Product Reliability and After-Sale Service, 2008

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Dell's Gone Social, Too

Like its archrival HP, Dell is investing heavily in online, user-to-user support. In 2008, its community forums adopted a feature called Accepted Solutions, which encourages members to rate the technical fixes suggested by fellow users. If a fix works, it earns an Accepted Solution icon. (Dell staffers also test these Accepted Solutions to verify them.)

The program is a success so far, says Bob Pearson, manager of Dell's communities and conversations group, which oversees Dell support blogs, forums, wikis, and other content. In Accepted Solutions' first eight months, users submitted more than 15,000 solutions, with an average of 350 views per solution. That works out to 5 million page views. The program eases the burden on Dell's phone support, too. "Let's say 20 percent of the people who view those solutions didn't need to make a phone call," says Pearson. That would mean 1 million support calls avoided by the vendor. The bottom line: Fewer calls and greater cost savings for Dell.

Pearson rejects the argument that older users won't try online support tools, saying it's really a matter of personal preference. "It's not just age. Some people want to surf and find the answer. Some people are the Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it of their neighborhood, and they want to keep up to speed on everything. And some people just prefer to pick up the phone."

So will thin profit margins on hardware sales, increasingly complex home networks, and a move toward user-to-user tech help spell the end of free support? Opinions vary. "Free support may be dying," says Healey. Your future $299 notebook may have an optional warranty covering tech support that costs an extra $50 to $100, he predicts.

Vendors, however, say that's unlikely. "We believe that customer support is a critical part of our long-term business success," declares Jim Kahler, HP's director of consumer warranties. In the past, when PC makers cut warranty lengths to 90 days or cut back policies, "it has had a pretty significant impact on their ability to compete in the marketplace," he says.

Ultimately, the reaction of consumers will decide the matter. As Kahler notes, "If customers don't value free support, they'll speak with their dollars."

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

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