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Spare a Thought for Tech Support Reps

Spare a Thought for Tech Support Reps

Have you ever called technical service departments for advice and help in troubleshooting or choosing a product? Depending on the reason for the call, the experience can vary from positive and helpful all the way to torture for both people. Working in technical service can feel like a very unrewarding job as you are handling complaints most of the time. However, an experienced technical service scientist can not only help solve your problems but can also become a trusted resource and friend.

As a technical service representative for almost 5 years at a major biotech company, it would amaze me what people can do wrong with a simple kit. Common mistakes like using elution buffer for lysis buffer and lysis buffer for wash buffer just skim the surface. I would wonder, why is everyone spilling the wash buffer all the time? Are they really spilling the buffer? Or do they just want to get some extra for free?

Another common complaint is kit contamination with DNA. The conversation goes something like this:

Customer:  my (PCR, qPCR) kit is contaminated with DNA. All my negative controls are positive. It must have come from your factory that way.
Me: OK, I see. I can understand why you’re so upset. Did you try switching out the water?
Customer: Yes. The whole kit is brand new. I just opened it.
Me: Ok. Is the DNA amplified in water the same DNA as your gene of interest (based on a gel visualization or melt curves)? What is the gene you are studying?
Customer: Yes. It’s the same size band. My gene is from a bumble bee virus. I need to get these results and I can’t get the negative controls to be clean! Send me a new kit!!
Me: You have bumble virus DNA in your negative controls?
Customer: Yes and it was there when I opened the kit.
Me: Where do you extract the bee virus?
Customer: At my bench- I extracted DNA yesterday.
Me: And where do you set up your qPCR reactions?
Customer: At my bench. I used aerosol resistant tips so it’s not me.
Me: Do you really think we have your bumble bee virus floating around our manufacturing plant…?

And so the conversation goes and I explain the importance of splitting up the rooms and doing extractions in one room and qPCR set up in another room with different pipettors. Two weeks and a free kit later, and problem was solved.

But sometimes people are so angry or so sure they are right that they are near impossible to talk to or help. One time a woman was furious over her failed plasmid mini-preps. I tried to discuss some common reasons for getting no plasmid in a mini-prep but she stopped me and said “Sweetie, I have 10 years experience” and so on and it was not her problem. When I reluctantly called back to see how things were going, turned out the antibiotic she used was the wrong one. Over the years, I’ve also been called “honey” (but not in a good way) and “lady”. The context was “listen, lady…”. It’s usually the people with the most experience that insist they are right and tell you that your company’s products suck. (Yes, people call and say that.) I think it just scares experienced researchers when something as simple as a plasmid prep kit fails and they need reassurance that it’s not a mark on their scientific credentials.

Fortunately, the really angry customer was quite rare and if treated with empathy and seriousness, most people realized I just want to help them get the experiment to work. All technical support people were scientists in their former lives and most PhDs. We share your frustration and sadness when something goes wrong or when you lose days to a failed kit and we take it very personally. We all have had that experience and don’t want to represent a product that causes that kind of anxiety for someone else.

The other type of call is help in making a purchase. I always enjoyed this the most because the caller was usually in a good mood, wanted me to explain new technologies, and it meant they weren’t complaining. It was even better if they were complaining about the other company’s product as long as they weren’t complaining about mine. It’s a great idea to call technical service when you want help choosing a product to buy because a) no one can help you navigate the website faster and b) no one else will give you the truth about which products are good and which to stay away from. Believe me, I would hesitate to recommend a product if I knew many other customers were having trouble with it. The last thing I wanted was a call back two weeks later to troubleshoot the product I recommended, or worse, be scolded for their lost time and samples.

But the best type of call was when someone called to say my advice was spot on and now things are working really well. The ultimate reward was that I helped another scientist move forward. That is the sole mission of the job – to help you be successful.

So next time you call technical service for whatever reason, remember to be kind to that voice over the phone. They have been there, done that mistake, and know what you are going through. The technical service representative is a true altruist, completely for the service of others and totally committed to your success.



  1. Erica on November 5, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    I agree– I have enlisted the help of tech support many times and the responses have been overwhelmingly supportive with good advice. They are a great resource. Some of them I thought even went ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ to help me figure out what the problem was or to decide between products.

    Thanks, I always enjoy bitesize bio!


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