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Get a gift--and a tech support headache

December 23, 2004

Growing pains hit Dell's customer service

February 20, 2004
Technology is a wonderful thing, when it works. Just as cars run reliably but lawn mowers never start, many people wonder why humans are capable of creating amazing technology but can't make PCs that average people can understand.

As a result, demand for PC support services is booming even as retailers and PC vendors pare down their standard warranties. Fed up with pleasant but unsatisfying support answers, PC users are increasingly willing to pay for support from those companies. Third-party PC support is becoming big business, with Best Buy aggressively promoting the services of the Geek Squad and vendors like Dell jumping to provide their own touch.

It's not completely clear how big the market is for premium consumer support, said Matt Healey, an analyst with IDC. However, the overall market for Windows support last year was $7.8 billion, which includes everything from corporate server support to consumer PCs. It's safe to say the market size for consumer support measures in the "billions," he said.

Click for chart

Geek Squad grew out of that tried and true method of PC support: the starving college student. Founder Robert Stephens, or as he prefers to be called, chief inspector, started the company in 1994 and hasn't looked back. Geek Squad now has almost 12,000 "agents," about 2,000 of whom make house calls, while the rest work in Best Buy's stores, or "precincts."

Geek Squad charges flat rates for all its services for both Windows and Macs, regardless of how long the service takes. For example, an operating system restoration costs $99, which includes erasing the "blue screen of death" and updating the PC with patches and antivirus software. The remote phone service is available 24 hours a day, and customers can also drop off systems at Best Buy stores nationwide for service.

But Geek Squad is known for its white-shirted special agents that show up at a customer's house in the GeekMobile. Customers are likewise charged flat rates for services such as setting up a wireless network, updating antivirus software, or installing new memory.

Other companies are experimenting with remote services, where the technician never has to enter the house but can diagnose many common operating system problems over a high-speed Internet connection. One such company, PlumChoice, says it can solve around 85 percent of common PC issues through its online service, said Ted Werth, founder and chief executive officer of the company. PlumChoice is the support partner for Circuit City's stores.

To use the service, a PlumChoice customer creates an account on the company's Web site, and then downloads a piece of software onto their PC that lets a PlumChoice technician take control of their computer. The program requires a key unique to each session to allow the remote technician to take control of the system. From here, the technician can walk the user through the diagnostic procedure over the phone, or just quickly find out how long it's been since the user downloaded a Windows patch, Werth said.

"The hardware has become more mature over past years. It tends to have fewer problems. People tend to have more problems around the complexity of software and virus issues," Werth said.

Because it doesn't have to travel to your house, PlumChoice can charge by 15-minute increments. The company also offers flat rates for solving certain problems, such as $99.99 for a "PC tune-up" that includes spyware removal, system tray cleanup and installation of Windows updates. And monthly

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Unwarrented actions...
In addition to changing warrenties and charging for extended warrenties, some companies, such as Sager Midern Computers are doing very disturbing business practices such as asking for a "re-stocking fee" on a computer that they deemed "defective under warrenty".

How do you "re-stock" a defective machine? And if they are restocking defective machines, are those problems now becoming the burden of the new owners?

Before things get bad enough for a "law" to be created, the industry should come up with a minimum ethical code of conduct. Sager's present "warrenty" allows them to take up to 1 year and 72 hours before they are required to return a "fixed" defective machine to the owner. It is a very one sided contract, leaving the owner with virtually no rights at all.

Maybe a solution is for manufacturers to sell all products "as-is" and let the new third party service companies take on the task of all their support. That way the burden of warrenty work would be removed from companies that OEM their product line and sell them with very misleading "warrenties".

