The Art of Turboing

I first learned the term “turboing” when I worked second-level telephone
technical support at Xerox. It refers to the actions of a customer who goes
around the normal technical support process by contacting a senior person in
the chain of command.

In this article, I’ll describe the Art of Turboing: why you should do it, what
it will do for you, and how to do it successfully.


Why turbo?

Everyone has had a bad customer support experience at some point in their life.
In today’s world, the “service-oriented” companies don’t see customer
service as the “service” they provide. It can be difficult to get
help for problems that seem simple and straightforward.

Why does customer service suck?

To understand why you need to know how to turbo, you should know why it’s even
necessary in the first place. A key part of the process is understanding how
the typical customer support system is organized.

For the purposes of this article, I will describe telephone-based customer
service. It’s usually easier to deal with face-to-face issues, as it’s easier
to find a manager. However, some of the principles will apply to face-to-face
customer service problems as well.

Also, I will approach the problem from the standpoint of computer-related technical
support, as that’s where most of my experience lies. Still, the concepts are
applicable to almost any telephone-based customer service or support organization.

Most phone support systems are organized with multiple “tiers” of
support personnel. Almost every sizable organization has at least first- and
second-level support. In more and more cases, there are additional tiers, which
begin to blend into the non-support arms of the company at some point. Many
companies now consider the senior management to be the topmost tier of support.

First-level support: the deflectors

When you call a company’s support line, you get connected to first-level support.
The job of the first-level customer support representative (CSR) is triage:
answer the easy questions, weed out the wackos, and pass the hard questions
up to second-level support.

There are many skilled, knowledgeable first-level support people, but there
are even more barely adequate first-level support people. (Why? Because the
skilled ones usually get promoted to second-level support, or management.) It’s
not unusual for first-level computer support personnel to have only basic computer
technical expertise combined with a manual of rote responses to common questions.
If your question isn’t one of the ones for which a ready-made answer is at hand,
you’ll need to have your problem escalated. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of
pressure on first-level support in many companies; sometimes it’s better for
the CSR’s career to give you a wild-ass guess and mark the incident “closed”
in their database, than to escalate the call.

In an astonishingly large number of cases, companies are farming their first-level
support out to contract companies that may provide support for dozens of companies.
These people are not part of the company that sells the product, and therefore
have far less pride in the product. They also may have little to no specific

Depending on the company’s policies, the first-level people may take your information
and act as a go-between with the second level folks, or hand you off to a second-level
staffer directly. If you don’t have a simple problem that has a well-known,
canned answer, you want to talk to a second-level staffer directly. If you use
the first-level support as a go-between, something will probably get lost in
the translation.

If you find that your first-level staffer can’t help you, ask to speak with
someone that is more familiar with the problem. Be polite, but firm. If the
person refuses, ask (politely) to speak with their supervisor. Often, policy
requires that the supervisor approve “escalating” a customer to second-level
support. Explain the problem to the supervisor and explain that the person(s)
that you’ve been working with haven’t been able to help you.

If the supervisor gives you the brush-off, refusing to escalate the call or
take any other meaningful action, it’s time to turbo.

Second-level support: the experts

In most companies, the second-level CSRs are the ones who have deep knowledge
of the product and good creative and analytical thinking capabilities. They’re
placed at the higher tier to conserve their time—the less capable CSRs can
perform the initial triage and handle the easy calls.

When I worked at Xerox, as a second-level printer support representative, the
second-level group had about 12 CSRs for all of North America. The group had
access to testing facilities and engineering groups. We could replicate a user’s
environment in our lab, and see if we could get the same problems to occur.
We knew the phone numbers for the people that created the product, and we could
call them if we found something inexplicable.

It’s important to remember that second-level support are experts, but not necessarily
geniuses. They may not have an instant answer for your problem, even though
they see more unique problems than the first-level support folks. However, they
do generally have the skills and the resources to actually work on
your problem, rather than looking it up in a book. Therefore, you should have
more patience with second-level support. They may have to call you back; let
them do so, and give them a reasonable amount of time. If they don’t call you
back, call them.

