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What's the fix for frustrating tech support? Dell offers premium support at a price; some PC owners go to independent vendors

Calling tech support can be an aggravating experience for a computer owner.

The banal hold music. The endless automated menus. The struggle to explain the problem to someone who may not speak English as a first language.

"I don't feel I was acknowledged. I feel I was discounted," Joyce Gibbons, a Toronto resident shopping at the Walden Galleria, said of her tech-support calls. "I did not speak the language of the computer."

Now at least one large company, Dell Inc., is responding by making significant changes to how it offers technical support.

Dell computer owners willing to pay extra are assured of getting a "North American" tech support person when they call the manufacturer for help.

"It's a great opportunity for people who have a number of Dell devices under warranty," Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman said. "We can help you resolve any issues that come up during the life of the contract."

But key questions remain. Will people pay for something they've gotten all these years for free? And will the moves ultimately improve the service experience for consumers?

"I, as a consumer, may want to see that this job stays in the U.S. But am I willing to pay for it?" said Arun K. Jain, a University at Buffalo marketing professor. "We want it bothways."

Good, bad or ugly, just about everyone has a tech-support story.

Gibbons didn't get any technical support when she called MDG Computers Canada, the company that made her desktop, last fall after she had a problem with the device.

The retired Bell Canada service rep got some aid at an MDG retail store, but doesn't like how the company treated her.

"You're a number," she said.

So why does the process of fixing computer problems generate so many problems itself?

For many manufacturers, customer service is a low priority that doesn't drive consumers' purchasing decisions and that potentially can cut into their profits, experts said.

"Companies have sought cheaper and cheaper ways to provide support, and the cost has gone down but the experience has suffered as well," said John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research with the Service & Support Professionals Association, a trade group based in San Diego.

It's hard to hire good tech-support workers in this country, UB's Jain said, because people with technical expertise can earn more in other jobs.

Companies often provide their tech-support reps with a script to follow. If the problem doesn't fit what's on the script, the rep often can't help.

The sense of exasperation has only increased as manufacturers have moved some of their customer service operations to India, the Philippines and -- in recent years -- South America.

Companies that outsource this work can save 25 percent to 30 percent over doing the work in-house -- more if the work is sent offshore, said Gartner, an information technology research and consulting firm.

India is a popular destination because technically knowledgeable workers are plentiful and relatively cheap.

Some companies encourage their Indian workers to use American-sounding nicknames, or to make Web-assisted references to the caller's local weather, but the accent remains.

"A lot of times if you call those places, it's hard to understand," said Adam Lundstrom, a college student in Buffalo.

Jain and others defend Indian tech-support workers, saying the employees understand computers fairly well and work hard under stressful conditions.

"I work with a lot of high-quality outsourcers, who deliver just as good service in India as they do in the U.S.," said Ragsdale of the industry association.

Still, there's been a backlash against outsourcing, with complaints and poor reviews.

A 2008 survey by the CFI Group found callers gave an average satisfaction score of 59 to offshore call centers -- 16 points lower than the average score given to domestic call centers.

"One thing that is basically very clear is that tech support is not just about technical skills. It's a very communication-intense service," said Rajiv Kishore, an associate professor in UB's School of Management.

>Get help elsewhere

In response, many consumers turned to Best Buy's "Geek Squad," locally based repair shops to fix their computers or other outlets for help.

Elaine Pauly of Elma was having trouble playing a DVD on her Dell laptop, so the small-business owner took it to Best Buy. It took two visits, but the "Geeks" fixed her problem.

"No way would I call Dell. You get into Dell Hell," she said. "I love my Geeks."

When Kate Holzemer didn't feel she was getting a solution from the Apple Store's Genius Bar, she went into an Internet chat room popular with fans of Apple products and got help.

"I very explicitly explained the problem and asked for explicit, step-by-step instructions on how to fix it," said Holzemer, a blogger who plays viola for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. "Within 10 minutes, a guy -- I didn't know where he was -- he basically spent an hour with me on this message board."

Jon Rosen said his computer-repair company gets a lot of business from people who have had bad service experiences.

"Many or most computer problems aren't effectively solved over the phone" said Rosen.

The owner of Jon Rosen Systems of Snyder limits his company's phone-based support to 3 to 5 minutes, generally.

Any longer, and callers have to bring in their computer or Rosen's technicians can install software that allows for remote access to the machine.

The manufacturers say they hear their customers, and are responding with innovations such as Dell's Your Tech Team.

Under this new policy, callers who are willing to pay for the privilege are guaranteed to receive help from a "North American" support person and are promised a short wait time.

The service costs $99 for one year with a new Dell system -- less for each additional year -- or $149 for one year if you already own a Dell system. A one-month trial is $49.

"One of the things that we pride ourselves on is listening to customers, and we're trying to offer customers a wide range of choice when it comes to support," said Dell's Kaufman.

>Repatriating

Other companies in the United States and the United Kingdom also are moving technical support operations back home, or are considering doing this.

Analysts point to lower attrition rates at call centers in the home countries, and say savings from offshored support can be offset by lost unhappy customers.

Kishore noted that the cost of doing this work in India is rising, while the cost of doing it in the United States is falling.

In this country, AT&T announced in 2006 that it was returning call-center work to this country. And Jitterbug, a cell-phone company aimed at older customers, touts in online and TV ads that its operators are located in the United States.

Some companies, notably JetBlue, are hiring Americans who work out of their homes to perform customer service. Other firms are using voice-recognition programs to handle some initial contact with callers.

"I think there are a variety of things companies are looking at to say how do we make the customer experience better?" said Lyn Kramer, managing director and founder of Kramer & Associates, call-center consultants.

Dell's Kaufman said the Your Tech Team initiative grew out of a pilot project last year.

He said the program has proven popular since its launch, though he declined to say how many have signed up for it.

Not everyone is sold.

"I would not pay extra for it. Not when other people are doing it for free," said Robert Girvin, of the Cleveland area, who was shopping at the Galleria.

"I'd like to go to the store where I bought it and have them take care of it," Girvin said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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