Specializing in the Impersonal Touch

One of the things I love about many technology companies is the way they manage to be so productive without the help of real people. They must just let their computers crunch away and (presto!) everything just hums along.

You know the companies I’m talking about the ones with the web sites that seem to avoid including a single person’s name on the entire site, and sometimes even a single address or phone number. It’s as if the site were really the creation of extraterrestrials based in another realm on the outer reaches of cyberspace.

Network Associates, the owner of software such as McAfee VirusScan and Sniffer Technologies, typifies what I’m talking about. (Actually, this site is better than those of many other technology companies.)

The designers of the site seem to have gone to great lengths to ensure that ordinary visitors can’t find a single human being associated with a telephone number. For example, most companies’ news releases include the name and phone number of a company contact. Not those from Network Associates. No contact name or public relations agency contact number.

I wonder if one member of the web site team is assigned to proof the site at the very end, to ensure that every person associated with a telephone number is crossed out.

Well, you might ask, what difference does it make if a site includes personal contacts? After all, isn’t the purpose of a web site to improve productivity by automating interactions?

I would argue just the opposite: that an absence of human contacts raises a red flag that you’re dealing with an impersonal company. I had a recent experience with a Network Associates product that reinforced this idea to me.

A Virus Program With… a Virus?

My home-based PC came with McAfee VirusScan software. Once a month or so, a screen would pop up on my computer asking me if I’d like to update my VirusScan. When I gave the nod to this, I was sent to a web site where I would be coached through the download process. It all seemed easy enough… until one day a few months ago, when I downloaded the latest version of VirusScan.

After that, my computer wouldn’t shut down. A message that I couldn’t comprehend came on saying something about a programming problem associated with McAfee VirusScan. I had to manually shut the computer down, and then endure the insulting reminder when I started back up that I’d failed to shut the computer down properly.

All that led to a much more involved relationship with McAfee than I expected. I emailed the text of the message I was getting on my machine, and received an email back: “We have read your email and determined that your request would best be handled by one of our technicians.” At the end of the message was an actual phone number and hours of operation. (Monday-Friday during business hours, of course, and I received the message late Friday night, and thus had to wait until the following Monday.)

After several phone conversations (and interminable holds) with technicians, I finally learned the source of my problem: a “bug” in the VirusScan software.

How ironic. A virus software company distributing software with bugs. Anyway, the solution was to uninstall my VirusScan (an approximately 35-step, one-hour process) and then reinstall it.

Searching for a Human Explanation

But wait. Shouldn’t there have been a warning on the site about a bug in the virus company’s software? Or, better yet, an email alert to all McAfee users? I could feel the technical person I was questioning shrugging his shoulders through the phone line.

I tried to pose these questions to a McAfee spokesperson, but, alas, the process of trying to find a real corporate person on the phone was about as difficult as locating a real person on the web site, or getting the original problem solved. I went to www.mcafee.com, found a corporate phone number, and located a spokesperson. Whew!

But when I explained my problem, he brightened. McAfee.com, he explained, is a separate company from the McAfee that produces VirusScan. McAfee.com is 80 percent-owned by Network Associates, and McAfee VirusScan is 100 percent-owned by Network Associates.

Not his problem, he quickly concluded. He directed me to a woman at Network Associates’ PR agency, who returned my call and said, no, she wasn’t the right person either. I’d have to speak with another man. I left a message for him and that was the last I heard about the situation before deadlines got the best of me.

Actually, I didn’t really expect to reach a real person who cared about my experience. After all, there aren’t real people running these software sites, are there?

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