From the February 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

What computer user hasn't been faced with a major technical problem? Say your word processor keeps crashing since you upgraded to Windows 95, and you're on a tight deadline. So you call your vendor's technical support hotline--and get a busy signal for an hour. When you finally get through, you're put on hold for 45 minutes more. At last, you reach a real person--who tells you: "I'm not able to solve that problem now. Can I get back to you?" To add insult to injury, you've paid for the call.

While most vendors' technical support is somewhat better than this fictional scenario, it's not uncommon for vendors to make you wait on hold for significant periods, not provide toll-free numbers, and not have the answers you need.

Luckily, you have another option. You can get support online from the Web and from major online services, particularly CompuServe. These online support services vary from a few technical documents you can download to company technical support personnel who are often more knowledgeable than those who answer the telephone support hotlines.

Web Support

More and more vendors are increasing the scope of their Web sites to include some form of technical support. Ask your vendor what it has available, or get the company's Web address and check it out for yourself.

In most cases, you won't be able to get personal answers to specific questions--although there are some notable exceptions. Compaq (http://www.compaq.com), for example, lets you send questions directly to technical support professionals and receive responses by the end of the next business day. And Apple (http://www.apple.com) has a discussion forum where you can post questions publicly and exchange ideas with other users and Apple engineers, who provide expert help.

More frequently, vendors' Web sites provide extensive product specifications, price information, announcements and contact information. You may also be able to download drivers and other software files for your PC. Some vendors let you e-mail their technical support staff from the Web site. Some even put extensive technical information up for your perusal.

Some vendors (such as Compaq and Apple) provide a keyword- searchable database to help you find answers to your questions. Or you can look through postings of common problems and frequently asked questions from other vendors. For example, Microsoft's online support (http://www.microsoft.com/support) lets you call up files of frequently asked questions or general information about the product of your choice. With this information, you're likely to be able to solve a large percentage of problems yourself.

If you have a problem that isn't answered in any of the literature at the vendor's Web site, you can also look to third-party sources. Yahoo!, the Web's most popular search engine, is a great way to find these third-party sources. And if Yahoo! doesn't have a link to the site you want, it brings up a menu that automatically runs the same search in any of a half-dozen other search engines.

One such source is Usenet newsgroups. These discussion forums are open to the general Internet user population and are often frequented by serious users. You can post a question on a newsgroup, and one or more sophisticated users will probably post a solution.

Online Services

Although you can get a great deal of information from the Web, online services are still the richest source of technical support. And you don't have to deal with the performance problems common on the WWW (which many refer to as the World Wide Wait).

CompuServe is the best source of online help. It offers bulletin-board-service-style support forums from more than 1,000 hardware and software companies, where you can ask and get answers to your questions, as well as view questions asked by other users.

In contrast, America Online has partnerships with only 300 hardware and software vendors, and Prodigy supports only about 30 or so vendors. And even when a company has a presence on one of these services, it often does not offer the same level of support you'll find on CompuServe. For instance, some companies on the other services only offer reference material, file libraries and links to Web sites, rather than the one-on-one personal support found on CompuServe.

With CompuServe forums, you have a good chance of finding your answer among the existing postings. If not, you can ask a question yourself and generally expect a reply from a highly skilled technical support person within 24 to 48 hours. (Although vendors usually use their own employees to provide support, some forums are run by volunteers, who may not be as knowledgeable as company staffers.)

Vendor forums also provide bug reports, and they may be able to provide some customer support, like replacing a defective product or mailing a bug fix. Most forums don't charge any more than CompuServe's monthly connect charge of $9.95 for five free hours with subsequent time at $2.95 per hour, although some may add a surcharge (CompuServe also charges a premium for some services).

In addition to vendor forums, there are many other forums run by user groups, independent entrepreneurs and magazines. You can use these forums to talk with experts and exchange tips with other users. Frequently, the users you'll find here know more about a vendor's products than the vendor's support staff does, and often they are more honest about product bugs, problems and limitations.

If you can't find an answer to your question already posted in any of the vendor-sponsored or independent forums you check, it's a good idea to post your question in several forums to increase your chances of getting an answer.

Of course, there are limitations to CompuServe's support forums. Large software companies tend to offer very good support on CompuServe. But the quality of the support from smaller companies varies; while some are excellent, others simply add support to the job responsibilities of people who may be preoccupied elsewhere in the company. The quality of hardware vendor support also varies greatly.

The best way to judge the quality of a forum's online support is to see for yourself. Scroll through the responses to previous users' questions; if there are a lot of questions posted a week or more ago which still remain unanswered, then you know you won't find much help there.

If you get nowhere with your vendor, another option is to go to CompuServe's PC Hardware and PC Communications forums (go PCHW and go PCCOM), where you'll find a high level of expertise.

Compuserve Support

To find your vendor's forum, simply choose the CompuServe Directory from the Help menu, then search for the vendor's name. Larger vendors may have multiple forums; smaller ones may share forums with vendors of similar products. Once you find what you're looking for, click on the name of the vendor or area, then click on the "Service:" text (a highlighted hyperlink), and WinCIM will take you directly to that forum.

If you can't find your vendor or want to use an independent forum, use the Services/Find command, which will search a database of keywords and display a list of matches. If you still come up empty-handed, try the Support Directory (go SUPPORT). While it contains most of the same information as the Find database, it is compiled separately and updated on a different schedule, so it may turn up different responses.

To create a message to post specifically to a forum, compose it by using the Message/Create Forum Message command in the Mail section of WinCIM. Make sure you select the correct forum and also the right message section within the forum. If you're creating more than one message, save each one to the Outbox. Then, when you're ready to send them, open the Outbox, select each message in turn and click on Send. (Send All only works with e-mail.)

Sure, it may seem more natural to pick up the phone to get help for a pressing hardware or software question than to send a message. But given the realities of accessing many tech support hotlines, online support can be a helpful alternative for getting the answers to your technical questions.

Cheryl J. Goldberg is a former editor of PC Magazine and has reported on the computer industry for more than 14 years. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA, 92614. You can also reach her via Compuserve at 70641.3632@compuserve.com.

Contact Sources

America Online Inc., 22000 AOL Wy., Dulles, VA 20166, (703) 448-8700;

Apple Computer, (800) 538-9696;

Compaq Computer Corp., 20555 State Hwy. 249, Houston, TX 77070, (713) 514-0484;

CompuServe, (800) 848-8199;

Prodigy Inc., 445 Hamilton Ave., White Plains, NY 10601, (800) PRODIGY.