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Tech Support Dilemmas

When I first began selling hardware to other vintage computer collectors, I never gave tech support much thought. I imagined I could design something, build it, sell it to somebody, and they’d happily go use it. End of story. Reality has proven different. Today I spend more time answering tech support questions from customers and potential customers than on any other aspect of the business. I get large amounts of mail, often with questions that are long and complex and need considerable time to answer properly. It’s a challenge for which I’ve yet to find any good solution.

A portion of the tech support is really sales support – questions about ordering and shipping. If you’ve been through the BMOW store in the past six months, you may have seen there’s a new person helping with these kinds of inquiries, which has been a huge help. But even after these are filtered out, the tech support load remains high.

 
RTFM?

Can I solve the tech support problem with more documentation? I’ve put a lot of time into the BMOW product documentation, particularly for the Floppy Emu. Every customer receives a printed one-page quickstart guide covering the basics, with a link to the full instruction manual on the web. Whenever the same question gets asked two or three times, I add the answer to the instructions or the quickstart. At least in theory, everything anyone would ever want to know should be covered in the documentation.

Yet I can’t escape the basic fact that there’s a lot of inherent complexity with these old computer systems and the products designed for them. In the case of the Floppy Emu, there’s a ton of ground to cover in the instructions between three different computer families, a dozen different drive emulation modes, different types of disk images, different operating systems, different ways of connecting to the computer, interactions with other drives, and much more.

The wall of documentation can be daunting. Even with the one-page quickstart that’s bundled in the box, it can be too much for some people. They throw up their hands and reach out to tech support (me) for assistance. In many cases I’m able to gently point people back to the relevant section of the manual: “It sounds like you may need to select a different disk emulation mode. Please see section 3.2 of the instruction manual for details.” But sometimes people get upset or offended if I refer them to the manual. I had one angry customer send me a video message in which he outright refused to read the instructions, insisting the he didn’t want to learn Computer Nerd 101 or get a history lesson in Apple computer models.

 
Whose Problem Is It?

A second challenge is simply identifying who or what is responsible when something doesn’t work as expected. The line between questions about BMOW hardware and questions about general usage of the Apple II or Macintosh is often blurry. For many customers, they’ve hauled an old computer out of their dusty attic, purchased a bit of BMOW hardware to run with it, and are using the machine for the first time in thirty years. If a questions arises, it will often come to me first, regardless of the source or the issue. I’ll get general questions about the Apple IIc, or about Macintosh System 7, or StuffIt. Some requests ask how to use particular software programs, or how to eject a disk, or reboot the computer. Much of this is now covered in the Floppy Emu instruction manual, since they’re common questions even if they’re not features of BMOW hardware.

What’s more puzzling are the questions about unrelated third-party products. If someone contacted me once with a BMOW tech support question and found my answer helpful, sometimes they’ll contact me again later even when their question has nothing to do with BMOW. I get a surprising number of tech support requests about the SCSI2SD. I’ve also had support requests asking about RAM upgrades, joysticks, and other peripherals. Sometimes I know the answer, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ll decline to answer even if I know it, which makes me feel like a jerk, but I need to politely discourage this kind of tech support usage. Usually I’ll point people to another suggested information source instead.

This challenge isn’t limited to the Floppy Emu. The original Mac ROM-inator kit for the Mac 128K, Mac 512K, and Mac Plus was also a big source of general questions about classic Macintosh usage and problems. As a low-cost kit generating a high level of tech support, it just didn’t make sense, and this was one of the primary reasons the original ROM-inator kit was eventually discontinued.

 
Solutions?

I’m unsure how other small businesses solve this problem. Some of them may sell products that are so simple, they don’t need much tech support. Or their tech support is just weak, and they willingly suffer the reputational hit, choosing it as the least bad option compared to hours and hours of support time.

Documentation can always be improved, so that’s another area I can work on. I’m discovering that technical writing is a critical skill, and it’s not enough to simply have the necessary information in there somewhere – it needs to be presented clearly, and in a logical order. And even if the documentation is perfect, some people simply don’t want to read it.

Many companies now have support forums where customers answer questions from other customers, and the business itself is mostly or entirely absent from the conversation. This is certainly one way of reducing a company’s tech support requirements, but from my personal experience the customer experience is almost universally poor. Discussions often devolve into angry denouncements of the business, like “why isn’t (company) saying anything about this???” At worst, it can create the impression that customers have been cast out into the wilderness to fend for themselves. That’s not good.

I’ll keep searching for better solutions. Until then, I’m off to visit the tech support queue…

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New Zealand Shipping Suspension

The world of international shipping continues to grow more difficult. As of October 1, the US Postal Service has halted acceptance of international package shipments to New Zeleand, due to COVID-19-related service disruptions at the destination. The same suspension was applied to Australia on September 3, so BMOW is now unable to make direct shipments to customers in either country. I had hoped this would be only a brief disruption while the countries’ post offices worked on mitigating COVID-19 impacts. But with Australia’s suspension already stretching to more than a month, my hopes for a quick resolution are dimming.

