An Open Proposal, pt. I

For those who weren’t aware, I do in fact work for Best Buy. Specifically, I work for a wholly owned subsidiary called Geek Squad. If you haven’t at least heard of Geek Squad, you are probably from a country where Best Buy has no presence, or you don’t know anybody with a computer.

I originally started working as a repair agent (Geek Squad employees are called “agents” instead of “technicians” because not all of us are technicians, and we also aren’t salespeople) but now I am more of a logistics and operations specialist. I still am a repair agent, and specialize in Mac (which should not be a surprise). I also do minor things like in-store set-ups and data transfers/backups. Primarily, I’m supposed to do shipping and receiving and call people when their stuff is ready for pickup.

My job is complicated by the fact that I am frequently the only person working in the back of the “precinct,” which is what we call the Geek Squad area. It’s not really an office, and it’s not really a department (at least not at the Best Buy at which I work). It’s attached to the customer service desk, which means I see and hear a lot of stuff that really makes me lose faith in humanity. Think racist comments to the black customer service girl(s) because they can’t do a return without the customer’s ID, or calling my boss (also black, and with long dreadlocks to top it all off) “the devil.” And where I work, the closest towns are mostly blue-collar or middle-class people, and a lot of minorities. We also happen to be situated such that we are the most convenient Best Buy for Philadelphia residents, even though it’s an hour or more by bus. You know, the kind of people who don’t have a car because they can’t afford one, or they just don’t need one because they live in a city. The other area Best Buys require transfers and stuff, but we’re a straight shot from Center City. So we have a very large reach.

Before I started working here, I actually told anyone who asked that no, I wouldn’t want to work for Geek Squad because “they charge too much.” After only two and a half months of working for them, I’ve realized that we actually charge very little for much of the services we perform! Sure, $30 for a software installation (yes, we actually do that) is a lot, but think about it. People who actually cannot comprehend the concept of inserting a plastic disk into their computer, following the steps printed on the box, and entering a product key that is also on the box really have no other option. I’ve seen many instances of people buying collections of software that end up totaling more than the cost of the computer! Often, though, they are bundled with a new laptop, so you end up with a laptop plus Microsoft Office and your choice of Webroot SA or Kaspersky Lab for not much additional charge, if any, and if you have a Tech Support plan, the AV program is included and software installations are free…and also unlimited.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. In fact, every day is a struggle against red tape and restrictive – and sometimes horribly, painfully outdated – standard operating procedures.

As I am a current employee, I obviously won’t say anything to compromise trade secrets. For example, I can say that sometimes (not always, despite what Geek Squad critics might have you believe) client’s machines are hooked up to a program that allows a technician to work on them remotely. Those people are, in fact, Geek Squad employees, and because they are located all over the world, they can work 24/7. If you have heard of our Tech Support plan, you have seen the whole “We’re here to help, 24/7” tagline. Well, that’s because the 1-800-GEEKSQUAD help system is staffed all around the world! They’re not random outsourced laborers. They’re certified technicians.

If we have twenty or more computers checked in at one time, it’s physically impossible to have one person work on them all at once. That’s why it takes 3-5 days for in-store repairs. There’s only ever one repair agent in at a time. There are plenty of reasons for this, but mostly it’s physical space. If we could have two of them on the clock at once, we’d need a precinct literally twice the size! Plus, toe-stepping would be an issue.

Also, you can’t reasonably expect one person to work on twenty computers simultaneously. Trust me, you don’t want that anyway. Even though we write notes on what we do, how can you keep tabs on twenty machines at once, each with their own issue – virus, viruses, hardware problem, this diagnostic, that diagnostic, etc? It’s possible, but you run the risk of making mistakes the more workload you take on. The same is true for any profession!

I’m allowed to say that we use a classified set of tools to aid us in fixing computers. It’s classified because it’s Best Buy’s property, and Best Buy is a privately held corporation. It’s classified like the source code to Microsoft Office is classified, or the blueprints to the finely-tuned engine of an Infiniti G37S. Or any car. You get the idea. Unless it is open-source or public domain, it is classified and thus legally protected. When people push for details, we ultimately end up saying that our tools are trade secrets, and they are more than welcome to use whatever freeware utilities they’d like on their own time, but since they are coming to us, we assume that they don’t know what they’re doing and are paying us because we do.

