24-hour house calls heal technical illness

In-home help: Best Buy's repair team relies on interpersonal skills as well as technical know-how to solve customers' computer problems.

April 29, 2004|By Stanley A. Miller II | Stanley A. Miller II,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MILWAUKEE - Despite the seemingly effortless way that experts fix computer problems, giving technical support isn't easy.

Home technical support is even harder. You're on the client's turf, they are often irritated by the problem, and they tend to hover and ask questions as you try to diagnose and repair what is wrong.

Welcome to a day in the life of the Geek Squad - Best Buy's technical support service - which began operating this month in Milwaukee. The Minnesota-based Geek Squad will work out of local Best Buy locations and offer a 24-hour house-call service.

These repair professionals say there is no computer problem they can't handle, whether it's a term paper lost because of a hard drive crash or a machine that is running amok because of spyware.

They are company men and women, and they look the part. Geek Squad "agents" are recognizable with their white shirts, black ties, shiny badges and sunglasses, as well as the black-and-white Volkswagen Beetles they buzz around town in.

"They officially have no life now," joked Gavin McKay, a Geek Squad "special agent" on loan from headquarters who is organizing the Milwaukee team.

Although computer knowledge is obviously essential, Geek Squad members are selected for their interpersonal skills, McKay said. Agents need to be friendly and attentive, even if frantic clients are breathing down their necks, the family dog is growling at them and a baby is screaming in the next room.

"You can always teach technical skills," McKay said. "You can't teach personality. You have to interact with people."

The squad has operated in Minneapolis for about 10 years and offers limited service in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.

Milwaukee, San Francisco, Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich., are the first cities to be assigned fully staffed Geek Squads.

If the company's early experience translates to these cities, the most common tasks for the local agents will be setting up new computers, helping configure wireless networks and removing malicious software such as viruses and spyware. Back-to-school time is often the busiest time of year for the Geek Squad, McKay said, although virus "events" such as Blaster and SoBig Internet worms kept him busy.

Geek Squad agents carry all the tools and spare parts they need in their cars - except motherboards and processors. If a DVD drive stops spinning or a hard drive fails, the components can be replaced immediately. Agents also tote some software for sale, including anti-virus programs and operating systems, if customers want to upgrade.

"The trunk of a Beetle is surprisingly roomy," McKay said.

The Geek Squad is a dream team for Best Buy. Prices vary, but basic on-site support - with a response time of within 48 hours - begins at $130. The Geek Squad's "911" service, which gets a technician on the scene immediately, starts at $300. That doesn't include any software or new parts. Besides the service charges, the Geek Squad is a way for Best Buy to market its products, from keyboards and mice to video cards and blank CDs.

Milwaukee's Geek Squad will start with five agents, including Joe Sabatini. "I get to work one-on-one in their environment," he said. "In their homes, they are much more comfortable. And I like to talk to people."

For some high-tech households, on-site IT professionals are angels of mercy in a time when Internet-borne viruses run rampant and computer equipment is still too intimidating for the average person to manage.

Some computer problems - such as issues with networking and complex peripherals like scanners - are best solved in their native environment instead of being brought into the shop, said Phil Thien, owner of Computer Gallery in Shorewood, Wis. Thien said his company's on-site service keeps busy with customers working out of home offices.

"For them, it is like visiting their small business," Thien said. "They want parity with the level of service that a small- and medium-sized business would get. They don't see why they should have to disconnect everything to bring it in, and they don't have to."

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