You could "buy" a warrenty from any of several companies as an option, just like the option of a 60 gig drive or an 80 gig. Allowing a company like Sager to legally take up to one year and seventy two hours to fix a defective computer leaves the owner of said machine with no other options.
Posted by beingees (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unwarrented actions...
Damn! The correct spelling of 'warranty' is in the article! I agree with your post though.
Posted by booboo1243 (328 comments )
Link Flag
Sounds Fishy
As an ex-big box employee I really sympathize with your situation. Generally, the only reason that the company I worked for would charge a restocking fee for a defective product is if some of the parts were missing (i.e. cables, manuals, box - the upc on the box specifically, etc.). The reason for this is that the manufacturer will charge the vendor a set amount of money to makeup for the loss of the missing part, and the vendor has to recoup its losses.

However, many big box retailers have moved to restocking fees for high-end consumer electronics that are non-defective and not in the original, SEALED packaging. Examples include most computers, digital cameras, and high-end TV's like Plasmas, LCDs, and large projection models. The reasoning for this is that under law they can't sell the product as new, and they have to sell the item as an open box item or a refurbished item. The markdowns for these range anywhere from 10-30% generally, and makes the company lose money because the markup on many of these items are kept low to compete with the dotcoms or rival local retailers. Big ticket items usually are sold at insanely low prices in the hopes that the consumer will not shop around for the accessories to go along with that big item, leaving the opportunity for tacking on those expensive, high-margin add-ons such as extended warranties, cables, and installation services. The consumer electronics industry is not the only marketplace guilty of this practice as this mode of business is capitalism at its finest.

My suggestion, don't shop with price as the only guide to your purchase. Make sure to read all of the fine print (by law they have to provide it to you, but only by request) before you make your purchase. Do not (and I stress this emphatically) go off of what the salesperson may tell you about a warranty or return policy as their interpretation may be skewed to the point to where their statement is untrue. In the high-turnover retail market, an "honest mistake" by the sales staff at the time of sale will be usurped by what is in writing, especially if he won't fess up to his mistake (or is no longer there to do so).
Posted by rfordtech (6 comments )
Link Flag
sounds like you need to start reading what it is you are paying for before shelling out your hard earned cash. Yeah that warranty definately sucks but the next question is: Did you read the paperwork first or just sign on the dotted line negleting your part of the transaction (reading)?

If you did read it then why did you accept it?
Posted by The user with no name (259 comments )
Link Flag
Thank M$ for creating most support needs.
I work with many platforms...NetWare, *nix, BSD, Mac, and the Windows Virus OS. From my point of view a single Microsoft (virus) PC creates more support work than 20+ non-MS machines. Even the MS Windows (virus) PCs that don't totally break down tend to 'biodegrade' over time, where a Linux desktop or NetWare server 3 years old is running as fast and well as the day it went in.
Posted by booboo1243 (328 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So I take it
you dont like Microsoft? You never see that here at

Of course your lame argument does not take into consideration that joe user cant use Linux because its for computer geeks....and if he/she can they cant run half the software that Windows can.
Posted by Lindy01 (443 comments )
Link Flag
Well genius
Lets suppose MS only has 60% of the market and everyone else has the rest isnt it rather obvious who is going to have the most calls? I am willing to bet Ford performs more automotive repairs than Ferrari does. I am no fan of MS but sometimes logic must prevail over prejudice.
Posted by Buzz_Friendly (74 comments )
Link Flag
I agree
That a *NIX, Mac, BSD system is far easier to maintain over time than a Windows box, for someone that knows those Operating Systems well, however Microsoft Windows is (right now) the defacto standard for the average home user. Many of the issues that generate customer support calls are really not Microsoft's fault, being the most popular platform means that they are target numero uno for Malware authors.

That being said, Windows still has a number of fundamental design problems which add the maintainence complexity of PC's for home users, they seem to have made an effort to alleviate some of this in the recent versions of the product (Adding easy to use security, backup, monitoring and maintainence tools) they still have a ways to go (probably a brand spanking new from scratch code base at some point in the future), there's also a lot of blame to be laid at the feet of the Windows ISV community since poor quality application software also causes a ton of support headaches.