“But I have Norton! Why don’t you just remove the viruses with Norton?” Well, for one, you fail to see the sad irony there – you have both viruses and an anti-virus “program.” Something’s not right there. Also, no, we will not use Norton on a client’s computer, nor will we ever recommend it as an anti-virus solution. Norton is terrible. It’s obtrusive, intrusive, confusing, and worst of all, behaves more like adware than anti-virus. It’s also far too expensive. Sure, if you’re dead fucking set on Norton, we’ll ring it up for you, and install it if you pay us to do so, but we are obliged to push the brands with which Best Buy has contracts – which also happen to be much, much better programs, especially for people who want something that stays out of the way and doesn’t cause more issues than it solves. They are also free with a Tech Support plan. Without one, they’re still only fifty bucks. You can’t even buy the latest and greatest PC game for fifty bucks anymore.

But I digress!

The programs we use are not usually freeware. In fact, they are very rarely freeware. Things like hard drive integrity tests and memory tests are usually free (though not always open-source for security and anti-tampering reasons) because it would be doing everyone a disservice to charge for a program that can potentially prevent a catastrophic failure well in advance. We are allowed to use any OEM-provided tool – so if you have a Seagate hard drive that may be on its way out, we can investigate with SeaTools, or DFT for Hitachi, and so on. If the machine will boot, a diagnostic often starts with the basic vendor-provided (read: built-in) tests, provided the client didn’t totally re-format the hard drive and/or somehow remove (or break) the recovery partition. Some are crap. I’ve not heard much good about HP’s or Dell’s memory test utility, for example. ASUS’ is good, but then again, it’s got the ASUS logo after all.

We always double-check everything. Even if a computer passes its hardware test, if it’s still running really slowly or experiencing BSODs or other weird errors, we assume there’s some underlying cause (because what’s the alternative? defective unit? that’s still very rare).

We’ve been criticized for having an arsenal seemingly limited to “nuke and pave,” or restoring the OS or the entire unit to factory specifications. Couple things on that point:

  • It can be reasonably assumed that the computer will be 100% functional at factory specifications, and if it is not (which is very rare), it is defective or there is an unseen hardware problem.
  • Sometimes, the OS gets extremely corrupted for a number of reasons. The only real way to fix a corrupted OS is re-installation. Manually correcting errors is extremely time- and labor-intensive and has a surprisingly low success rate due to the countless combinations of Windows versions, driver versions, system architectures, and individual platform requirements and compatibility issues.
  • Sometimes, there are so many viruses or so much damage from them that simply removing the infection only prevents the system from getting worse, rather than healing it. Reversing damage done by malware or rootkits on the system level often involves registry modification, and if the OS was damaged, there is (see above) no guaranteed way to repair it without re-installing the OS.
  • Would you rather get your computer back in a week or a month?
  • For some stupid reason, the people who make viruses are typically smarter than the people who write the software the viruses infect. That means that the operating system and friends are sometimes impossible to fix.
  • Getting your computer infected with serious damaging viruses or malware is kinda like totaling a car. No one ever means to, but you can’t reverse it and you don’t want to pay more than the value of what you’ll end up with. So you have to deal with it.

A lot of software problems are not actually as complicated to fix as some might think. It’s hardware repair where things get difficult, and we don’t even do that in-store with a few exceptions:

  • If it is made by HP, and is no more than three years old, we can easily order the part required 95% of the time, and then install it in-store. Yes we have to wait for it to be delivered. No it does not cost extra (unless you have no warranty coverage!)
  • If you don’t have a hardware warranty, you can buy stuff like hard drives or RAM, or really any component you can buy in a store like Best Buy or Micro Center (who are not actually competitors of ours) and bring it to us to install. It’s $60 and up, but we eliminate the guesswork and also do all the initial testing to ensure you can just use it without thinking about it. We can also write down exactly what part you need to buy, even if we don’t sell it.
  • Soon, we’ll be trained (or in my case, certified) to replace the screens of certain smartphones in-store in a half hour or less. iPhones, for example. The parts are easily obtained from authorized manufacturers or resellers, surprisingly inexpensive compared to the cost of the phone, and are easily and quickly installed by anyone but a very beginner technician. We don’t offer this service YET. It’s no secret that we’re thinking about it. Some precincts tell clients they’re implementing it soon. Others already have because they are better-staffed or simply higher-traffic.

But there are too many more bullet points on which I could complain rather than defend us as an organization with regards to our practices and policies. I’ve written enough for now, but rest assured I am far from finished.

As always, remember that neither my words nor any of the content of jaska.me is in any way sanctioned or approved by Best Buy or its subsidiaries in any respect. If they were to read what I write, they’d have to take it as constructive criticism and nothing else. I am not risking my employment in any way, nor am I really saying anything that people experienced with Geek Squad don’t already know…!