Help Line

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.

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This article was originally published in the February 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Help Line.

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