Sunday, 24 January 2016

Customers who vex me

When I went on maternity leave to have LittleBear, my company employed a new person, who also stayed on after my return. One of the good things about having an extra person, aside from it meaning we weren't all insanely over-worked, was that I was able to dump delegate a lot of customer support. I hate customers. But M took over most of my customer support duties, which was just fine with me. Unfortunately (for us) M has now moved on to potentially greener pastures, and the customer support monkey has landed back on my shoulders.

On Thursday, my boss ambled over and asked, "would you rather deal with the Portuguese customer or the SIMS* customer?" I knew that neither of us knew anything whatsoever about the Portuguese customer, as that had been M's project. I also knew that I probably had more detailed knowledge of the SIMS instrument in question, but my boss has more years experience in SIMS. So I did what I thought was the decent thing, threw myself on my sword, and volunteered to handle Portugal. And despite the fact that I ended up sat at my computer, gazing at emails and photographs and yelling obscenities at the screen regarding the wit, intellect and parentage of my Portuguese customer, I still got the better half of the deal.

The SIMS instrument in question has been installed on the other side of the world. It costs about a quarter of a million pounds, has been provided with a site specification that requires its installation in a lab with low vibration, limits on the temperature range, stability of the mains power, supplies of high grade bottled Oxygen and Nitrogen, and a clean room for sample preparation. It is a precision scientific instrument, many parts of which can only be handled when wearing sterile gloves. Most of the internals of the instrument operate at 2,000 volts, with some sections at 5,000 volts and a further section at 25,000 volts. All of these voltages are generated and supplied from large electronic control units that we also supplied.

The support request we had came via our agent, who reported that the PC had stopped working on the instrument. He (in his eyes) had heroically diagnosed the problem. The "lab" the instrument was installed in had such high humidity that water had condensed in the computer and it had stopped working. He had removed the power supply and the memory from the PC, dried them with a hot air blower and put them back. His request? That we supply a replacement PC that was more "stable" as the customer was not happy to have spent so much money for something that stopped working.

Now, I know that not everyone knows and loves electricity the way that I do, but let's just stop here for a moment and consider if there are any important things that we do all know about electricity...

Had a good think?


I hope you're with me on this, as I'm pretty certain that the one thing we all know is that electricity and water don't mix. Dropping your hairdryer in the bath is generally seen as a Bad Idea. Pouring tea into the back of your television? Also frowned upon. Hosing down your PC with a sprinkler? Never a success.

So what do we think about running a computer in a room with such high humidity that water condenses into actual droplets inside it and it needs drying with an industrial hairdryer? Probably not what we'd call a wise course of action. Now let's try and imagine whether we think that having water dripping around the place is going to be a good idea when we have a 25,000 volt power supply in the quarter-million-pound, precision scientific instrument? I'll give you a clue. My clue begins with "b" and ends with "ang".

We probably should have known that this instrument was not going to be loved and cared for when a dog wandered in off the street and went to sleep underneath it during the on-site training. The layers of dirt and dust on the floor might have given us a hint that they hadn't quite grasped the concept of "laboratory" let alone "clean room". And now here we are, with a customer who is liable to blow his instrument up in a spectacular, watery, arcing, loud, dangerous explosion. And he wants us to replace his PC to "solve" the humidity problem.

Like I said, a Portuguese customer who fails to read the labels on this equipment is easy in comparison**. I am delighted to say that my boss was feeling quite robust when he replied, so the damp customer received short shrift. Essentially he was told, "unless you provide a suitable laboratory with a controlled climate for the operation of your instrument, we will not support it. Your instrument is NOT under warranty if operated in the conditions you describe. Don't talk to me again until you have sorted this out."

It's a mystery why M would want to leave, when he had people like this to deal with every day, isn't it?

* Not the computer game, but Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS) - one of the techniques we specialise in. We make big, shiny instruments for analysing materials' surfaces.

** No, I'm not joking. He has three controls labelled "pulse width", "pulse amplitude" and "static extract". If you had a wire labelled "static extract" and it was plugged into a socket marked "static extract" would you seriously contact the manufacturer to ask, "is the static extract output adjusted with the pulse amplitude control?" No, I didn't think you would. My customer did. I think I've mentioned before that I don't always have a great deal of respect for people just because they have a PhD.

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