My Dell laptop abruptly shut me out in the middle of a very busy workday last week, forcing me to dive into Dell’s phone support nightmare. I could write the typical tirade about a decidedly abysmal customer support process. But the experience was something more profound.

My “Hell” story turned out to be more about the discordant pace of Silicon Valley, India and the Philippines; about entitlement and callousness fostered by distance; and about interconnectedness in a global marketplace than about Dell’s customer support. I was reminded that though Burlingame may be nowhere near Delhi on a map, the lives of our neighborhoods are more intertwined than ever. And this is disturbingly easy to forget when communicating over long distances through impersonal customer service processes.

Here’s what happened.

Hwy 101 Problems

My lunch in San Francisco had run long. I still needed to finish some work before the end of the day. After fighting traffic back to the office, I discovered the computer issue. I braced myself for the inevitable pain of Dell’s help line.

After searching for a phone number buried on the company’s website, I dialed. I spent the next several minutes figuring out the IVR and punching in my Dell Service code before finally getting routed to a live person in one of Dell’s Indian centers…only to be told that I’d reached the wrong location. After I’d repeated my service code, phone number and address several times, the tech was now telling me that he’d have to transfer me to the “right place.”

The mere tone of his voice had begun to grate. The rhythm, the lack of urgency, was off from the pace of business here in the Bay Area. I went on hold, heard some music and then, the sound of the call dropping. I redialed and – after repeating all of the same steps – was routed to a different agent in India. In an irritatingly calm voice, he once again told me he’d have to transfer me. My blood was boiling.

I was soon connected to another Dell technician, whose accent revealed she was in the Philippines. She informed me that she, too, could not help me with my Dell XPS laptop. She only worked on Dell’s Latitude line.

By now, I was livid.

I began to use language that I’d punish my 5-year old for repeating. I then shifted to a tactical, albeit patronizing, approach: “You can help me fix my problem,” I said. She started down a familiar script, informing me how she was going to transfer me to the right place. That’s when, I’m embarrassed to confess, I literally stopped her mid-sentence to say, “Quiet.”

Now let me pause here to admit that I may be more easily frustrated by poor customer service than the average Joe. But I know I’m not alone. American Express research found in 2012 that a whopping 35% of consumers in the United States reported losing their temper with a call center customer service agent in the last year.

The person on the other end of the line is a stranger sitting thousands of miles away, often with a foreign accent and temperament. When added to the robotic recordings we need to navigate to reach them in the first place, it’s easy, albeit not so excusable, to get angry and unhinged.

I started in:

“Stop speaking from a script. Start acting like a human being and I’ll start treating you like one. You can help me. This is a software issue, not a hardware one. If I explain, will you listen?”

cebu - haiyan mapWhile at this point she certainly should have felt no obligation to do so, the Filipino technician became very helpful. She walked me through the steps to back Windows up to an earlier log in instance so that my computer would boot up.

I calmed down. I thanked her and, at the conclusion of the call, I asked in an about-face, friendly manner, “Are you in Manila?”

“No,” she replied. “I’m in Cebu.” My heart sank.

Weather Problems

Like Dell, our company, Prialto, also has employees in the Philippines. On Monday, after Super-Typhoon Haiyan devastated a large swath of the country and killed thousands of residents, I authored a letter to our clients explaining how to help the victims. Yet, the immediacy of the disaster hadn’t sunk in until this customer service conversation.

With her revelation, the Dell technician had jolted me out of my trite tech issues, customer service problems, and my self-absorbed frustrations. I suddenly recognized the weary, shell-shocked tone in her voice. It wasn’t apathy for her customer, but sheer exhaustion at having been caught up in a global crisis and still showing up to work. Time lapse images of the he horrific human suffering and devastation in the Southern Philippines replaced the self-centered rage.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

I’m an ass, I thought.

“Yes,” she responded. “We are just trying to work.”

Sharing the Pain

The experience was a vivid reminder of how even distant lives can be so intertwined. Americans speak to call center agents who are located in small towns and overseas every day. Those agents – millions of them – are the backbone of a global service system, but their lives are nearly invisible to the rest of us. We rarely consider what it means to be in their shoes. It is easy to unleash frustration on these call center reps who live and work in an environment very different from our own. The distance between us had allowed me to ignore the context in which she worked and let loose an over-the-top sense of consumer entitlement.

A broken computer soon replaced is certainly unimportant against one of the largest storms in history pummeling the Philippines. Even the most seemingly faraway storms now virtually and emotionally wash up against our shores, too.