For myself I'd take a BSD or Linux box for my use over a Windows box 7 days of the week, however for the "average" home user this really hasn't become a viable option *yet*, just too steep a learning curve (That many users don't want to bother with, they just want their PC to do what they want/need it to with as little *hassle* as possible and in most cases the solution for that is going to be Windows).
Posted by waywardvariable (25 comments )
Link Flag
Repair Costs
Nowadays when a desktop computer brand new are as cheap as $250.00. It sometimes becomes hard for the consumer to justify getting charged $50 or $75 an hour. I have seen service bills higher than $250.00, let me know you thoughts?
Posted by rtuinenburg (171 comments )
Reply Link Flag
re: repair costs
exactly... if it were a toaster they would just throw it away an buy a new one. What people fail to accept is that I have a skill when I fix your PC, a skill they don't have. It is NOT a toaster (not knocking toasters, I'm sure I couldn't actually fix one of those actually). Therefore I need to be compensated for my time. What happens if your car stops working? You have a mechanic fix it or do it yourself, why should a computer be any different?

But the stock answer is "but it shouldn't be this hard, it should be simple"! Well, sorry, this is life. Fixing my transmission shouldn't be that expensive but it is and I can't do it myself, so I need to pay a professional.

The sad fact is that by the time I am called, it is too late and only a complete reinstall will do. Not only is this the best way to fix the problem(s), but is also the most efficient use of my time. Hey, you're paying by the hour...
Posted by jsmith1903 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Interesting thought
For the most part, if you are paying more then the purchase cost of a new product to repair an identical, broken product, youre out of your mind. But that is not the case with computers; more likely then not, it is the information on the computer, and access to it, that is the most valuable asset. Whenever I am repairing a machine, the absolute first priority is to ensure the safety of the customers data. Second is getting the customer a working machine as fast as possible. That is what I am getting paid for.

So can the average user simply buy another computer cheaper then repairing it? Sometimes. Can the average user reinstall the OS? For the most part yes, and quite easily. Most modern machines come with a reinstall disk; drop it in, come back in a while, and it is exactly like when you bought it.

Are they getting what they pay a repair tech for?
Posted by catchall (245 comments )
Link Flag
Most toaster don't come with bread pre-installed.
New PCs come preloaded with enough trial-ware and other garbage to render them broken from the start. What we really need is for the vendors to stop loading all that bilge waste but they're unlikely to do so since they're being paid to install that stuff.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
Most of the time
I guess i'm cheap a repair man, Just the other day I reinstalled a win98 OS on this lady's computer. I could of charged her 100 - 150 for doing it, But she was so nice I opted just for a good home cooked meal.

I usually charge 20 - 25 on top of the hardware for upgrades or repairs. since It doesn't take a long time for me to do it.
Posted by simcity1976 (136 comments )
Link Flag
I used to complain about Apple
I used to complain about Apple's "Applecare" extended warrenty (currently about $170 for 3 yr hardware/software support on an iMac)

But considering I can get a knowledgeable "English is my first language" technician on the line quickly, it's a bargain compaired to the service I get these days from my "major PC manufacturer".

Their once upon a time "award winning" customer service sucks by comparison. By the time their techs answer the phone, I've forgotten why I called, and I can't understand a word they say in any event.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Language Barrier
I really take offense to Americans and Europeans who can't understand techs who don't speak English as their first language.

I work for a university and support faculty from 150 countries across the globe. I've probably heard English speech with an accent from everywhere on the damn planet. And guess what? I can understand every last one of them. The difference? I'm open-minded and "I try to understand them". I don't pre-judge them, their competancy or their skills, simply because they don't sound like I do when I speak.

Some Americans roll their "Rs" or speak with a Southern drawl. Some Europeans talk with a Scottish accent. I don't hear people complaining about that.

