On-Call Welcome again to On-Call, our week-ending wander through readers' tales of horrible problems they've been asked to fix at horrible times.
This week, reader “Jack” explains that in desperation he once took a job with a small integrator that specialised in small businesses and won a deal to implement just about the full Microsoft business stack at a school. And then scored a support deal too.
Which looked like a pretty good win, save for two things.
Firstly, some of the school's staff refused an upgrade to Windows 7. The school bursar led the charge, arguing that she already knew Windows XP inside out and did not have the time to learn anything new.
Secondly, the school was compelled to use a local government network and remote access was forbidden. So if Jack and his colleagues couldn't sort something out over the phone, they had to visit the site. Which was two hours away by car.
That round trip quickly became painful. Jack says he and his colleagues quickly found themselves making trips-a-plenty to fix trivial problems, usually user errors. Such as the time the teacher who got lumped with some light sysadminnery locked himself out of his own account.
Jack and his fellows worked out a system whereby the school would only call for on-site support after a few non-critical jobs had stacked up.
That worked well until one Friday afternoon, the bursar called with a complain to the effect that an email could not be delivered by our "stupid new system and absolutely must be delivered today.”
How did the bursar know the email could not be delivered?
“I received a rather rude and impersonal email,” she said. But she had not thought to retain said mail, so Jack explained that bounce messages contain useful diagnostic data. He also asked, as politely as he could, whether she had typed the correct email address?
“Of course I did,” came the sharp reply. “I send this weekly report by email every week! I'm not stupid you know!"
Jack tells us he stayed calm, tried to re-assure her that the question was not an insult her intelligence and that typos cause email problems all the time.
“Which just set her off,” he recalls, leading to a demand that someone come and sort things out straight away.
So Jack drove the two hours and went straight to the bursar's office and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. During this process the bursar complained that whoever had spoken to her on the phone had been shockingly rude, apparently incapable of imaging that she was talking to that very man!
Nothing the bursar said offered a hint about what was wrong, so Jack “trudged up to the staff room and logged onto the server from the school's wireless network and looked through the Exchange logs to find the offending messages.”
“An lo,” Jack exclaimed in his email to El Reg, “the email address was wrong.”
“So armed with this information, I spoke to the bursar again, pointed out that the email had been input incorrectly, and would she kindly try and send the email again.”
She duly sent the this-time-correctly-addressed email, which appeared to go the distance. So Jack asked if, in future, the bursar might keep the bounce message as this would make it far easier to sort things out.
Two weeks later and the bursar was on the phone again, this time in a rage because her weekly report had again failed to reach its destination.
This time she had kept the bounce message, but she said there was no way she could explain it. Somebody simply must come to the school to sort things out.
So off Jack went, again, to again be asked “Do I look stupid to you?" as he tried to sort things out and again become the subject of abuse after he pointed out that the bounce message showed the intended recipient of the email did not exist.
Jack watched as she sent the email again, spotted the typo, explained how she had transposed just two characters, soothingly said this was a very easy mistake to make but one he could fix! And fix he did, by clearing the email history from Outlook so it would not happen again and offering a little training about how there was no need to type the whole address now that Outlook offered up an accurate short cut to click on.
Before heading back to work, Jack documented the situation.
Which was a good idea because two weeks later … you guessed it, the offending email again would not move across the internet. Cue more accusations of rudeness and unprofessionalism, this time escalated with a demand to talk to the boss. Who happily had Jack's back, thanks to his documentation and the bursar's unimpressive demeanour.
But the bursar got her pound of flesh by insisting on a site visit, so off Jack went again for another dose of abuse, another bounce message proving a typo was the problem and another four-hour round trip.
At this point Jack was sure such trips would go on forever, increasing already-uncomfortable cost levels on this job. So he looked for a solution in an odd place: the school's previous support provider.
After a bit of grumbling, an engineer from that previous support outfit quickly explained how to sort out the bursar.
“We just sent any bounce messages for her into a black hole,” Jack was told. “As long as she doesn't get a bounce message she's happy."
Armed with this advice, Jack says “I printed two copies of the evidence, one for to the head master and one for my boss.”
“We never did get a call from the bursar again, and we didn't have to black hole her bounce messages.”
If you've had a user ask even less of you, over more time, than this bursar, write to let me know. I'd appreciate the chance to feature you, yes you, in a future edition of On-Call. ®