If second-level support can’t help you, try to analyze the reason why they
can’t help you.

  • If it seems that they can’t help you because your problem is new and/or
    unique, and they’re having problems determining the cause, you probably don’t
    need to turbo the problem. Chances are, they’ve already escalated the problem,
    or they’re working on it themselves.
  • If, on the other hand, you feel that they are unable to help you due to
    a corporate policy, management edict, or just plain personal stubbornness,
    it’s time to escalate the call or turbo it.

You can ask to speak to a second-level CSR’s manager; this may get you some
additional help, but generally won’t be nearly as effective as speaking to the
first-level manager. The second-level CSRs usually have much greater “empowerment”
to solve customer problems, and their manager may not have much more clout.

You stand little chance of being put directly in contact with the next-higher
tier. If second-level support is unable to resolve your problem, and you feel
that they are not doing a reasonable amount of work to resolve it, it’s time
to turbo.

Third-level support: the creators

Generally, the third level of support is the creators of the product or service.
For a physical product like a camera or a printer, the third level of support
may be the product engineering team that designed the product. In some cases,
it may be a “tiger team” of very senior technical staff and field
service personnel who are intimately familiar with the product and the way it
works in the real world. (In many companies, “tiger teams” are responsible
for finding and fixing flaws that occur in the field which the product design
team cannot replicate or does not wish to fix.)

You stand a greater chance of being put in touch with a tiger team, if it exists,
than the product engineers. If you are a large customer, your chances of having
the tiger team work with you are greater still.

For a service, such as Internet service or phone service, the third-level staff
will usually be the behind-the-scenes technical staff, such as the system administrators
or telephone switch technicians. These people have much deeper experience than
any of the CSRs, and also have access to vendor support systems that can help
them resolve problems with the equipment they use.

In either case, it’s most likely that the second-level CSR will take your information
and forward it to the third-level support staff. The second-level CSR may continue
to act as a go-between. The third-level staff’s time is precious, and they need
to be shielded from the customers in all but the most extreme cases to retain
their usefulness.

However, if you hit a dead end with second-level support, you can increase
your chances of getting third-level or better support by turboing the problem.

The right time to turbo

To summarize: The right time to turbo is when you’ve exhausted the normal technical
support process. You should turbo only when you’ve hit the dead end. If you
turbo indiscriminately, you may end up with worse support than you would have
otherwise… and you’ll be unable to turbo again if it is ever truly needed.

How to turbo

The trick to successful turboing is to turn the normal bottom-up technical
support pyramid on its head. You want to complain properly to the most senior
person possible. This is easier than ever if you have an Internet connection.
If you don’t have Internet access, you will need to do some research at a library.

1. Find the right place to complain.

Before you can do anything else, you need to find the right place to complain.
Are you familiar with the phrase “the buck stops here?” Well, you
need to find out whose desk has that sign in the troublesome organization. Usually,
that’s the Chief Executive Officer—the CEO.

You’ll need two pieces of information to turbo successfully:

  1. The CEO’s name
  2. The company’s main switchboard telephone number

Most publicly-held companies have their annual financial report available on
their corporate web site somewhere. Do a little digging and find the latest
report. This report is the mother lode for turboing; you can often find everything
you need right there.

There is an exception, however: If, in researching the corporate structure,
you find that there is a Vice-President of Customer Affairs, or a similar high-ranking
corporate official whose title clearly indicates some kind of customer advocacy,
you should turbo to them first.

What if you can’t find the phone number?

Many companies do their best to keep their main switchboard number out of the
hands of the average customer. It may not be readily available on their Web

Check any documentation that came with the product or service. It’s often listed
on the backs of manuals, on the copyright page of manuals, or similar places.

If it’s a publicly-held company, you can probably find the information on an
investment website, such as Yahoo’s finance site. I’ve found that using the stock-symbol lookup to find the company’s stock information, and then using the available research information to find
the phone number, usually works great.