One bit of good news is that Australia Post’s ShopMate service is still working. It’s a package-forwarding service for Australian residents who are buying products from vendors in the USA. ShopMate provides you with a USA address, so BMOW and other vendors in the USA can make a regular domestic shipment and you pay them the domestic shipping rate. Then ShopMate repackages the shipment and dispatches it to your home in Australia, in return for an additional fee. A few BMOW customers have already tried buying through ShopMate during the past month, and reported that it worked. I’m not aware of a similar forwarding service for New Zealand, but if I find one, I’ll report it here.

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Temporary Suspension of Australia Shipping

With apologies to BMOW readers Down Under, international deliveries to Australia from the BMOW Store have been temporarily suspended. A few weeks ago, Australia Post paused its processing of inbound international mail shipments due to COVID-19-related service impacts, and on September 3 the US Postal Service halted acceptance of Australia-bound international mail. I had hoped this would be only a brief interruption, but after sixteen days there have been no further updates, and there’s no current timeline for when normal operations will resume.

At the moment there are 21 international destinations for which USPS has halted mail delivery “due to impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other unrelated service disruptions.” Australia is the only large country on that list, and the only one where BMOW has customers. The other countries are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, Cuba, French Guiana, Guadalupe, Laos, Libya, Martinique, Mayotte, Mongolia, Reunion, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Samoa, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, and Yemen.

International shipping is hot mess across much of the world right now, and this is just the latest incident. Thank you for your patience through all of this, and I hope to see Australia deliveries resuming soon.

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ADB-USB Wombat Restock, and Global Shipping

The Wombat ADB-USB input converter is now back in stock at the BMOW Store. Thanks for everybody’s patience while we waited out multiple delays on delivery from my manufacturing partner. There’s now plenty of Wombat stock at BMOW HQ, so they won’t be selling out again any time soon.

What’s a Wombat? The Wombat is a bidirectional ADB-to-USB and USB-to-ADB converter for keyboards and mice, and was developed by Steve Chamberlin here at Big Mess o’ Wires. It can connect modern USB keyboards and mice to a classic ADB-based Macintosh, Apple IIgs, or NeXT, or connect legacy ADB input hardware to a USB-based computer running Windows, OSX, or Linux. For more details, please see the product description page.

 
Global Shipping is Back!

After ten days of confusion at the hands of US Customs and Export Control, BMOW global shipping is back! They’ll be celebrating from Calgary to Cardiff, Melbourne to Madrid. I never did get a clear explanation of exactly what went wrong, but some post office processing facility at the San Francisco International Distribution Center screwed up in a big way, resulting in thousands of international packages being incorrectly returned to sender from shippers all over the US West Coast. What a mess.

I’ve taken this opportunity to adjust the international shipping rates to reflect the latest USPS First Class Package International service rates. Pop quiz: what do France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Gibraltar, Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania, Poland, and Portugal all have in common? They’re nine countries whose USPS rate group offers cheaper shipping than most other international destinations outside North America. Why those nine countries? I really have no idea.

Can you guess what distinction is shared by Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan? Shipping to those six countries is more expensive than most of the rest of the world. I can sort of understand Australia and New Zealand due to their relative geographic isolation, but why single out Brazil or Japan? The lesson I’ve learned from these past ten days is never question the post office.

I’m looking forward to shipping lots more BMOW hardware to enthusiasts everywhere.

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Canada Shipping is Back Online!

Good news: the International Shipping Fiasco of May 2021 appears to be resolved, although the underlying causes are still unclear. Early indications are it was some kind of USPS screw-up with electronic collection of customs data at the San Francisco International Distribution Center. Shippers all over the US West Coast have been affected. There is blood in the water. Stay tuned for more details.

BMOW’s most recent Canadian test shipments have passed through customs successfully, so I’ve re-enabled Canadian shipping for the BMOW Store. Assuming there are no further surprises, I expect to re-enable international shipping for the rest of the world within the next few days.

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US Customs Export Control Says: I’m Screwed



Update: It looks like this problem may have been resolved by USPS, with international shipments sent May 11 or later proceeding normally. But there’s still confusion about the source of the problem, the date it was resolved, and whether it’s truly fixed. It appears it’s necessary to buy new postage to reship any returned packages – reshipping using the original postage label reportedly does not work. Unfortunately, all requests for postage refunds have been denied so far.

Help! This is very bad. Since sometime about April 26, nearly every international shipment I’ve sent has been returned by US Export Control, for unknown reasons. The packages come back with an export compliance sticker that says something is “missing”, but doesn’t explain further. I discussed the problem with the staff at my local post office, but they couldn’t explain it either, and said the customs information on the package looked OK to them. They also said that when an outbound package is rejected by US Export Control, there’s basically no recourse: the customs inspectors don’t respond to calls or emails about specific packages. In the staff’s words, “You just have to guess”.

