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Get Off the Phone

Vendors continue to fine-tune their support offerings, including online chat and automated diagnostic and repair tools designed to wean customers away from phone support. Breaking that habit may be difficult, however. JupiterResearch forecasts that the number of service queries handled online will double by 2012, but that the telephone will remain most users' preferred support tool.

Not everyone prefers the phone, however. Younger users, who've grown up with the Internet, prefer online over phone support, according to HP's Kahler. Roger Kay, technology analyst and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, agrees: "People really like good self-help. If they can go to a Web site and do a self-diagnosis quickly, and then download a driver or call up a diagram that shows how to install a piece of hardware, they really like that."

Help tools such as HP's Instant Care allow a technician, with the customer's permission, to take control of the computer's desktop through a broadband connection. This interactive approach is often superior to phone support, proponents say, particularly for novice users who scratch their heads when a tech adviser talks about msconfig or the printer driver. "It enhances the troubleshooting process, and takes some of those communication barriers out of the loop," says Kahler. "The agent can go in and do troubleshooting steps directly on the user's PC."

Other vendors are implementing their own automated features. For example, for the past year Dell systems have come with a support icon included on the desktop. When users click the icon, a dialog box opens, asking whether they want system information and software updates to be sent automatically to their computer. So far, "30 million people have clicked 'yes'," says Dell's Hunter. "They want that."

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