If none of that yields a phone number, try to find the corporate address. With
the company’s home-office address, you can call Information or use a phone-directory
website to find the company’s telephone number.

2. Get the right attitude.

It’s vital that you have the right attitude when you call. If you’re seething
mad, wait a while and cool off. You don’t want to sound mad. You want
to start the call sounding cool and businesslike. You can summon up some irritation
later, but try to never go to anger on the first call.

Also, have some idea what your goal is. Be sure that you understand the problem,
and that you can explain it quickly, briefly, and simply. You’re going to
need to “hook” someone
into listening to you, instead of passing
you off to a flunky.

3. Call the main office.

Do this from a quiet location. There should be no “household”
noises. Make sure the kids are out of telephone range, that the television is
off, and that the background noises are appropriate—preferably as close to
a private office as possible.

You’ll need to call during business hours at the company’s location. I’ve found
that mid-afternoon seems to work well.

Call the main number that you found in Step 1. This will connect you with a
switchboard operator or receptionist.

In your best businesslike tone of voice, ask for the CEO’s office by name:
“Mr. Smith’s office, please.” Never ask for the office of the CEO.
Your goal is to sound like a business associate of the CEO, without ever
actually saying so. Keep it short, and don’t embellish! You’re not trying to
impress the receptionist; you’re just trying to avoid giving away the fact that
you’re a customer calling to complain.

4. Schmooze the secretary.

This may be the most important part of the process!

You are almost never going to get to speak with the CEO of a major
company by calling up their switchboard and asking to speak with them. In fact,
if you use the script in Step 3, you’re not even trying. You’re doing what any
business associate would do: contacting the CEO’s office.

You’re going to get the CEO’s secretary or personal assistant. This
person has immense power within the company. They control access to
the CEO. Their job is to keep people like you off the CEO’s back. Your job
is to get her to help you.

First, be exceptionally polite. Do not show anger. Your goal
here should be to sound frustrated, but reasonable. You want the secretary to
sympathize with you. If they feel sympathetic toward you, they’ll see to it
that you get put in touch with the most effective person for your problem. If
they are upset with you, they’ll bump you back down to the support staff, and
you’ll be out of luck.

I’ve found that the best approach is to be honest about why you’re calling,
and to frame your needs with the most reasonable-sounding terms possible.
“Hello, my name is so-and-so. I’m one of your customers, and I was hoping
to speak to Mr. CEO because I’m really getting frustrated with getting a problem
resolved, and I know that your company doesn’t want me to feel that way.”
If you can say this earnestly, without anger, and politely, chances are that
you will have a very successful turbo. If they turn you away at this point,
they’re corralled into seeming as if they really do want you to feel
frustrated and angry with their company.

Another example: When I was having difficulties getting an online service to
debit my charge card, and the problems were clearly at their end, I opened the
call with “Hello, my name is Rob Levandowski. I’m one of your customers,
and I’m having a bit of a problem: I’m trying to give you guys some money, but
I can’t seem to get you to take it.” Saying that with a bit of a smile
and a bit of frustration worked well, because it evoked a small chuckle—and
because it’s utterly reasonable. What corporate executive is going to say that
they’re not interested in taking your money?

Chances are, the secretary will ask about the kind of problem you’re having.
Don’t expect them to fix it! Describe the problem in general terms, without
getting technical. Give enough information so that the secretary can use their
knowledge of the company to determine the right person for the job.

Guess what? You’re very unlikely to speak with the CEO, even after doing
this step perfectly. The secretary will probably put you in touch with a vice-president,
a division director, or a consumer advocate. A consumer advocate is acceptable
if they are an adjunct to the CEO’s office, and not part of the support staff;
you want someone with high-ranking clout here. If you need to question whom
the secretary wishes to handle the incident, be very polite about it.

Above all else, thank the secretary profusely for giving you help. If
this turns into another dead end, you want her to remember you as that poor
reasonable soul who just wanted a little help, not as that pain in the ass who
interrupted her busy day.

