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The Goods

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Part technicians, part psychologists, computer help lines try to get you past the potholes on the information superhighway.

February 13, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The problem in a nutshell: Even "E-Z" to use computers are often contrary, with the promised customer help lines sometimes worse, busy, slow to respond, unhelpful. So embattled have the latter become that last week customers of Leading Edge Products, in an unprecedented action, sued the computer maker in New York state court for inadequate help desk product support, alleging breach of contract.

Americans are expected to call computer help desks 200 million times this year--nearly twice as often as four years ago. The average call, said Bob Johnson, spokesman for Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, takes about 13 minutes (nearly two minutes longer than last year).

If one of those "friendly" 800 numbers isn't already in your life, it probably soon will be. And it usually isn't fun and games on either side of the line. "You're always seemingly talking to a person in crisis, who may not have the best phone manners in the world," Johnson said. "So, you have to be part psychologist, part physician, part researcher and part soothsayer." The result: a turnover rate ranging up to 40%.

In addition, most software companies support only their own programs, said Roger Coyro, president of ActionTrac. Since many computers use a mix of softwares, callers often find themselves shuttled from department to department, from company to company in a frustrating effort to find just where a problem lies.

Sensing a business opportunity in this, Coyro has brought the concept of one-stop shopping to the help desk industry, part of a fledgling way of dispensing support. Coyro claims his staff will advise you on how to get a computer up and running no matter what the problem. Fees start at $190 per individual user for unlimited help over a year.

The small company, based in Lancaster, now fields calls 24 hours a day from around the world. Amid all the phone-ringing brouhaha sits call supervisor Anita Harvell, a picture of calm. And calmness is essential, for the technical solutions to evermore complex programs are not always obvious, even to her. It recently took her two days to copy a seemingly simple file from one program to another, she admits.

Still, she said, the greatest challenges her staff runs into are psychological, with more than one caller sure that both his hard disk and his life as a civilized human being will surely crash should he strike the wrong key.

"The most important thing is to help calm a caller and focus him on his problem," she said. "I realize that they're not listening to me; they're still racing way ahead. So I tell them to hit, say, the enter button, and then I ask them what they did. And we're on our way to resolving the problem."

Grade-schoolers tend to be much more at ease than adults, said support specialist Judi Minnerly. Typical was a call from an 8-year-old with a computer game problem. When Minnerly asked where his parents were, she heard the boy's mother tell him he had broken the game, she wouldn't get on the line and he would fix it. With Minnerly's help, he did.

Inadequately tested software packages present major problems, she said. While each program may work fine by itself, together they can feed off each other in a cyber equivalent of spontaneous combustion.

Such was the problem when a retail chain recently had a promotion giving away a free 10-pack of software games with every computer. Not only did the games turn out to be incompatible, but some even reconfigured the hard disk, permanently turning off the sound.

A current Compaq model, Minnerly said, features a built-in speakerphone. Although the user can hear a caller, the caller can't hear the user. "I called, and they didn't even acknowledge they had a problem," she said. (Compaq declined comment to The Times).

Similarly, she said, many Windows 95 users received an error message when they tried to use a printer. The manufacturer had not told users that the $6 cable between the computer and printer needed to be upgraded for the program.

(According to a customer satisfaction survey in the March issue of PC World magazine, Apple and Compaq computers rate best and second best in both product reliability and technical support services.)

In between calls, Kelly Marriott empathizes with his callers' chagrin. Recently, he, too, had a problem accessing a part of the Internet. "I had two programs which did the same thing, one supposedly better than the other." But even after weeks of effort, "I couldn't get the more advanced program to work." Did he consult anyone? "I didn't want to admit I couldn't solve the problem," he said sheepishly.

So? "I went back to the early version." Sometimes, he said, the best way to deal with a contrary computer program is simply to circumvent it.

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