From the November 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Who hasn't had some nightmarish experience dealing with a technology vendor? Maybe you've purchased a PC and had to wait on hold for what seemed like an eternity to fix a problem. Or maybe you've experienced some software glitch and the only way the techie at your Internet service provider (ISP) wanted to deal with you was through e-mail.

Yet while we've become accustomed to grumbling about poor treatment from PC vendors, software companies and ISPs, there are forces changing all that. Industry insiders say that as the PC and software industries mature, customer service is becoming more important. And as competition continues to heat up among ISPs, some believe customers will make their choices based on reliability and service rather than on price. The bottom line: Customer service is dramatically improving, which means you should begin to expect more from these companies.

A surprising factor contributing to improved customer service among PC vendors is what Elena Christopher, industry analyst at Westborough, Massachusetts, research firm Dataquest, calls the "warranty take-back trend." While three-year warranties were commonplace just a few years ago, one-year warranties are now standard. Likewise, within the last year most hardware companies, including Compaq, IBM, Dell and Hewlett Packard, have moved from free lifetime technical support to a 30- to 90-day start-up period--and then charge for follow-up support at an average of $32 per incident. With customers now paying for support, says Christopher, PC vendors are feeling the pressure to provide higher-quality service.

"While the warranty take-back trend may initially come across as negative, in the long term it's going to place a focus on quality rather than quantity," insists Christopher. "If fees are going to be charged, it's absolutely fair for customers to demand enhanced quality."

Similarly, while lengthy waits on tech support lines have long been the norm, many are taking steps to upgrade their services. According to Dataquest, which reports PC users placed some 200 million calls to ask software questions in the past year, the industry has reduced the average time on hold by 25 percent, to about three minutes.

In addition to phone support, some companies are providing additional support via the Internet and fax-back. But here, Christopher contends, consumers aren't holding up their end of the bargain. About 70 percent of end-users say they "always" use the telephone for service and support, leaving a small portion who use electronic options.

"If the goal is to get your questions answered as soon as possible, [electronic support] is a means to do so yourself," Christopher says. "You get instant access and no time on hold. It's a way to get free support that should be taken advantage of more often."

Supporting Role

If you have a burning computer question and tech support is nowhere to be found, let your fingers do the walking through the Tech Support Yellow Pages (CyberMedia). The book offers contact information for more than 2,000 software, hardware and service companies to call with inquiries about how to use your business's various computer products and software programs. What's more, the Tech Support Yellow Pages contains listings for approximately 500 user groups you can get involved with around the country.

For those who prefer staying away from the phone lines, this 300-page guide also comes bundled with a CD-ROM version. Users with existing Internet connections can use the Yellow Pages on CD-ROM to access software and hardware companies' World Wide Web sites, pose questions and get help trouble-shooting online. Cost: $19.95.

Contact Sources

Sprint, Business Solutions Center, (800) 407-7434;

CyberMedia, 3000 Ocean Park Ave., #2001, Santa Monica, CA 90405, (310) 581-4700;

Dataquest, 9 Technology Dr., P.O. Box 5093, Westborough, MA 01581, (508) 871-5000.