Helpful hardware, software support on the endangered list

Monday, May 6, 2002

SAN JOSE, Calif.

Tony Biria was thrilled to receive a Palm m505 computer as a gift last year.

That handheld has turned out to be a handful.

The gadget worked great for three weeks. Then it refused to synchronize with Biria's PC. He sought answers from old-fashioned phone tech support, Palm's Web site and online chats with Palm engineers.

It still doesn't work.

"There's nothing I can do," says Biria, 34, of Fair Lawn, N.J. "I don't have the time -- unless you set aside an hour and get on the phone. Most people don't have an hour during the day."

Complaints about tech support are as old as the high-tech industry itself. Now, cost-cutting companies are pushing -- some say shoving -- the confused masses away from free live phone support.

Instead, they're offering cheaper assistance via e-mail, Web sites and online chats. Consumers' frustration seems to be growing.

Biria tried several times to connect with support using chat sessions, which Palm discontinued last month. After a few cursory questions, he was disconnected. Free phone support ended 90 days after the purchase, and there has been no response to e-mail complaints, he said.

Palm isn't alone.

Since 1994, PC World magazine has surveyed readers about their experiences with PC support. Despite high-tech innovations, the latest survey released last year showed satisfaction at an all-time low.

The 27,000 respondents to the unscientific poll reported longer waits on hold and less knowledgeable technicians. It is also taking longer to find fixes. An increasing number said problems were never solved.

"It's one thing to take a long time to fix a problem; it's another to be left in the lurch," said Aoife McEvoy, senior associate editor at the magazine.

It's difficult to gauge exactly how bad tech support has become. Users who don't need tech support don't complain about it. And those who are served well don't become squeaky wheels.

But anecdotal evidence suggests the increasing sophistication of high-tech products and the absence of written manuals can lead to unhappy results when products go bad.

Stupid Q's, cheap A's

And that's in addition to simple problems that could easily be solved if employees at call centers relied more on knowledge and less on scripts, said Esteban Kolsky, a senior research analyst at Gartner Inc.

"We're still looking for the cheapest way to answer the stupidest questions," he said. "If you go out of the script, they have no idea how to react."

In part, the problem can be blamed on tech companies' attempts to cope with shrinking profit margins and a bad business environment.

Vendors are increasingly placing self-help instructions on Web sites, burying tech support phone numbers and trying to institute help via instant messaging or e-mail.

It costs anywhere from $12 to $48 each time a technician picks up a phone, McEvoy said. Costs drop dramatically if users figure out the problem for themselves or have an online chat or e-mail conversation with a technician, who can then field several queries at once.

However, only a quarter of the people asking questions by e-mail said the response solved the problem, said McEvoy. And online chats, such as Biria's disconnected sessions with Palm, also haven't proved very useful, she added.

Palm said its customer satisfaction rates are high. A spokeswoman promised to look into Biria's complaints. But attempts to reach someone in tech support to explain how Biria fell through the cracks were unsuccessful.

High turnover

It's not just hardware.

The same problems plague software tech support, users say.

Jeffrey Tarter, executive director of the Association of Service Professionals, blamed software marketing for raising customers' expectations of help.

"Typically, these are companies that are selling very complex products to low-end consumers," he said. "They don't want to say on the box you're not going to get all the tech support you want."

Tech support call centers face high turnover and frustrated workers, said David Pogue, a New York Times technology columnist who created the "Missing Manual" book series after being frustrated by skimpy instructions shipped with many high-tech products.

"Anybody who has real expertise is probably off making hundreds of dollars an hour as a consultant or a network administrator in a corporation," he said. "Who wants to sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day answering calls from novices on screens they can't see?"

Still, high-tech might be able to save support.

Remote desktop assistance, where a technician can connect to the user's computer and see what the customer sees, could make problem-solving less painful for both sides, provided the Internet connection works.

Users also can find help from a third party, such as Ask Dr. Tech, which costs $89 a year but offers live help over the phone or Web 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A benefit, says Jim Pojda, vice president of operations at Ask Dr. Tech, is that the technicians are familiar with all Windows-based systems and keep track of all types of configurations -- not just those sold by a particular company.

But there's a more obvious solution, Pogue says: Hardware and software companies could design easy-to-use products that don't require so much support.

"There's an art to designing products that don't require calls to begin with," he said. "If they put in some effort on the front end, they could cut in half the number of people on the phone."

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