The sun was just peeking through the windows of tech support when Jim set down his morning coffee to answer the cell phone.
“Hi, Jim? Would you be able to walk me through dressing a deer?”
Caught by surprise and used to always doing his best to help the customer, Jim stammered the first thing that came to mind: “Uh…I suppose so.”
This was not starting out to be a normal day.
While most kit aircraft tech support calls don’t start out this way, the reality is that many times, the manufacturer’s experts are often called upon to step outside their usual area of expertise—sometimes way outside.
As builders of Experimental aircraft, we are used to bumping into roadblocks in the construction process: the part in our hands just doesn’t look anything like the one in the picture, and there’s no way that angle A-3 is going to fit into tube B-6 without a liberal application of C-4. At times like these, despite enough head-scratching for a case of Head & Shoulders, the solution is just not in the manual and a call to tech support ensues, only to discover that office hours don’t cover weekends and the project grinds to a halt, leading to mounting frustration as the honey-do list kicks airplane building into a dusty corner of the workshop.
Most readers are pretty familiar with this side of the story. However, there is another side—the beleaguered tech support rep whose phone starts ringing at 0-dark-30 and doesn’t stop until well past dinnertime, with questions covering the gamut from which rib station for rigging a wing, to what kind of butter knife works best with body filler.
Let’s step into the shoes of the guy (or gal) on the other end of the line and explore some ideas to reduce the frustration of a tech support call.
All in the Family
The one overriding message received from everyone interviewed for this article is that tech support people see their builders as part of an extended family, and they really do want to see builders complete their projects. Several said they feel a great deal of satisfaction when they see the picture of a customer’s airplane in the completions section of a magazine and they know they helped that person on their path to flight. Over the course of a project, the tech support person will often feel like they have gotten to know the builder personally, and so they share the builder’s feelings of accomplishment as critical parts of the build process are passed, or as the light turns on about how something works. By the time the project is finished, a rapport has been established and the people on both ends of the line have a feeling of accomplishment—and it feels good.
Oh, How We Have Changed!
As anyone who has been around Experimental aircraft for very long can attest, the nature of building for most people has changed significantly. In the early days of the homebuilt aircraft movement, budding aviators were often called upon to be not only builders, but also designers of their own aircraft. All Experimentals were built from plans that often consisted of little more than a few sheets stapled together with photocopied drawings of a portion of the required parts.
As time went by, the plans became more detailed, but builders were still called upon to fabricate their own parts from raw materials. This meant that anyone who wanted to build an airplane needed a great deal of tenacity, not only in the actual building process, but also in developing the skills needed to turn a block of raw material into something that could work as an airplane part. In many cases, a whole lot of thinking and sleuthing went on, and pictures were a rare luxury.
In the last several years, things have shifted again. As kits have become more advanced, many custom parts are often already fabricated. Detailed instructions walk the builder step-by-step through a process that is closer to paint-by-numbers than it is to building from plans. Kits are also likely to include most of the nuts, bolts, and general hardware needed to move from a pile of parts to something you can sit in and make airplane noises.
The availability of highly complete kits has opened up the marketplace to a different kind of builder—one who may have little or no experience with tools, reading blueprints, or solving day-to-day construction problems. This change in the nature of homebuilding has resulted in a very wide range of customers who might call in for help from tech support—everyone from the craftsman with a detailed technical question, to the builder who is long on enthusiasm, but short on experience and unsure of how many washers to place on a bolt.
The challenge for the tech support person is to try to deduce the experience level of the caller and to couch their advice in appropriate terms for that person’s experience. This is like a teacher whose job is to find the explanation that resonates with their student’s particular style of learning. Sometimes the teacher gets it right and a eureka moment is shared, but other times, they get it wrong and the student feels like their ego has been stepped on, or that they are flailing in the deep end with a life preserver just out of grasp.
It’s important for a builder not to take it personally if the tech support person is talking way over or under their head; they probably just don’t know where the builder lies on the continuum of potential callers.
Building vs. Assembly
Even within the current crop of available kit aircraft, there is variety in how much of the project involves “building” vs. how much involves “assembly.” Some kits involve a great deal of parts fabrication or finishing, whereas others are almost bolt-together. For the most part, kit buyers shouldn’t be surprised that there will be at least some building, where they will have to fabricate a part and spend a significant amount of time on it to achieve a proper fit. This is a normal part of the process. After all, building an airplane is not the same as re-assembling a disassembled car. This means that a certain amount of problem solving should be expected, regardless of how well documented and designed a particular kit may be. And while assembling might get the builder to a finished aircraft more quickly, building is part of the experience of constructing an aircraft.
