Customer support: a growing problem


February 01, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

A friend was having problems with his Gateway computer. He called the company's technical support telephone number, which was busy. He called again, and again and again, and the number was always busy.

It took dozens of calls over many days before he was able to speak to a human, he said. Happily, once a technician was on the line, he diagnosed and fixed the problem quickly.

A veteran consultant who recommends powerful computers for the banking and financial industries tried calling a toll-free technical support number for the RS/6000 workstation division of IBM. The line was busy. It was busy all day, it was busy on Sundays, and it was busy at 3 a.m., he said.

The other day, a reporter called for technical assistance at America On-Line, an electronic information service. The automated phone system that answered the call informed the caller that owing to an unusually heavy volume of calls, it would be at least 15 minutes before a human could pick up the phone.

The robot operator then informed the caller that if he did not care to hold, he might try calling back later. Hours later, he got the same message.

Gateway, IBM and America On-Line are certainly not the only, or even the worst, offenders in what appears to be a growing problem with customer support.

Computer companies, both hardware and software, seem overwhelmed by increased demand for help.

The increase does not appear to stem from a lack of quality in the products. Indeed, Gateway and IBM, in particular, have shown rapid increases in sales, partly as a result of reputations for building reliable products. But the problems reported by many users make it clear that a shopper should investigate the quality of customer support when choosing a new computer or piece of software.

A random and unscientific telephone survey found that customer support varies widely from company to company, with some companies answering calls and fixing problems promptly, and others not answering calls at all. Some technicians were very helpful; others were obviously not prepared. Posing the same question to the same company on different calls also revealed differences in the quality of help.

When asked, spokesmen for each company surveyed emphasized the importance of customer service and recited a list of steps the company had taken to guarantee a high level of support.

The steps included increasing the number of people working in technical support and operating electronic bulletin boards and automated facsimile services.

One factor may be a sudden increase in the number of new computer users attracted by the recent price war; new users tend to need more technical support and hand-holding than experienced users.

At the same time, experienced users are buying more technically advanced computers and using more complicated software, especially in local area networking, which is often accompanied by complex problems.

Bill Higgs, vice president of software research at Infocorp, a market research company in Santa Clara, Calif., suggested that another factor might be cost-cutting to survive in the price war.

"If a company views it purely as something that goes in the cost equation, customer support is going to be inadequate," he said. "There won't be enough people, and they won't be well-trained."

jTC Higgs, echoing a popular sentiment among computer users, said Wordperfect Corp. of Orem, Utah, is an example of superior customer service.

He also cited the direct marketers of computers, like Dell Computer Corp., which sell and support the computers by telephone, and some larger computer companies, like Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM Personal Computer Co., which have become customer service zealots once again.

"They staff the lines with sufficient manpower that you don't spend a lot of time in the hold cycle listening to beautiful Muzak, or say they'll have to call you back, which leads to frustrated customers," Higgs said.

Gateway, of North Sioux City, S.D., is a direct seller of computers and once had a reputation for good support. Compaq, in contrast, once had no customer service plan at all, referring all calls to the dealer who sold the system. The lesson is that customer service has to advance as fast as the technologies it supports.

A call to Wordperfect, to inquire about customer service, was answered promptly. The statistics cited by Wordperfect provide an intriguing look behind the scenes at a major software company and an interesting benchmark for computer users wanting to assess their own experiences with customer service.

Linda Linfield, a Wordperfect spokeswoman, said about 1,100 people, or about one-fourth of Wordperfect's work force, had jobs related to customer service. Unlike some companies that charge customers for support, Wordperfect offers it free.

"Last year we handled 4.9 million incoming calls, and most were toll-free," Ms. Linfield said. "The greatest number of calls in one day was 22,057, on March 25, and the least number was 14,683, on April 17."

"The average call lasts 8 minutes and 35 seconds, and the average time a customer waits in queue is 41 seconds," Ms. Linfield said.

The company even employs "hold jockies," real humans instead of taped music or automated phone servers, who inform callers of how many people are ahead of them and how long the first caller in line has been waiting.

In worst cases, the wait is rarely over five minutes.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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