All of the packages were shipped by US Postal Service’s First Class Package International service. I’ve not recently changed anything about the packages, their contents, the address labels, or the customs information printed on the label. I’ve previously shipped thousands of substantially identical packages internationally without incident. But not anymore.

TL;DR – I am completely unable to ship any international packages, and I don’t know why, or who to ask for help. The shipments never get out of the USA.

To put it mildly, this is bad.

The specific package shown in the photo contained a ROM SIMM and an empty plastic case for one of my electronics products. But most of the rejected packages contained a BMOW Floppy Emu – a disk drive emulator for retro Apple computers.

None of the returned packages had been opened, so there was never any time that an export compliance person looked at the contents inside the package, looked at the item description on the label, and decided whether they matched. The decision to return the package was 100 percent based on the information printed on the label, perhaps combined with information submitted electronically when the postage was purchased. But nobody at the post office seems able explain anything more than that.

There are some clues. Here’s a list of every international shipment I made between April 19 and May 6.

Date Destination Tracking Contents Status
4/19/21 Canada LW227139012US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/19/21 Bulgaria UC009977527US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Canada LW227139026US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/19/21 Germany LW227139349US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Netherlands LW227139352US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Italy UC009977717US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Switzerland UC009977725US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/19/21 Germany LW227139882US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Austria UC009977734US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Canada LW227140038US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Japan LW227159119US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Italy UC009981138US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Italy UC009981141US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Belgium LW227159502US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/21/21 Netherlands W227159516US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 UK LW227159935US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Switzerland UC009981257US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Finland UC009981265US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/23/21 Japan LW227178166US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/23/21 Canada LW227178705US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator, ADB cable delivered
4/23/21 Australia LW227178719US ROM-inator delivered
4/23/21 Canada LW227178722US Emu Bundle, SD card delivered
4/26/21 Canada LW227199020US Emu Bundle, Noisy Disk in transit, outside USA
4/26/21 Australia LW227199033US Emu Bundle delivered
4/26/21 Canada LW227199603US Emu Case, ROM-inator returned to sender
4/26/21 Italy UC009987745US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/28/21 Canada LW227224665US Emu Bundle returned to sender
4/30/21 UK LW227242788US Emu Case, Wombat Case returned to sender
4/30/21 Sweden UC009995619US Noisy Disk, Daisy Chainer in transit, outside USA
4/30/21 Italy UC009995640US Noisy Disk in transit, in USA
5/3/21 UK LW227275605US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Canada LW227275619US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Australia LW227275622US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Czech Rep. UC010000416US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
5/3/21 Mexico UC010000420US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Belgium LW227276035US Emu Model C, ROM-inator returned to sender
5/3/21 Germany LW227276044US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Germany LW227276486US Emu Bundle, SD card, ROM-inator returned to sender
5/5/21 Canada LW227298552US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 UK LW227298566US Daisy Chainer in transit, outside USA
5/5/21 Netherlands LW227298570US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 UK LW227299116US ROM-inator in transit, outside USA
5/5/21 Australia LW227299120US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 France LW227299133US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 Switzerland UC010004885US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/6/21 Ireland UC010007326US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
5/6/21 Canada LW227312529US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator returned to sender

Almost all of the packages shipped prior to April 26 have been delivered, or have at least made it outside the US. The three from before the 26th that show “in transit, in USA” are misleading because they all have tracking numbers starting with the letters UC, which indicates a destination country where tracking normally isn’t available beyond the US border.

But almost every package shipped After April 26 is either still stuck in the US, or has been returned.

Something changed within a few days around or after April 26. The date of change was probably May 1 – roughly when packages shipped April 26 would arrive for customs processing. A new customs inspector employee? New inspection procedures or policies? New export control laws? Or maybe something changed with Shippo, the service that I use to print the address and customs labels?

Notice that the return label says more information is available at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/ if you click on “Export Issues” under Consumer Help. But that section and that heading do not exist. I couldn’t find anything on that site to help explain what’s going on. Edit: see this 2018 archive.org backup of the uspis web site.

With no information and apparently no recourse, I’m starting to panic a little. For the time being I’ll have to disable all ordering for customers outside the USA, which is a large fraction of the total for BMOW. And I’ll have to contact all the customers whose shipments have already been impacted, or who’ve ordered and paid but whose packages haven’t yet shipped, and try to determine what’s the next step.

If you know anyone who works in any type of export manager capacity, who might be able to advise or consult with me on this, that would be fantastic. Or if you know anybody affiliated with the postal inspection service who might have insight into what’s going on, that would be great too. I’ll take all the help I can get to resolve this crisis.

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