Why does technical support take so long?

slow tech support

My broadband connection went down a few weeks ago and my provider still hasn't fixed it - why is technical support so slow?

When we request technical support because we're experiencing broadband connection problems, or we have no broadband at all, delays in remedying the problem can be caused by:

Underlying all those issues is a larger one.

Abandoned tech support

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Broadband technical support - and customer service for that matter - can be the bane of any broadband user facing connection problems.

How a provider deals with customer service and fixing problems is often what sticks in our minds the most: slow support generates complaints, tarnishes the reputation of a provider and even reduces existing subscriber numbers as we give up and switch away.

Good technical support should therefore be at the forefront of most providers' business objectives: building the reputation to bring in new customers whilst holding onto the existing ones.

Why, then, are they often so slow at fixing problems and dealing with service complaints?

Sadly, it's because the broadband world just isn't quite like that.

Providers often lower prices to bring in new customers and then promptly fall flat on their face when anything goes wrong because they cut support to fund the cuts.

However, it's not always fair to blame provider underfunding.

As we'll see, it's not just the poor handling at the technical support level - the part of complaint handling you can see - which is to blame. The system is complicated.

Finding the fault

In the first instance, broadband connection problems can take a long time to resolve because the provider isn't quite sure what's wrong.

For more on the different types of broadband connection problem and likely times to wait see this guide.

Support can be lengthy as it has to pass through three main stages: a house check; a diagnostic check and a BT Openreach check.

Stage one - house check

Problem solving inside the customer's home - the router, the wireless network, microfilters as well as internal telephone wiring.

When you phone broadband technical support they'll typically start by asking you to problem solve around your home - checking the router, bypassing the wireless with ethernet, switching microfilters and using the BT master socket to rule out any problems with your secondary telephone wiring (that's any telephone wires inside your house).

Stage two - diagnostic check

If they can't find a problem at stage one, the provider can run remote fault diagnostics and line checks to try and pin point where the fault is.

Once they've had you exhaust all options in your home, they'll start running diagnostic tests remotely.

These tests can help detect where on the connection the problem is occurring, as well as the type of problem - for example, if you're experiencing connection drop outs or slow broadband caused by packet loss.

Once the provider has an idea of where the problem might be, they can start trying to resolve it.

If a provider is unable to work out exactly what the problem is however, they can't fix it, and thus technical support becomes particularly delayed.

Providers will ensure they exhaust all possible avenues at this stage as the next step is to involve physical support or assistance at the local exchange, street cabinet or your home via a BT Openreach engineer.

When it's not just you: Note at this stage, that problems can be caused by larger network issues, such as over capacity at a local exchange or network downtime.

In some cases, for example slow broadband complaints, potential remedies could involve needing to install additional capacity at an exchange - something they won't rush to do until they're really sure a lot of customers are being affected.

In this case, the provider might have a good idea what's wrong - but they're not rushing to fix it.

Stage three - BT Openreach

If the problem can't be resolved, or it requires an in person engineer at the local exchange, street cabinet or customer's home a provider has to pass the fault over to BT Openreach.

However, providers are generally reluctant to get to this stage.

Delayed technical support resolutions can therefore be because providers will ensure they've taken all steps necessary to fix the problem remotely before handing over a fault to BT Openreach.

While that's very sensible for many reasons - there are cases when providers can drag their heels a little too much.

Jack Schofield, from the Guardian's tech column, put it pretty well when he advised a reader that:

"[...] you are a Demon customer, and it's Demon's job to sort it out with its suppliers, whether BT or Openreach or anybody else. Unfortunately, this depends on Demon recognising that the service is defective, and being willing to pay to have it fixed. Since the cost of an Openreach visit could run to £150 or more, I'd assume this means Demon would be making a hefty loss on your broadband account."

In other words, remedying a broadband problem could cost a provider more than the broadband contract makes them: no wonder they're reluctant.

BT Openreach delays

Finally, when the fault is passed from the provider over to BT Openreach delays can occur at this stage too - something which Openreach has come under fire for in the past.

Providers have known to make complaints to Ofcom due to long waits for repairs by BT Openreach, partly because delays by Openreach affect the provider's business much more than that of Openreach's.

Can we expect improvements?

Broadband connection problems have a myriad of causes.

When you have a broadband fault, your provider needs to ascertain which part of the long chain from your exchange to your computer - via your street cabinet, home and router - is at fault.

Problem solving aside, even when a fault is found, delays can occur due to busy engineers, the longest delays seem to be the result of ISPs having to book appointments with Openreach engineers to check on their phone lines and street cabinets.

There are, in other words, more than a few places where technical support could be improved.

Budget providers are, we think, perhaps a lost cause but there's been some progress at the Openreach level of late.

Ofcom recently announced that it will "establish clear targets for fault repairs and the installation of new lines for the millions of telephone and broadband users who rely indirectly on Openreach" and impose sanctions if the network provider fails to reach its targets.

However, don't jump for joy just yet: the targets seem focused on returning Openreach to pre-2012 service, rainy 2012 caused a massive backlog in repairs, rather than really improving it.

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