5. Talking to the Bigwig

With a little luck, you’re now talking to someone in a position of power at
the company in question. You still want to be polite. You should explain your
problem in detail, and clearly, but without unnecessary embellishments. Be sure
to mention how things made you feel from time to time. Here’s where you may
want to let a little more frustration, or even ire, creep into your voice—but keep it minimal. You don’t want to alienate this person.

The worst thing you can do at this point is rant, and say things like
“your product sucks!” What you want to do is sound like the most reasonable
person in the world. You want to sound so reasonable that any disagreement with
what you’re saying just has to sound unreasonable, illogical, and idiotic in
comparison. This is the art of persuasion.

There’s a good chance that the person you talk to may have to make some calls
to find out what’s going on. You can usually judge by their tone of voice how
successful your turbo attempt has been. In the best of cases, the Bigwig will
sound embarrassed as they apologize to you for your troubles, and completely
and utterly pissed as they contemplate who they have to call to get this straightened
out. (In other words, if it sounds like somebody’s going to get a new one torn
once you hang up, you’re probably in good shape.)

You may be asked what you wish the company to do to resolve the situation.
The first, obvious answer, is to say that you want the problem fixed. However,
it may be more advantageous to answer the “what do you want?” question
with “I want you to make it right.” This is an open-ended answer
that’s perfectly reasonable. What’s the Bigwig going to say? “We have no
interest in making things right?” That kind of answer is really unlikely.
If you did get that kind of answer, you’d know that the company was hopeless,
and that you’re looking at either taking your money elsewhere, or contacting
an attorney, depending on the situation.

Once you’ve got the Bigwig to agree to make it right, tell them that you want
the problem fixed, give them a timeframe that you feel is reasonable to have
it fixed, and bring up any little things that have come up. For example, you
may want a credit on your bill for the time and cost of having to call the Bigwig
just to get some help. If you say that politely and reasonably,
you’ll probably get it.

Use your judgment; if you ask for too much, you may ruin it, but a truly customer-oriented
company will do a hell of a lot to keep a customer. For example, when
UPS lost a package that was being shipped to me which contained a new printing
of personal checks, I turboed the call and ended up speaking to a vice-president.
When it turned out that the package had been returned to the shipper, the VP
asked what I wanted. I wanted them to make it right… and arrange to have
the package reshipped FedEx Same Day Air.
The UPS VP agreed to
That’s proper customer service: the one-time cost and use of
a competitor who offers services that the company can’t provide, is worth it
if it means preserving a lifetime of potential shipping revenue from that customer
and anyone that customer may influence. (Ultimately, UPS was able to stop the
package before it was fully returned to the sender, and it was placed on a UPS
private jet and hand-delivered by the UPS regional manager at 7:30 AM the next
day. UPS also now offers package tracking on ground packages by default; while
I don’t think it was directly related to my problem, the problem I had would
not have occurred if the package had been trackable.)

If possible, get the VP’s direct-dial number or e-mail address, so that
you can follow up with them directly.

A key point to use when talking with the Bigwig is that you’re a customer
who likes the service except for this problem
. You may need to gloss over
other problems with the service to pull this off, but it can help. If you sound
like you’re just trying to help the company give better service, you’re more
difficult to brush off.

Be complimentary where you can. If there’s some aspect of the company
you really like, praise it!

Where possible, phrase your complaints to railroad the Bigwig’s responses:
if you say that you know the company has a really good reputation for listening
to customers, so you were sure that they’d want you to inform them of this glitch
in their customer support, it narrows what they can do without implicitly becoming
monsters. No one wants to do things that imply that they’re monsters,
especially when the implication is made quite obvious beforehand. People who
are worried about corporate PR are even more sensitive to this kind of thing.
Use it to your advantage!

Also, at this point it may be good to politely explain any reason you might
have for knowing about the nature of the problem. If you’re calling an Internet
provider about a problem, and you’ve worked for an Internet provider in the
past, explain this, and then explain what you think may be happening. Higher-level
people are less jaded about this kind of thing and will listen with an open
mind. Lower-level support staff hear claims like this all the time, and more
often than not, the claims are full of hot air.

