Packard Bell recently sent me an impressive new computer to review, but before I could finish my evaluation, the monitor died. That alone is no reason to knock the machine; these things happen, and the monitor was covered under the warranty. But when I called Packard Bell's technical support, I got nothing but busy signals in 35 attempts over five days before finally reaching the company. What good is a warranty if you can't get through?
Unfortunately, although Packard Bell is worse than many, this kind of experience is not the exception but the rule. The personal computer industry does a terrible job supporting and servicing the products it sells; just about anyone with a PC has some kind of horror story about interminable waits on help lines, finger-pointing among hardware and software companies and arcane technical problems that come to seem entirely insoluble.
Of course, privileged folk like computer columnists don't have to expose themselves to these sordid realities: When I called Packard Bell's public relations agency, they were quick to offer a replacement monitor, but I wanted to find out how paying customers are treated. So they offered a few suggestions: Send an e-mail message to tech support; check the company's World Wide Web site; try plugging the monitor into another PC to see if it would work. All fine and dandy--if you happen to have another working computer around the house.
They also proposed calling tech support late at night, so I did that and kept calling until finally, at 10:45 p.m. Pacific time, I got through to a recording instead of a busy signal. A machine asked me to enter my 10-digit serial number and then made me wade through eight minutes of voice menus and push 10 phone buttons while it took me through obligatory interactive diagnostics culminating with the advice: "Be sure that the monitor is plugged into a working power outlet. . . ." Duh.
Finally, it put me into a hold queue for a real person. Every minute or so, I'd hear an authoritative recorded voice telling me: "Someone will be with you shortly"; "Sorry to keep you waiting; we'll be right with you"; or, most irritatingly, "Your call is important to us. . . ." Right.
At 11:30 p.m., a real person came on the phone. He asked me for my serial number and a manufacturer's number from the back of the machine--which I couldn't find--and for two numbers on the back of the monitor. After a few more questions and several more minutes on hold, he concluded that I needed a repair and transferred me to a customer service operator to set me up for service. That process took until midnight and ended with the promise that I would get a call within three business days to schedule an on-site repair. My column deadline couldn't wait three days, so I can't yet report the end of the story.
At least I didn't have to pay to speak with Packard Bell's tech support. Making a quick survey of the field, I called Compaq's technical support line and listened to a recording tell me that I would have to pay $35 to talk to a technician or call a 900 number for $2 a minute. (A spokesperson says they won't charge if the question is about the hardware.)
I had better luck with Dell, which offers free technical support on hardware and software. I got through on the first call and was told by a machine that I would have to hold for 10 to 15 minutes--much better than a busy signal or indefinite hold. It took only about three minutes for me to reach Apple's tech support in the middle of the business day. Gateway, Micron and AST took a bit longer, but I did get through and the support is free--provided that it is indeed a problem with their hardware or software.
Until things get better, users are going to have to fend for themselves, so here are a few survival tips. First, be sure you've read the manual and checked the help files; I'm not letting companies off the hook, but the more people who can answer their own questions, the freer the lines will be for those of us who are truly befuddled.
If you're having trouble getting through, try calling late at night or early in the morning. Most major firms offer 24-hour support. If you still can't get through, call sales or customer service: They might have a better number, or be able to have a technician call you back. You can also try sending a fax to tech support and, if they don't get back to you, send one to the company president. A friend of mine got action from a company by sending a fax to its legal counsel threatening to sue and depose the officers.
Online forums, especially on CompuServe, are often very helpful. Not only can you exchange messages with company staff members, you can also find fellow users, who are often even more helpful. You can usually find support information on the company's World Wide Web site. The addresses typically begin with "www" followed by the company name and .com, as in http://www.packardbell.com