Stop taking cheap shots at people who don't speak English. Try opening up your mind, slowing down and thinking about what people are saying. You'd be surprised how easy it is to understand someone who's trying to help you out.
Posted by network247 (18 comments )
Link Flag
Apple Support
That's cheap. We bought 3 Apple Xservers and an Xraid storage array. Had problems getting it to work so I called Apple. They wanted $600/call. I thought Microsoft was high at $250/call. I just figured it out myself.
Posted by ken1129 (5 comments )
Link Flag
Service Costs
Nowadays when a desktop computer brand new are as cheap as $250.00. It sometimes becomes hard for the consumer to justify getting charged $50 or $75 an hour. I have seen service bills higher than $250.00, let me know you thoughts?
Posted by rtuinenburg (171 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Price of Support
The dawn of the age of disposable technology started years ago and is fueled by customer demand for cheaper products. Vendors have replied to this demand by selling lower quality products with less markup in order to keep the price down, and has driven the price of services and accessories through the roof to makeup for the margin and profit losses. It's all about the bottom line here folks, and there is simply more money to be made in services than in products.
Posted by rfordtech (6 comments )
Link Flag
Why fix a throwaway?
I've never purchased a computer for $250. In fact, I've never
purchased even a PDA that low. But, if I did, I would consider that
com (it does not deserve the second and third syllables) disposable.

This article reminds me that I need to buy Apple Care for my
current PowerBook G4 in July. If I don't have a MacBook Pro by
then. And, yes, an Apple warranty is worth the cost.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Link Flag
It's the consumers call
If a consumer is willing to pay $75/Hr. to fix a $250 desktop, that's their option. Keep in mind, from a business perspective, the real value of the computer is the data on it and it's value as a tool. If you have a client data base with 2000 records and don't have a backup, suddenly that computer is worth thousands of dollars.
Posted by axslinger (6 comments )
Link Flag
Computers are not appliances...
I am amazed that we, as a technological society, still produce items of inferior performance and design based on a greed-model rather than progressive-efficiency. Broke-replace it. Rather than it self-heal, or notify you of what is failing or how to prevent it.

With a blatant plug for the "geek squad", this article is more about how costs have increased (though ownership of PCs has also increased) than the decrease in quality and reliability of computers and their OS in general. Whether Xp (home) or OS X, the operating systems are now more problematic and bloated. Computing companies have become control freaks.

I'll fessup and stae that I consult and support a number of computer owners that don't have time for the issues at hand. I drive to their site (or home) and limit their downtime to a few hours (not days or weeks). I was charging a modest fee until I saw how places like BB (Geeksquad) were charging $250 to remove a virus (and plug their wares, contract and other BB material). Sorry, but anyone that works for BB as a GeekSquad is not that bright. If they were, they would be independent and not a tool for a big box like Best Buy (Gee, if I am charging you $250/hr...and I am like, getting only $12 of the math!)

And this is not just with MS software/hardware but also with macs. The latest crop of ibooks, powerbooks, G5s, emacs, imacs are far cheaper made, yet still priced more than they should be. And their failure rates are up 100% over the last 4 years. Check the mac news sites. For such a small percentage of the market, Apple does well to protect their "problems" with buy a new one. Makes more cost effectiveness. Why spend more than what a new system is worth? (chahing, we got ya)
And the Applestore pushes Applecare, .mac and ProCare...rather than fixing the problem: poor quality control and "looks over function" design.

And Why do you have to buy an extended warranty on something that is costing you a $1000 already (sorry buy a new mac mini $599, plus display, keyboard, mouse, UPS, software around a grand). Because they want you to and they know that n percent of customers will NEVER need it. So fork over another $170-300 for 3 years (really 3 years of phone support and only 2 more years of hardware support...and you better have backups of you important files because they aren't liable).

Pleas don't take this as a slap at Apple or MS. instead, take it as a wakeup notice that computers are in themselves, a market. And a money pit, by design.
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Semiliterate computer repair?
I would not hire anyone who can't spell, has poor grammar and has
never heard of the paragraph to repair my computer. I think the
absence of basic skills is evidence a person has not acquired more
advanced skills.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Link Flag
Computers ARE appliances to a lot of people....
... people who can manage the external complexities, but who
haven't a clue about the functions inside the box. Notonly do they
not have a clue, they don't really want a clue. They want the Geek
Squad, in one form or another, to solve their problems for them.

