Consumer Watch: Help Without the Hold Music

Companies are pushing you to drop the phone and get tech support online instead.

Anne Kandra
From the December 2000 issue of PC World magazine
Posted Friday, October 27, 2000

My PC vendor cares about me. I know this because I just got off the phone with its tech support department, whose recording earnestly assured me that my call was important--128 times. Sure, my PC continues to display cryptic error messages. And I've spent more than an hour with the phone pressed to my ear, never even reaching a real human being. But it's okay, because the folks that made my PC are concerned--in their own automated way.

Sound familiar? It's no secret to PC owners that most vendors simply don't have enough technicians sitting by telephones to meet consumers' needs. Smart hardware and software vendors recognize that fact, and they also know they have to do better by their customers if they want their loyalty. But the vendors are in a bind. If they hired all the phone support techs they needed, the prices of their products would climb so high that few people would buy them in the first place.

The Way of the Web

Enter--what else?--the Web. More and more companies are bolstering their online support systems and trying to nudge--in some cases, shove--customers off the phone and onto the Internet for help. The Web approach saves companies money and, they say, gets customers better advice quicker.

Some vendors are taking an aggressive approach toward getting their customers to hang up and log on. Microsoft, for instance, recently announced that it will limit users of Windows 98, Windows 2000, and the latest versions of Office to free phone support for only two problems. After that, customers must pay $35 for each headache they call about. And users of Office 95 and Windows 95 who want free help will have to go to the Web from now on, Microsoft says. Symantec has dropped much of its free phone support, too. You can still get a phone technician to help you install the software, but for questions beyond that, you must either get your answers online or pay for help over the phone.

If your PC becomes ill, these companies argue, your browser may already be the best path to a cure. Suppose your machine is giving you indecipherable error messages on start-up, as mine did. And suppose you don't have the time--or the patience--to wait on the telephone. In the brave new world of online support, you'd simply e-mail a description of your problem to the vendor. A "snapshot" of your PC, including its model, its configuration, its drivers, and the names of any added software would automatically be sent to an unseen support rep. The tech would analyze the information, run it through a database of other reported problems, and provide you with a software fix. End of problem--in theory, anyhow.

This is the vision shared by a number of leading PC hardware and software manufacturers. Some, such as Micron and Dell, have already implemented sophisticated online troubleshooting and analysis techniques.

The approach certainly has its merits. But before vendors rip out all their phone lines, they should remember a few of the things phone support does well. Like providing answers when a customer's PC is too sick to access the Internet. Or tailoring information to the technical know-how of the caller. Besides, some problems are the manufacturer's fault. We consumers shouldn't have to pay a fee to let Microsoft know about a bug in its software, even if we dare to pick up the phone.

Consumers I spoke with had mixed feelings about online tech support. Most expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of resolving problems without facing telephone queues. But some, like Bill Payne of Wilmington, North Carolina, have found little satisfaction. Despite e-mailing Compaq tech support numerous times, Payne is still waiting for a solution to a problem with his Presario. "I've received three responses from Compaq," Payne says. "The first was a solution that didn't work, and the others were requests to resend the original message."

Online Is Cheaper

What's driving the trend toward online tech support? Ask the companies, and they'll say that their customers are demanding it. "Customers want the ability to get the information they need when they need it," says Genevieve Haldeman, Symantec's group manager of corporate communications. "Already more than 80 percent of our customers rely on the Web site for support, and the average customer finds a solution to their problem in less than 3 clicks or 5 minutes."

But the shift toward online support isn't purely altruistic. Cost plays a major role. It's cheaper for companies to receive tech support questions online than it is to pay an army of tech support professionals to field calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's also more efficient: Automating the collection of basic information about your system saves you and the support person time and makes it easier to maintain a central database of problems and their solutions. And finally, responding via e-mail is usually quicker for the tech than talking a customer through a fix.

That's why online tech support makes sense, says Bill Rose, founder and executive director of, a source of information for tech support professionals. "Chances are, if you have a question, someone else has already asked it. Why not reuse that information?"

Good-Bye, Telephone?

Most companies probably won't eliminate telephone support any time soon. "It's partly a mindset issue. There will always be some customers who are more comfortable talking to a live person," says Ana Volpi, senior analyst of software support and integration services at International Data Corporation.

But companies are trying to coax users online with new tools. By the time you read this, Dell will have launched what it calls Resolution Assistant for the company's Dimension and Inspiron lines. One feature of its new troubleshooting system lets users connect online to a Dell technician. Resolution Assistant automatically provides the tech with the PC's original configuration; if the user agrees, the technician can also upload information about hardware and software subsequently added to the machine. The user describes the problem in an online chat. Often, if a software conflict or a driver problem exists, the technician can download a solution directly onto the malfunctioning machine--with the user's permission.

Micron has already implemented a similar system at its site. And Gateway planned to have a remote diagnostics system in place for its business customer division by the time this article sees print.

Will Web-based tech support live up to the industry's breathless assurances? Initial signs look promising. But customers are so fed up with being on hold, almost anything would be an improvement. The bottom line is whether you can find the information you're looking for in a timely way. Companies must prove themselves by providing fast, accurate, and customized online support for their customers, not just by hanging up the phone.