The Path to Education
According to regulations, the official purpose for building an Experimental aircraft is for both education and recreation. With the introduction of advanced kits and detailed assembly manuals, the education part has become easier. However, for the first-time builder, it will typically be a challenge to rely solely on the kit instructions.
For most builders, especially first-time ones, the journey through building an airplane can be eased by spending time up front learning about aircraft assembly tools, hardware, and construction techniques. This helps reduce reliance on tech support, limiting calls to things that are actually specific to the particular kit. There are many ways to acquire the necessary background knowledge, including:
• Reference books, such as the series by Tony Bingelis.
• Government guidance on construction standards, such as AC 43.13.
• Aircraft workshops, such as the EAA SportAir series, which travel around the country providing workshops on specific topics.
• Forums and workshops at aviation events, such as those held at AirVenture or Sun ‘n Fun.
• Local EAA chapters, which often hold their own workshops or project visits.
• Online builders’ forums.
• Online videos (YouTube and others).
For a prospective builder contemplating building a kit aircraft, spending some time on the education curve with some of the above materials before even ordering a kit can be valuable in learning more about the project being considered and the degree to which the particular kit or materials type are likely to provide an enjoyable building experience for that person. At the very least, the months between placing a deposit on a kit and taking delivery can be productively spent by studying materials and starting to absorb the knowledge necessary to have a successful building experience. Investing this time up front, before the first parts arrive, will help make the build process much more enjoyable. It will progress more smoothly and the need to call tech support will be reduced, allowing the builder to spend more time assembling parts and less time wondering what to do next.
High Tech and Low Time
Another change that has a profound impact on tech support is in the area of communication technology. In the past, all tech support calls were by telephone. Now, while most calls still come by telephone, there is a key difference: the telephone is often a cellphone and the caller may or may not be giving the issue their full attention:
“Hey, Jim, can you tell me the part number for the upper lift strut attach bracket?”
“Sure, it’s on page 4-16 of the manual. It is part number 3617.”
“Just a sec…there’s a semi truck pulling out in front of me…Can you give me that number again?”
“Part number 3617—it’s a 1/8-inch aluminum angle which is 2 inches long.”
“Oh, wait a minute, there’s a dump truck…what were those specs again?”
“One-eighth by 2 inches.”
“OK, thanks—you wouldn’t happen to have the number for Aircraft Spruce handy, would you?”
Believe it or not, this was a real conversation. Cellphones are wonderful devices, but sometimes they make it easy to connect with someone without giving them the full attention they deserve. While time seems to be in shorter and shorter supply, it’s important to remember that there is a real, live person on the other end who has a busy day, too, and the shortest way to a clear resolution of the problem often requires the full attention of people on both ends of the line.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Email is a great tool for tech support. With just a little effort, builders can clearly describe the nature of the issue, along with pictures that can really help, compared to just words alone.
Sending a query by email is one of the methods preferred by many of the kit companies interviewed for this article. There are a several reasons for this: First, for many builders, the process of writing a question down often prompts them to think about it a little differently, helping them to see the answer to the question even before they hit send. Second, for many people, writing is more precise than speaking. It makes it harder to miss an important point and often helps in more clearly identifying the problem. This works both ways; the tech support person sees a more clearly defined problem and the builder sees a more clearly defined answer. Third, emails don’t generate busy signals. A builder can fire off an email and join the queue of waiting questions while they move on to work on something else. The tech support person can then work from one email to the next, ensuring that everyone is answered in the order received and that each question gets the attention it deserves.
Now You See Me…
Another technological development impacting tech support is realtime video. Some kit companies have the ability to join the builder right in the workshop, courtesy of applications like Skype and FaceTime. This lets the tech support person see exactly what the builder is looking at, in real time and living color. A little panning around with an iPad or similar helps to put the issue in context and will often help the tech support person to better understand what is going on, and to provide better advice.
Not all shops have this capability right now, but some are starting to adopt it and, as more and more builders start acquiring these kinds of communication tools, it’s a sure bet that their use will increase.
However, there is a big drawback to using realtime video tools like this: it gives that nice person at the kit company the ability to see just how messy the shop is!