For people like this, service plans are the only answer. Expensive?
Sure, but still worth it.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Versitility Doesn't Come for Free
An appliance like a toaster is designed to do one thing, and do it well. Therefore, that appliance can be very simple to use, and work reliably.

The more tasks something can do, the more complex the item becomes. With a PC, which can do almost a limitness number of things, there is an equally limitness number of things that can go wrong.

If you want simple, reliable PCs, use a specialized appliance for each of the PC functions you use. There are pieces of software which dedicate a PC to one task (such as browing the web), if you so prefer.

If you want one PC to do all of these computing tasks, it just won't be as easy to use or as reliable as a typical appliance.

Heck, even cell phones have become vastly more complicated, as they incorporate song playing, photo taking, message sending, and other capabilities. And the more complex models are far less reliable than the simpler models.

So, versitility breeds some measure of unreliability. It's a fact of life. I think PCs are amazingly reliable, given the incredible number of things they do.

I agree they aren't anywhere near as reliable as, say, a TV. I also agree there are many ways the simplicity and reliability can be improved, but PCs work quite well 99% of the time.
Posted by bluemist9999 (1020 comments )
Link Flag
It's just a new AutoMechanic Shop. That's all.
When cars first came out, the "geeks" fixed their own cars. Than the general population got cars, and the "geeks" opened auto-repair shops.

When PC's first came out, the "geeks" fixed their own PC's. Now the general population has PC's, and the "geeks" opened PC-repair shops.

Same ole deal. What's so revolutionary or newsie about it?
Posted by kamwmail-cnet1 (292 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's DELL's fault their techs are unintelligible.
That's not a cheap shot he took. I don't fault people whose second language is English. They know at least one more language than I know! I'm glad these agents are trying to hard to do their jobs.

No, I place the blame squarely where it belongs: DELL, for going cheap on support. DELL IS ROTTEN.
Posted by (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree
If they would do something to help bridge the gap then their Technical Support Quality would improve.

If a person whose second language is English is taught how to bypass a culture gap and can learn the language good enough that his accent is better understood (Dell giving thier employees free lessons or support material for this would help) then the understanding issue would be easier to resolve.

Think about it people, the more you practice something, the better you get at it and the easier it is to do.

Blame Dell for giving their tech support keyword systems to follow in order to help a customer.
Posted by techguy83 (295 comments )
Link Flag
Backup your data!
What most of these companys offer in a lower price/over the phone service is lost in the fact that generally their technical skills are less than desireable. The Geek Squads first task is to find the restore cd to fix your problem, resulting in a clean running computer with all of your documents and photo's wiped clean. They'll gladly charge an additional $99 to have your stuff backed up to CD, and charge an additional cost to have it restored. You'll spend over $200.

Independent consultants have the knowledge and experience to fix the problem without wiping your drive. And if it does need wiped, we'll backup your files and settings and restore those at no additional cost. Don't take it to the big name places, use the little guy and you'll get a quality job.
Posted by gdebrun (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Or better yet
Someone come up with a home user online backup service that is affordable to home users with a bare metal restore feature (ala' an evault type service).

* install a software backup agent on your home machine(s)
* backup agent makes an initial full backup of your system (which is stores in a secure data center), and walks the user thru creating a bare metal restore CD Image
* backup agent then makes scheduled incremental backups

If you ever need to restore your system from scratch, pop the CD in, choose what date you want to restore the system state to (and which user data you want restored), walk away and come back later and voila, PC restored. Seems to me if you could have the backup agent check & clean for virus and spyware prior to backing stuff up it would end up saving end users a ton of money in support costs.
Posted by waywardvariable (25 comments )
Link Flag
When we HAVE to do a reload, if they need their data backed up, we charge one price. If they don't need any data saved, we charge another price.

When we do back up their drive, we do a complete image and keep it for no less than 14 days, but generally a month.

