Why So Bad, HP?
For two years now, Hewlett-Packard has fared the worst in our survey. So what is HP doing to fix things? One effort involves shortening hold times for phone support. Specifically, HP strives to answer 80 percent of support calls in 3 minutes or less. In addition, it's reworking its automated call system to ask customers fewer questions before connecting them to an agent. The new call system will be rolled out this spring. "We think it'll make a big difference in customers' experience when they contact us," says HP's Schilling. In our survey, PCW readers were especially unhappy with HP's hold times for calls related to desktop PCs and printers. They expressed general dissatisfaction with HP's overall customer support for printers, notebooks, and desktop PCs.
HP points out that it has also recently upgraded its online support forums to make it easier for owners of its products to help each other. HP computer users, for instance, can click a link from the Windows desktop and go directly to an online community that the company maintains; there they can post questions or browse a variety of topics. "It's a one-to-many support vehicle, as opposed to self-support or the one-to-one support that you get when talking to a single individual," says Brent Potts, who manages HP's online support.
Analysts are skeptical about such initiatives, however. "Community support always works well for people who really know what they're doing. But for the masses, it may not be a great option," says Healey. HP counters this criticism by arguing that younger users are more likely than older users to try support forums. "The younger generation typically has a very strong willingness to hear from other users, and to explore what they have to say," says Potts, who adds that baby boomers often prefer talking with a company representative.
To be fair, there are a lot of perfectly happy HP customers, too, such as Malcolm Leonard Jr. and his wife. The couple divide their time between Arizona's White Mountains in the summer and Tucson in the winter. They own three HP desktop PCs, two of which have an HP Pocket Media Drive bay, which holds a portable USB hard disk. "When I move, I take the drive with me," says Leonard, who adds that the portable disk is considerably easier to carry around than a separate notebook. And though Leonard owns a lot of HP hardware, he says that he has had to call tech support only one time--and that was just for a minor Windows problem that HP fixed quickly.
What the Future Holds
Today's typical home computer resembles an air-traffic control tower that is responsible for regulating a growing number of associated tech devices, including printers, MP3 players, digital cameras, and routers. "It's really a portal into the broadband-connected world," says IDC's Healey. Unfortunately the growing level of complexity poses problems for traditional computer vendors and their support staff. They're willing--though not always able--to fix a notebook or desktop problem, but not a home-networking glitch that involves, say, a Wi-Fi router and a printer. "The device manufacturer says, ‘Oh, wait, we don't do home networking. We're just a PC provider. We make the box.'" Healey adds.
As a result, other companies are filling the void by offering home tech support--for a price. In-home service visits from traveling techies employed by the likes of Geek Squad and Firedog have been around for years, but they can be prohibitively expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars for a single visit. New players in this space include Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, both of which offer fee-based phone support. The AT&T ConnecTech service, for instance, charges $20 a month to diagnose and fix computer hardware, software, peripheral, and networking troubles. Support calls are limited to 20 minutes, however.
Will customers agree to pay for such service? Yes, according to IDC's recent consumer support study. "Tech support was the second highest application that consumers are willing to pay for," says Healey. A typical subscriber might have to schedule around a "high-pressure, high-paying job," he says. "They come home and have the 13-year-old screaming at them that they're not doing their homework because the computer is broken. Their BlackBerry is getting pinged by their boss, who needs an assignment done by tomorrow. And they just don't have time to fix the computer."
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."