The Rise of the Forum
One of the best and worst tools for tech support can be online builders’ forums. These are great for finding other builders who may have encountered similar roadblocks and who are often available day or night to answer questions. Most forums also have a database search function, which can provide an instant answer if someone asked the same question before. However, forums can also be dangerous, as sometimes other builders may not have the knowledge and experience that a factory tech support person does. A person could sound very knowledgeable, but write something completely incorrect. Part of the challenge of using this method of tech support is trying to determine when the advice from the other builder is good advice and when it is not so good.
Different factories have different approaches when it comes to forums. Some are active participants, but most see forums as being the builders’ own space, so they are reluctant to intrude unless they see someone offering really bad advice or going down a road the manufacturer thinks is going to lead to significant problems.
Ready, Set . . .
Regardless of the method chosen, it is very helpful to do as much research as practical before making contact.
Yet another real quote (details changed to protect the innocent):
“Uhh…hi there. I wonder if you could give me some information about your Belchfire Model 32—that’s a single-place airplane, right?”
“No, it’s a two place.”
“Oh, cool…that’s a tube and fabric design, right?”
“No, it’s all aluminum.”
“Oh, cool…and it uses an automotive engine, right?”
“No, it uses a Lycoming aircraft engine.”
“Oh, cool…but it can only go for about 150 miles on a tank of gas, right?”
“No, the standard tank holds 40 gallons, which should provide approximately 750 miles range, with no reserve.”
While most builders are a little better informed than the caller above, it’s not uncommon for tech support to receive a call from someone who hasn’t spent much time with the relevant section of the manual. This makes it tougher for the people on both sides of the call; the tech support person has to determine what the builder has not absorbed and then guide them back to the appropriate pages as the best method of explaining the answer to the question. Sometimes it is simply a case of missing a small reference on an obscure page. Other times, it is more a case of a builder enjoying the “recreation” part of building so much that they overlooked the “education” part, of which a necessary component is reviewing all of the written guidance that comes with the kit.
The Price of Progress
Even during the relatively short time that kit aircraft have been popular, many successful kit manufacturers have developed and enhanced their lineup of aircraft models. The kit that was sold years ago might be quite different from the kit sold today, and they may or may not have many parts in common.
In many cases, the manuals for early models were written before the current tech support person even joined the company, and often those early manuals left a lot to the imagination of the builder.
Unfortunately, this often means that the older kits generate the largest number of calls (at least in proportion to the number being built). Because that kit might not even be sold anymore, the tech support person may not have a good example in their shop that they can reference; they are as much a victim of sparse documentation as the builder is. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to help; it just means that they might need a little more time to pull the answer together for a 20-year-old kit than they would need for one that went out the door yesterday.
For this reason, builders looking for tech support for older kits should anticipate that while the factory will do their best, sometimes the answer may not come as quickly as it would for a current model and a little extra patience may be needed.
Van’s Aircraft tech support (from left to right): Joe Blank, Gus Funnell, Sterling Langrell, and Ken Scott.
With a last scrunch of gravel under his tires, Jim thumbed the kill switch and the rumble stopped, replaced by silence and clear mountain air. Stepping off the saddle and moving to the guard rail, his eyes took in the panoramic vista before him, when suddenly, his cellphone rang.
“Jim! What the $&%#! kind of $@#&! are you guys trying to pull? Your diagram for the elevator bracket looks like it was drawn by a blind hummingbird in a windstorm!”
“Good morning, Jack. How can I help you today”?
The nature of homebuilding for most people is that it occurs during their spare time, which is often during evenings and on weekends. However, this is the time when employees of kit companies also tend to have their off-work time. This provides a challenge for the builder who runs into a problem out of normal office hours and the tech support person, who would like to have a life outside of their own office hours.
Different companies take different approaches to this issue. Some tech support people actually provide their cell phone numbers to customers: “If I’m not out riding my Harley, I’ll call back.” Others provide phone support only on certain days of the week, or during certain hours of a day.
What this means for most builders is that they may, or may not, be able to obtain support at the moment they run into a problem. To help keep the project moving along and reduce the frustration associated with trying to coordinate support schedules, it is helpful to remain flexible; when a roadblock is encountered on one part of the project, be prepared to move on to something else, coming back to the original task once guidance has been received.
For the tech person receiving the call, they have no idea whether the builder will have one question that will take only a few seconds to answer, or a page of questions that will require 45 minutes. This can make it hard to schedule their day, or to be responsive to the other calls that come in during the meantime and certainly impacts their willingness to pick up the phone after hours. For this reason, it can be helpful for a builder to limit their questions to one topic per call, rather than saving up for days or weeks and unloading everything at once.
