid when it comes to a computer.

This whole conversation of two commands took almost an hour. I have no idea how this lady ever made enough money to buy a computer. It amazes me how someone can forget the alphabet. She's nice, but she's amazingly dumb.

A customer wanted to set up his computer to download something from the Internet. So I spent a nice chunk of time walking him through downloading Netscape and the Plugin Pack and rebooting.

I spent still more time configuring TCP/IP for the LAN for him.

I spent still more time with him configuring access through the firewall and setting his preferences. Netscape started fine at this point.

I spent still more time with him explaining how to enter a URL.

He gave me the address. I tried nslookup and whois on it, but they came up empty.

A customer called complaining that his display wasn't working. (It turned out to be that his monitor was out of sync.)

Twenty minutes later I found out he had a monitor that was only capable of VGA, and then I spent another ten minutes trying to explain why he needed a better monitor to display higher resolutions.

Twenty five minutes later....

I wanted to cry.

Suddenly I hear the modem attempting to dial in.

(beep click click)

I got a call from an older lady who stated that after installing our software, her mouse would not work. After further questioning, I learned that she got a message when booting the system that a device was not found. I had her power off the PC, disconnect, and then reconnect the mouse. After rebooting, the mouse functioned fine. But instead of thanking me, she asked me sourly, "Why did your software unplug my mouse?" I attempted to explain to the lady that that was not possible and that all it was was a loose connection. It wasn't good enough for her. She put her husband on, who asked, "Why did your software decide my computer didn't need a mouse?" Again, trying to explain the loose connection was of little use, and he wanted another number to call to return the software.

That turned out to be the cause of her system locking up. It wasn't really locking up, it was just going so slow it seemed that way, and she never waited long enough for it to finish processing her reports.

He tried. Twice. Ugh.

My boss sent an update of our current program via modem to all of our online customers, with instructions to call in and be walked through the upgrade if they needed it. He had to leave the office for a few hours, so he gave me instructions on how to start the upgrade once they had downloaded it.

I got a call while he was away. Details you should know: the lady who called me for instructions was not the person who was operating the computer. That person was on the other side of the room, and everything had to be relayed through the lady on the phone. For reasons of brevity, I won't bother typing out every sentence being repeated several times back and forth.

I spelled out the command exactly and got her to read it back to me before she hit Return. But she got the same error.

Needless to say, that took a while to straighten out. Anyway, it turned out the upgrade wasn't in the directory at all.

Sigh. Someone had transferred the download to disk in order to install it on a second computer, handed it to her, and told her to call us. Apparently it never occurred to her to get the program on the computer somehow before calling.

Ten minutes later...

This call took more than 45 minutes, in case you wanted to know why there are hold times on support numbers.

We get the CD playing with AudioStation, but there's no sound.

The volume level turns out ok, and the sound's not muted.

I endure a three minute profanity/threat combo.

Country music blares. The rest of the conversation takes place shouting over it.

I used to work as a salesman for a computer wholesaler a number of years ago. I got a call from a woman who was fit to be tied. She found out that the person who sold her the computer bought it from our company and called us to complain.

I never anticipated her answer.

She tells me the whole story again.

After that, I spent twenty minutes talking her down from a seething boil to a cool simmer and finally got her off the phone. I imagine this woman aggravated the poor slob who sold her the computer until he caved in and gave her our number. Nice guy.

This was my slowest caller ever:

Direct and to the point, but just a touch vague. So I prodded him for more information about his problem.

I waited a moment, thinking that he would continue on his own. But he didn't.

Shuffling. Stepping down stairs.

This guy has a 386-25 with 2 megs of RAM loading Windows. It takes about five minutes to boot up his machine.



I slowly drop my head to the desk. Finally, I get him to start our application and wait three minutes for the software to load. I'm now fifteen minutes into this call, and I normally average three and a half.

Alarm bells go off in my head. The user doesn't have a POP account.

A user calls from Chicago. (We are in central Illinois.) She wants to register for classes via our online registration system. In the course of the discussion I discover that:

  1. She is definitely "Not A Computer Person" (tm).
  2. She is at her friend's house, but her friend is not there.
  3. Her friend has a computer, but she doesn't know what kind.
  4. She has never turned it on.
  5. She thinks it has a modem, but she is not sure.
  6. She has never logged on to any of her university accounts.
  7. She has never used any terminal software and doesn't know what type her friend has.

She was deeply upset that "no one will help her." Sadly, I was also unable to do so. I mean, what do you do?

I once received a call from a woman with a heavy, throaty, not-real-educated-or-bright voice from New York. She asked if the...

I spent about ten minutes trying to navigate him to the beginning of the blank line so that he can type in a single line of text. He seemed to completely lack comprehension. The man understood English, but there was something he seemed to be failing to grasp.

My patience with such customers was wearing thin. After a short pause:

And after an excruciating 30 minutes of how to make an alias and reminding him that he truly did have a System Folder (or, as he called it, an "Envelope") and where it was, we got his new software on the Launcher.

Ten minutes later he called me back and told me how he had written down my directions to the "Systems Envelope" so he could put more programs on his Launcher. One of the programs didn't work, however, and after another 45 minutes of sheer hell, I told him we needed to send him some new floppies.

If I had a button on my phone to administer electro-shock to this man, I would have.

(Rustling and jostling heard in the background.)

(Rustle, rustle.)

This woman was good friends with my supervisor. She's now also my wife.

[Editor's Note: This story is true but heavily circulated with a fictitious ending: see]

In my previous job, we often had to contact clients in Pacific Island nations where office technology seems to be even more feared than usual. A relaxed attitude to time adds to the battle. One day I had to send a fax to a number in the Cook Islands. I called.

It became apparent that "Hello" comprises the majority of this person's English.

He wandered off. Shouting and a leisurely background conversation followed. Five minutes later a different person came to the phone.

I was just about to hang up when someone picked up the phone.

I hung up.

Fast forward about five minutes to when Sysedit is finally up and the system.ini is being displayed. However, the user is unable to find the comm.drv line in 14 attempts of going down the list line by line for the first 12 lines. The other techs have been listening to this and are almost on the floor laughing.

Yep, you guessed it. Repeat the whole File->Run routine right down to being unable to type in "comm" in the search-for line. Almost 10 minutes more to find the line -- seventh line down.

Bingo! Home stretch now. Have the user comment out that line and put in Windows' driver back.

I'm grateful now for using SysEdit. Restore the backup SysEdit automatically makes. Try changing the line using DOS Edit three times. Each time is the same -- device driver error.