A few days ago, I got an email from someone who said he was a customer service agent for PlayStation. He asked me — and, really, all of Kotaku's readers — to cut Sony a little slack in the wake of a DDoS attack that took the PlayStation Network down for several days. Have some sympathy for the people who work there, he begged.
"You would not believe the amount of abuse we have taken from old and young alike," he wrote.
Let's call him Dan. Dan, whose real name is not in fact Dan, asked not to be identified in this story. But he was willing to get on Skype and chat with me about what it was like to be a Sony customer service agent during one of the biggest PSN outages in recent history. He told me about the abuse they took. About how they tried to maintain civility while dealing with customers both new and old. About the threats from kids and parents and people of all ages. About how people like him — the ones who weren't getting paid six- and seven-figure salaries to run this monolithic corporation — were taking an unfair amount of abuse.
It started on Christmas morning. Dan was stoked to go to work — sure, it was a holiday, but he was getting triple pay, and he had volunteered thinking he'd be part of the giddiness of the day. "I had hopes of going in, being part of someone's Christmas, making people happy and just helping them out," he told me.
Dan says he was one of the first to get to his office, which handles customer service for various countries across Europe. For an hour or so, everything seemed fine. Then, at around 10am GMT, Dan says he started getting calls from people who wanted to know how to enable their PlayStation Network accounts. They had followed the instructions, they told him, but the website wouldn't verify their email addresses. It wasn't loading for them.
Soon, it became clear that something was seriously off.
"I put them on hold and asked a couple of colleagues, 'Hey, have you guys had any issues like this?'" Dan told me. "Slowly but surely, everybody in the office was getting [the same thing]. I made jokes, like, 'Yeah, this would be the shittiest day for a DDoS-type thing.' And then it was reported to me that, yeah, we were having a DDoS attack."
As the PlayStation Network remained down, the calls just kept coming in. By the middle of the day, Dan says, they had a queue of 178 people, with wait times of 65 minutes per customer. During this flood of calls, the higher-ups didn't explain much to Dan and crew, other than the fact that it was "an attack." At this point, the job of Sony customer service was to A) keep people calm, and B) promise that the company was working on the problem. When customers pressed, they'd have to explain that, according to Sony's terms of service, the company had the right to bring down the network for maintenance at any time.
Still, the outage was brutal — PSN was pretty much entirely down for 48 hours, and connectivity remained intermittent for days after that. That meant that people couldn't get their PlayStation consoles online, couldn't download patches, and couldn't get software updates. Games that required online connections even if played solo — Destiny, for example — weren't playable at all. So it's understandable that PlayStation owners were upset. Less understandable: PlayStation owners getting abrasive toward Sony customer service representatives.
"One of my colleagues, she had a guy that was just yelling and wouldn't give her a chance to respond," Dan said. "Every time she tried saying the terms of service, he was saying she can take the TOS and, you know, sit on it pretty much. And she broke down. I watched one of my friends hang up the phone and just start crying."
And then there was the guy who threatened to use his media contacts against them. "I had a guy who was like, 'I have connections to The Sun,'" Dan said. "I was like, 'And?'"
There was the one who said he would find out where they were and track them down. "My response was, 'OK, great, then I'd be able to show you in person where the terms of service says that we can do this.'"
One person even threatened to kill himself if Sony didn't fix PSN, Dan says. "We had to escalate that to the [Sony Computer Entertainment] department. I don't know what they did with it. We do take things like that seriously."
Throughout the outage, Sony's customer service agents were in the dark as much as the rest of us, Dan says. They didn't know what Sony was doing, when the servers would be restored, or even how Sony planned to avoid this sort of situation in the future.
"We don't get memos or anything from system engineers," Dan said. "Our team leaders who are in touch with the [Sony Network Entertainment] and the [Sony Computer Entertainment] people tell us, [the] agents. Like when PS3 resources came back up, my team leader stood up with a notepad that said 'PS3 resources still back online, PS4 still being worked on.' That was on the fly. I was in the middle of a call when I look over and see my team leader stand up and show me the notepad. All I could do was give him a thumbs up then turn back to the customer."
Notepads! Imagine trying to deal with a deluge of angry customers under these sort of circumstances. People would ask Dan what was going on, and he just didn't have specific answers to any of their questions.
"There were people saying, 'I just got this for Christmas, and we can't get on the network, is there anything that's gonna be done?'" Dan said. "All I could say is, look, we do apologise."
Eventually, Sony did wind up offering a bit of compensation to PlayStation Plus subscribers who were affected by the outage. And today, PSN seems to be working just fine. (Dan says he's heard that Sony has just started an initiative to bolster their servers just in case this happens again.) But it's worth considering, every time we're ready to rail on a customer service agent, that he or she might have just been through hell.
"Just talk to us like we're normal people," Dan said. "We're not there to ruin your day; we're there to try and help you, and we will help you if we can."
Illustration: Tara Jacoby