6. The resolution

You should expect that the VP will not have a direct answer, but that
they’ll stir the hornet’s nest and get things moving for you. Most likely, a
division director or senior manager will contact you to work out the details
and get things fixed.

Depending on the nature of the problem, you may even get one of the first-
or second-level people working on the problem… but usually an extremely knowledgeable
and helpful individual of the type, and one whose marching orders have been
spelled out with exquisite clarity from above. When my mother once turboed a
persistent telephone problem to the CEO of Southern New England Telephone, the
next day the lineman arrived and told her, “Ma’am, I don’t know who it
is you know, but my orders are to stay here until the problem is fixed, no matter
what, and there’s another fellow at the office with the same orders.” (In
this case, the technician ultimately found that the problem was real and was
caused by exactly what my mother suspected: recent work down the street at a
junction box. The phone company repair folks had previously dismissed that idea,
believing it couldn’t possibly cause the problems that were reported… but
it turned out that a short in just the wrong place could indeed cause the problem.)

In any case, repeat the procedure as needed until you’re satisfied that the
problem has been fixed correctly and for good. Don’t be afraid to call the Bigwig
again to report that the people working on the problem have made it worse, or
don’t seem to know what they’re doing, or have been rude to you. You have a
pipeline into the organization now; use it wisely and sparingly, but well.

7. The aftermath

If you’ve managed to successfully turbo your problem, file away the information.
File away all the names and numbers of people you talked to, and your notes
on the conversations. You may need it again someday, or to help someone else.

However… don’t turbo again until it’s really necessary. Just
because you have a “friend” higher up in the organization, don’t pester
them for little stuff! Use tech support, unless it gets so bad you have to turbo

You might send the Bigwig a thank-you note, however, via postal mail or e-mail.
One nice thank-you note will reinforce your image as a reasonable sort, and
it means that you’ll have an easier time if you do need to turbo again.

Other Turboing Notes

It goes without saying that if you actually know someone in the upper management
of a company, calling them directly is the most successful kind of turboing

If you have a sizable account with a company, contacting your sales representative
may provide a viable “intermediate” level of turboing, before you
haul out the big guns as described above.

The Other Side: What To Do When You’re Turboed

If you’re a CSR or a Bigwig, you may be a bit upset with this procedure. Ideally,
you’d like every customer to be satisfied by your support organization, by your

If you have good customer service, you shouldn’t ever have a customer turbo
a call on you. That’s axiomatic. When a call gets turboed, it’s a sign of problems
in your policies or organization.

Take it as constructive criticism. Here’s a person who cares enough about your
service to try and let you make it right. They were passionate enough to call
you, despite the roadblocks. They were willing to give your company one last
chance, rather than jumping ship to the competition. Don’t ignore them—cherish
them, and make things right. And then find out what went wrong inside your company,
and fix it so that you never have to get another turbo just like that one again.

If you handle a turbo properly, with excellent customer service, you can make
a customer more loyal than they’ve ever been. Fix the problem promptly, give
a credit to offset loss of service or expenses, spend a little money to fix
the customer’s problem any way you can, even send a few nick-knacks to the customer
as an apology. If your support organization is well-maintained, you won’t get
very many turbos, so the cost will be minimal. Write it down as advertising
expense—because a well-handled turbo may give you an evangelical supporter.

On the other hand, you can mishandle a turbo now that you can recognize it.
You could decide to ignore turbo attempts… but don’t be surprised if the customers
who care enough to call, also care enough to hurt your company’s reputation.
“Word of mouth” can have global repercussions in the Internet age,
and filing a trumped-up libel suit will only make it worse.

And remember: you never know exactly who this customer is. They may be a complete
nobody… or they might be the best friend of the CIO of a Fortune 500 company,
with more influence over that company’s purchasing habits than any advertisement,
salesman, demo, or press release.

Keep that in mind, and use turbos to your advantage: opportunities to fix your
mistakes and make them into assets.

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