Making the Numbers Work
All of the kit aircraft factories face a similar issue in terms of an ever-expanding base of builders requiring customer support—a problem which is magnified as projects and finished airplanes pass through multiple owners.
It is expected that the seller of an aircraft kit would provide some technical support to the person who buys that kit. However, things start to get a little fuzzy if that builder sells the kit to another person, who then has to come up the learning curve to get back to the same level of knowledge as the previous owner. It gets even more fuzzy when the finished airplane is sold to yet another person, who doesn’t have any of the knowledge gained from building the airplane, but still may call asking for tech support when they want to make a modification or repair.
This problem gets larger as the factory sells more airplanes. For example, a company might sell 100 kits in a year, so after 20 years there are 2,000 projects or completed aircraft in circulation, still requiring tech support and still being supported by the sales revenue from only 100 kits per year.
Most factories do not charge by the minute for tech support, which is a great thing for the builder or owner of an Experimental aircraft. However, as time goes by, this gets more and more difficult. As builders and owners, it is in our best interest to try to reduce our reliance on factory tech support to the extent possible; the alternative is that in the future, support might start costing money, or it might become harder to obtain.
Who Makes the Calls?
As might be expected, most of the companies interviewed for this article commented that a small number of customers are responsible for the majority of calls to tech support. What is surprising, however, is that a large number of the calls don’t come from the average new builder—they come from airframe and powerplant mechanics.
This might seem odd, considering that A&Ps spend their entire working day around airplanes and are very familiar with what it takes to maintain them. However, the average A&P may not have much experience with the construction methods used for a particular Experimental aircraft and, unlike the builder, they normally have little or no experience with the specific model.
This issue naturally grows as time goes by and airplanes are completed and passed out of the hands of their original builders. The new owners will not have a repairman’s certificate and are relying on their A&P to perform the annual inspection and carry out repairs and maintenance on an airplane type they may not have flown or even seen.
Tips for Smooth Tech Support
At the end of the day, the folks providing tech support want to provide a helpful, efficient service, just as the people building would like a clear, concise answer. Here are some tips that can help things go more smoothly for people on both sides of the call:
1) Take the time to learn about the tools and materials you will be working with before you start working with them. Use reference books, workshops and online forums and videos to arm yourself with the basics before you need to call tech support for detailed help.
2) Don’t feel bad about asking for help when it is needed. Remember that constructing an airplane is a complex project. Learning any new skill takes time and effort before it is mastered, whether it be skiing, surfing, or building airplane parts.
3) Take a break and then come back to the problem before calling tech support. Grab a coffee or tidy up or work on another part for a while. Often when you come back to look at it again with a fresh perspective, the question may answer itself.
4) Consider sending an email. Sometimes a question will answer itself just in the process of writing it down. If nothing else, it provides an opportunity to clearly describe the problem and attach pictures, which makes it easier and faster for tech support to identify the issue and provide the best answer.
5) Come prepared. Calling tech support is a bit like going to a professional meeting; you want to come to the table as informed as possible. Carefully re-read the relevant sections of the manual and be ready to provide page or diagram numbers that help to explain the question. If calling, have the page open in front of you. Be ready with relevant part numbers. When calling, make sure you can provide your full attention; don’t try to multitask.
6) Be specific in the question. Provide as much background information as might be relevant to the problem and try to make sure the question stands out as clearly as possible.
7) Try to limit questions to one or two per call or per email. This helps to ensure clear answers and that nothing gets missed.
8) Remember that the person providing tech support is a person, too. They are invested in your success and want you to succeed. Running into roadblocks can be very frustrating, but take a deep breath and try to be cool and clear. Don’t take it out on the person trying to help.
9) Be fair in the nature of the question and stick to the questions specific to the design or construction of the kit. Don’t ask tech support for installation help with third-party avionics or for parts or options they don’t supply.
10) Be ready to move on with another part of the project while you are waiting for a reply back. This is especially important if you are building outside of normal tech support hours.
11) Try other means of support. Forums, local builders, and online videos can be a great alternative.
Building an airplane is tremendously challenging, rewarding, and sometimes frustrating. Tech support is there to help along the way. Treat them with a little consideration, and they will be there with you, celebrating your picture on the Completions page.