Many of the big box stores as well as Dell, HP and others take the approach of "get er' done" ASAP and move on to the next one. We spend time with the customer to find out what their needs are and how they use their computer so we can provide a custom solution.
Posted by axslinger (6 comments )
Link Flag
Here we go again...
Listen people, this story was about the current state of technical support. Not to bash the average consumer. Besides, most of you have no business doing so. Think about your car. Most of us can drive cars, but have no idea how to fix them. Especially today's computerized vehicles. I was actually impressed with myself this weekend. I managed to change an alternator on my car all by myself on the side of the road. Most could probably do the same. But when it comes to weird electrical or strange mechanical noises coming from under the hood, most of us are at a loss. If you're smart, you take it to a qualified auto technician to fix those problems. Thats what those people are trained to do.

It is the same for tech support. Most people know how to use a computer. Just like most of us know how to drive. Some users of computers can install a program. Or install memory. Just like some of us can change our own oil. Or change our own alternator. But when it comes to the real work, reloading an operating system (not from those lame CDs which just pack all the useless junk back on the computer) or replacing a primary hard drive, they should leave it to the pros. Just like you would leave changing an engine or transmission in your car to a pro. Kudos to those that can put up with users of that caliber. I was never good at it. I always used to get complaints from users because I made them feel stupid. My response was, "Well, if the shoe fits..." So, you want help? Pay for it.

Now, as far as being able to understand them, I am in full agreement with many. Most people from India cannot speak english to save their lives. Their accents make a technical problem far worse. Not only is the user already frustrated, but not being able to understand the person on the other end of the phone makes the problem worse. Dell, for example, has a service where you can pay just a little more and actually get a person on the phone that not only lives in the USA, but has actually spoken english since birth. Many liberal silly people on these boards like to claim that it shouldn't matter whether english is their first or second language. And my reason for saying that is a load of hogwash is not racially motivated. It is a simple matter of psychology. When a person is already frustrated (as many non-technical people are when their mystery toy/tool lets them down), the last thing they want to do is repeat themselves or have to ask the person on the phone to repeat themselves over and over again as is often the case. Until those in India undergo language naturalization training, they shouldn't be allowed near the phone. If you want to avoid it, pay the little extra and speak to a real english speaker in the good old US of A. You won't be sorry.
Posted by thenet411 (415 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yeah but
Can't remember the last time I downloaded a bunch of unknown (but cool lookin') parts for my car, slapped 'em randomly under the hood then wondered why it wouldn't run anymore.

The average consumer is responsible for many of their own tech support issues, simply because they refuse to practice some simple and well publicized best practices for it's use and maintenance.

We now return to our regularly scheduled session of drive by malware downloads (just make sure and click right on thru all those warning dialogs without reading 'em K?) :)
Posted by waywardvariable (25 comments )
Link Flag
What I don't understand
is who pays for this type of stuff? About one in 4 people over the age of 10 can reload OS, burn a cd of the data, kickoff the windows update, and pop in some software CD's to install. I can't think of one person I know that has ever paid for this type of service (not counting business use) because everyone has a sister, or cousin or uncle that will do it for a 6 pack or a steak.

99% of all computer problems are not hardware anyway, and if users really knew that the insides of their computer were color coded and had picture how to's on the inner cover, they wouldnt pay for some other monkey with a tie to reconnect thier mouse.

My biggest beef with retail is the prepackaged OS. Everyday users pay for something, which they probably don't even know drives up the price of thier new cpu. Most every day users don't even know they have a choice. I would like to see the Best Buy's (mainstream retailers) of the world offer alternatives, such as hardware systems only. Purchase everything Al'carte, and stop waisting money on things that average consumers don't even know they don't need (such as the 300$ extended warranty no part of a PC costs more than 150$ to replace)
Posted by thurgoodj187 (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
FIXING Computers Remotely.???
Speaking of all this, what is some of the most popular 'Remote Access' software available? Simple...Ease of use..No download to remote needed..PcAnywhere? Ultra-VNC? Radmin? Go To Assist?
Posted by rjward22 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I work on computers for a living and I have a-lot of people come to me first because they don't want to deal with the headache from the manufacturer. Even-though they will sometimes be able to have it done for free from the manufacturer. So yeah there's definitely a problem.
Posted by CodyTheTechie (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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