Calling a Product Hotline? You Have Time to Read This : Consumers: Long waits are common. Experts say the experience plays a big role in brand loyalty.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's less than two weeks before Christmas and piling up in your house are toys to assemble, a computer to hook up, a VCR to install. A daunting task, but you're not worried, because if you get stuck, you can call a manufacturer's hotline for help.

Good luck.

An informal survey of hotlines run by two dozen toy, appliance and electronics firms shows that some companies may need help more than you do. It took this reporter 15 tries over five minutes to get through to Kenner Products, maker of the Batman action figures. A call to Mattel was picked up after 13 minutes on hold.

Getting help from Microsoft is easy enough, as long as your credit card is handy. After their 90-day grace period of free assistance on the Windows 95 software has passed, buyers can get more help by calling a different phone number and paying a $35 fee.

Not every company is hard to get. Hedstrom, the bicycle manufacturer, answered on the second ring. Pioneer Electronics, responding to a question about a car stereo, offered to put a technician on the phone at no charge. Representatives for video game makers Nintendo and Sega answered swiftly and provided tips on how to make game machines run.

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Much is riding on how consumers are treated when they call manufacturer hotlines, experts say. Consumers who get prompt and courteous service are likely to develop a loyalty to the brand, said Valerie S. Folkes, associate marketing professor at USC.

But a poor experience "leaves a consumer not knowing how to use a product or what to do," she said. "They are likely to feel the company won't deliver on its promises. It is another disappointment."

Customer service hotlines began proliferating in the 1980s as retail stores cut back on service and manufacturers stepped in to fill the gap. A survey of Fortune 500 companies conducted earlier this year by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business found that 80% of manufacturers have toll-free customer service lines, up from 63% in 1992.

The spread of such lines doesn't mean help is there when you need it, though. The survey also found that less than a third of toll-free numbers were open more than five days a week. Many of the companies contacted for this story answered their lines during their regular business hours only, making it difficult for Californians to contact companies in the East.

"That doesn't help you on a Saturday morning when your kid is screaming and you can't get Busy Town running" on your home computer, said Bob Johnson, an analyst with Dataquest, a consulting firm dealing with technology companies.

Because software companies can be difficult to reach, nearly 60% of consumers rely on family and friends for help, he said. Few software companies have a toll-free number and many charge for advice, as Microsoft does, after a brief warranty period expires, said Johnson. The average cost of a one-year manufacturer's contract is $293, while per-call charges range from $25 to $87, he said.

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The exceptions are companies that mostly sell education or entertainment software. Broderbund and Softkey, for example, don't charge consumers for help and Softkey has a toll-free number.

Johnson said a survey found that 35% of software owners were willing to pay for quality help. Unfortunately, he said, the typical experience in the software industry is "a steady busy signal or you're on hold until your ear is sore."

That condition isn't unique to the software industry, at least during the holiday season. This reporter called Hasbro's four toll-free lines--one each for Kenner, Playskool, Tonka and Hasbro--every 10 minutes for an hour and did not get through.

Once callers get through to Mattel, they may wait up to 15 minutes to talk to a representative, as the company strains to handle an upsurge in calls generated by a shortage of its special-edition Happy Holidays Barbie doll. The El Segundo-based toy maker has hired outside contractors to help field 10,000 calls a day, up from an average of 2,000.

Mattel said that with the extra help, it is now answering 90% of the calls that come in. But the company couldn't say what percentage of callers hang up while waiting for a customer representative.

Apple Computer has also hired outside contractors to handle calls. Even with the extra help, it took nine minutes to reach an Apple representative--five minutes to break through busy signals and then four minutes on hold.

That was good, considering Apple's customer service center had closed twice over five days, once due to severe weather in Northern California and once for, as a recording explained, "a staff development activity."

Besides boosting their staffs, some companies are taking extra steps in an effort to head off holiday dissatisfaction. Mattel, for the first time, will open its lines on Christmas, prepared for questions on how to assemble Barbie's dream house. Microsoft, swamped with calls about its Windows 95 operating software, will be fielding questions on Christmas and New Year's Day.

Callers to Microsoft are greeted with a recorded message that provides a numbing list of options to choose from. (A fax listing the options is five pages long.) Fortunately, help for the new Windows 95 is the first choice, so customers don't have to wade through too much voice mail before reaching a person.

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At some companies, customer service departments appear to consist of little more than a voice messaging system. Toy Biz, maker of the Spiderman action figures, has a recording asking callers to leave their names, phone numbers and addresses. Four days after doing so, this reporter's call hadn't been returned.

"A lot of companies measure effectiveness through a manager's eyes instead of a customer's eyes," said Jill Griffin, president of the Marketing Resource Center in Austin, Texas. She said corporations tend to consider their hotlines effective if the phone is answered. Customers, on the other hand, aren't satisfied until they talk to a human being, she said.

Busy signals and other delays affect how customers view a company. The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals found in a 1992 study that customer satisfaction plummets when a customer is required to make more than one call.

A survey of computer owners showed that 70% of people who got help after one call were pleased with the service. Of the people who made more than one call, only 30% were satisfied.

At some companies, an effort to avoid delay actually creates a bigger one. After five minutes on hold, a recorded message from kitchen appliance maker Cuisinart instructed this reporter to leave a name and phone number before being automatically disconnected. A Cuisinart representative called back on the next business day and left the company's toll-free number on my answering machine.

The cycle begins--again.

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