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Are You Being Served?

Editor's Note: A career in technical support often means many hours spent on the road, as you'll realise if you've read some of this month's other feature articles. But if constant travelling is one aspect of this line of work that doesn't appeal, don't despair. Opportunities to work in technical support from the comfort of an office do exist, they're just rather few and far between. Seema Sharma describes what such a role might involve.

M onday

A strong cup of coffee accompanies me to my desk on Monday morning. As an office-based technical services representative, this is where I spend most of my working week. Some faxes are already waiting for me--I give them the once over and separate them into information I have requested from our head office in the United States and customer data.

I boot up my computer and take a look at the current list of pending technical enquiries, which forms the cornerstone of my daily work. In contrast to many people who work in technical support, I don't deal with customers directly, but rather my role is to provide technical back-up to a team of about 20 sales and technical support staff around Europe--ferreting out the answers to their most challenging queries. In a way I'm like a behind-the-scenes Sherlock Holmes.

I open the first enquiry in my list and scan through its history to jog my memory. The last two comments are short--one from myself requesting to see the customer's data from an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and one from the support person with whom the customer is in direct contact informing me that the data has arrived today and is on my desk. The data is a series of spectrophotometric plate readings, which allows the researcher to quantify levels of an antigen of interest upon comparison to a standard curve. From what I can see, the control standard figures are picture perfect. I look further down and notice that the customer has plotted the data using a linear plot rather than the recommended logarithmic one. This enquiry has a straightforward solution and I will not need to get help from a specialist at head office. I set about re-plotting the customer's data.


There is a buzz in the office this morning, as several extra faces appear. This can only mean one thing--a sales team meeting. I don't always sit in on sales meetings and depending on how busy things are, I may cover the office sales phones. Today, however, my manager gives a general talk on the role of the Technical Service Department and I present a couple of overheads about how technical enquiries should be logged.

Salespeople often make use of the time when they are not in the meeting to sit down and talk through an enquiry with me in detail. Many are based in the field and it can be difficult to get across all aspects of a multifaceted problem using faxed data or written correspondence alone. I spend some time talking through a customer enquiry with one of the French sales team. She has recently had a chance to visit the customer and collect extra information, which helps clarify the situation.

Technical service work presents you with a constant dichotomy: You are providing a service and have a genuine desire to help people work through technical problems, but at the same time you are working under time constraints given the large number of queries you receive each day. In my experience, the ability to balance these two aspects of your work and prioritise tasks is the key to everything running smoothly.


Some enquiries I receive cannot be answered here in the European office, either because the required reference material is held at head office, or it is necessary to contact the manufacturing facility. Today, I have several such enquiries to send on to our head office. I set about gathering as much information as I have on the enquiries, including any data and any conclusions I may have already drawn, and set it out in an e-mail. This will be picked up and answered by one of our technical specialists in the States.

I have got to know the U.S.-based technical specialists predominantly via e-mail, although occasionally we do speak on the phone. Attention to detail is definitely a must in everything exchanged across the Atlantic via cyberspace. In fact, the ability to write technical information with clarity is a crucial part of the day-to-day job. Having to write my thesis and several abstracts was an excellent practice exercise for this part of my work.


Certain enquiries do come up time and again. Whilst these may be easy to answer, on the whole I am grateful of the diversity of enquiries. The wide-ranging products offered by the company have definitely helped to keep me on my toes. Searching MEDLINE citations using PubMed helps me gain an insight into customers' research fields and, therefore, has become a daily routine.

Like other departments in the company, Technical Services has its own online reference material for staff on our internal Web site. The recent genome-wide sequencing approach for many organisms has resulted in the discovery of many new proteins with increasingly obscure names. Ultimately, these are the names of our protein products so it's essential that we know what's what. Our solution is an online glossary. Thursday afternoon has been unusually quiet and I decide to spend some time searching for published abstracts relating to some of our newer protein products. I use the information to update a portion of the glossary.

Another task at hand is also involved with keeping up to date. I recently had the chance to travel to Turin for a conference on cytokines and interferons. Aside from allowing me to eat twice my body weight in pasta and enjoy the sites of Turin, attending the conference was a prime opportunity to learn of any recent developments in the field. Having attended the key sessions I now set about writing a brief summary of each lecture for my manager.


The month draws to a close, signalling that it is time to write a monthly Technical Services Report, which helps us to monitor any trends in the numbers of enquiries received each month. I begin to wind up for the day and take a last look at my in-box to see if there is anything that needs sending to head office urgently. As I do so, I ponder on my decision to move out of the laboratory and into a commercial setting and decide it is one that I do not regret in any way.

Whilst working in technical services is not for those who want a quiet life, it can be incredibly rewarding, especially on days when you feel you have helped several people out with enquiries. Oddly enough, I find myself thankful that not everything worked first time round in the laboratory during my PhD. This has helped me to acquire the ability to troubleshoot and read between the lines of limited information--skills essential to my work. I always enjoyed the 'thinking' rather than the 'doing' side of my PhD, and using my technical expertise and communication skills as a technical services representative has proved an apt choice of job.