Need Tech Support? A Few Survival Tips

Packard Bell recently sent me an impressive new computer to review, but before I could finish my evaluation, the monitor died. That alone is no reason to knock the machine; these things happen, and the monitor was covered under the warranty. But when I called Packard Bell's technical support, I got nothing but busy signals in 35 attempts over five days before finally reaching the company. What good is a warranty if you can't get through?

Unfortunately, although Packard Bell is worse than many, this kind of experience is not the exception but the rule. The personal computer industry does a terrible job supporting and servicing the products it sells; just about anyone with a PC has some kind of horror story about interminable waits on help lines, finger-pointing among hardware and software companies and arcane technical problems that come to seem entirely insoluble.

Of course, privileged folk like computer columnists don't have to expose themselves to these sordid realities: When I called Packard Bell's public relations agency, they were quick to offer a replacement monitor, but I wanted to find out how paying customers are treated. So they offered a few suggestions: Send an e-mail message to tech support; check the company's World Wide Web site; try plugging the monitor into another PC to see if it would work. All fine and dandy--if you happen to have another working computer around the house.

They also proposed calling tech support late at night, so I did that and kept calling until finally, at 10:45 p.m. Pacific time, I got through to a recording instead of a busy signal. A machine asked me to enter my 10-digit serial number and then made me wade through eight minutes of voice menus and push 10 phone buttons while it took me through obligatory interactive diagnostics culminating with the advice: "Be sure that the monitor is plugged into a working power outlet. . . ." Duh.

Finally, it put me into a hold queue for a real person. Every minute or so, I'd hear an authoritative recorded voice telling me: "Someone will be with you shortly"; "Sorry to keep you waiting; we'll be right with you"; or, most irritatingly, "Your call is important to us. . . ." Right.

At 11:30 p.m., a real person came on the phone. He asked me for my serial number and a manufacturer's number from the back of the machine--which I couldn't find--and for two numbers on the back of the monitor. After a few more questions and several more minutes on hold, he concluded that I needed a repair and transferred me to a customer service operator to set me up for service. That process took until midnight and ended with the promise that I would get a call within three business days to schedule an on-site repair. My column deadline couldn't wait three days, so I can't yet report the end of the story.

At least I didn't have to pay to speak with Packard Bell's tech support. Making a quick survey of the field, I called Compaq's technical support line and listened to a recording tell me that I would have to pay $35 to talk to a technician or call a 900 number for $2 a minute. (A spokesperson says they won't charge if the question is about the hardware.)

I had better luck with Dell, which offers free technical support on hardware and software. I got through on the first call and was told by a machine that I would have to hold for 10 to 15 minutes--much better than a busy signal or indefinite hold. It took only about three minutes for me to reach Apple's tech support in the middle of the business day. Gateway, Micron and AST took a bit longer, but I did get through and the support is free--provided that it is indeed a problem with their hardware or software.

Until things get better, users are going to have to fend for themselves, so here are a few survival tips. First, be sure you've read the manual and checked the help files; I'm not letting companies off the hook, but the more people who can answer their own questions, the freer the lines will be for those of us who are truly befuddled.

If you're having trouble getting through, try calling late at night or early in the morning. Most major firms offer 24-hour support. If you still can't get through, call sales or customer service: They might have a better number, or be able to have a technician call you back. You can also try sending a fax to tech support and, if they don't get back to you, send one to the company president. A friend of mine got action from a company by sending a fax to its legal counsel threatening to sue and depose the officers.

Online forums, especially on CompuServe, are often very helpful. Not only can you exchange messages with company staff members, you can also find fellow users, who are often even more helpful. You can usually find support information on the company's World Wide Web site. The addresses typically begin with "www" followed by the company name and .com, as in http://www.packardbell.com

Some retailers offer their own support, which is great if the store really has trained personnel and remains in business. Ask the salespeople to explain the warranty and technical support policies; if the store says it has a support department, try calling it after you leave the showroom but before you spend any money and ask about the warranty and technical support policy to see if you get the same answer you got from the salesperson. If they offer on-site service, ask the technician if there are any restrictions. Of course, one good or bad experience doesn't necessarily indicate how the company will treat you in the future, but it's better than no data at all.

Speaking of data, Better Business Bureaus around the country have plenty of information about computer companies, including local dealers and mail-order firms. Some BBBs charge a few dollars for information, but it's a good investment, especially if it's a company that doesn't have a national reputation. You have to call the BBB in the area where the company is located, but you can get that number from your local Better Business Bureau or by visiting the BBB's Web site at http://www.bbb.org

Some stores and mail-order companies sell extended warranties or premium support programs. Read them very carefully for loopholes. Gary Almond, general manager of the Better Business Bureau of the Southland, warns consumers to be wary about spending extra for an on-site service agreement.

"Many of these agreements are executed at the company's discretion," he said. "There are many complaints alleging that companies fail to provide on-site service." Many warranty agreements, according to Almond, "stipulate that the customer must pay shipping charges back to the manufacturer."

Extending your warranty beyond the basic term may bring you some peace of mind, but it usually ends up being a better deal for the company than for the consumer. Although a machine can break, infant mortality is a much more common cause of equipment failure than old age.

A good local retailer with a reputation for supporting its customers is often your best bet if you're particularly concerned about service. Some mail-order companies, including Gateway 2000, Dell, AST and Micron, have pretty good reputations, though I don't know of any large company whose tech support isn't sometimes overloaded. Some of the best dealers are mom-and-pop operations that build their own computers, but I'd never buy mail order from a company I'd never heard of without first checking it out. Using a credit card gives you some additional protection against fraud.

If all else fails, register a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, a state or county office of consumer affairs and any local newspapers, TV and radio stations that offer consumer affairs columns or segments. This may or may not help you, but it might help others and put the company on notice. You can also send e-mail to me at magid@latimes.com. I can't promise to investigate every complaint, but I'll get to as many as possible.

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Columnist Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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