by Bill Snyder

Tech Vendors Admit Service Stinks

Apr 26, 2010
Computers and PeripheralsConsumer Electronics

Sixty four percent of PC users are frustrated with the current state of tech support and customer service, new research shows. On the bright side, the top tech vendors are candidly discussing the problem. But can they take the next step and learn from Apple's example?

I almost never pay attention to industry-sponsored surveys. They’re usually self-serving and marginally accurate, at best.

But a group of technology marketers has confounded me, issuing a study that speaks directly to one of the hottest of consumer hot buttons: terrible tech support for the home and small business computer. Yes, in some ways the report stresses the obvious, and I won’t hold my breath while I wait for dramatic improvements in tech support.

Tech Vendors Behaving Badly: Support Just Gets Worse

Even so, the survey by the Council of Chief Marketing Officers (CMO) pulls few punches and acknowledges that computer owners are being driven up the wall by malfunctioning PCs and lousy tech support. “Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of consumers say their computer has caused them anxiety due in large part to frequent slowdowns and lengthy boot-up times, and more than 40 percent who use an outside computer support service are not happy with it or feel it costs too much,” says the very first sentence of a press release announcing the results.

That’s not the kind of happy talk I’m used to hearing from marketers.

Straight Talk on Support Gripes

Since every problem these days seems to be a syndrome, if not an addiction, the report talks about Computer Stress Syndrome (their caps, not mine) and lists some of the top causes:

  • “Top sources of frustration with the tech support experience are long wait times, inability to fix problems, the cost of service, and limited language skills of technicians.”
  • “Seventy-five percent are experiencing hours or more of downtime per year, and 40 percent are experiencing days or more (of downtime).”
  • “Top five impacts of computer failure include increased stress levels, interrupted work or play time, valuable lost data, dropped connections, and difficult online purchasing.”

That top bullet point is really the heart of the matter. H-P, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba and the rest, along with retail partners like Best Buy, go to great lengths to sell you a computer, but none have really figured out how to treat a customer after the credit card is swiped.

You’ll notice I didn’t include Apple in the list. A recent Forrester study on customer experience cited by the CMO group showed that only one major computer vendor had a decent satisfaction rating, and that was Apple, says Derek Kober, senior vice president of the council.

The report goes on to make this astonishingly frank statement: “Current computer vendor support solutions and models are aimed (at) minimizing support costs and after-market customer handling. Live on-site support services offered by retailers take days or weeks to schedule, are costly, and don’t fix the problem on time if at all.”

That’s exactly right. The point about minimizing support cost is key, but it’s not an altogether good vs. evil proposition. The consumer PC has become a commodity, leaving price as the major differentiating factor among various brands. That in turn has sliced profit margins; anything that makes them even smaller, including tech support, gets a fishy eye from the bean counters.

That’s not to say I’m excusing bad service, or that nothing can be done. Apple, for instance, does charge more than most PC vendors, and has been rewarded with a fanatically loyal following.

HP Struggles

If you read our sibling publications, PCWorld and InfoWorld, you know that Hewlett-Packard has had serious problems with both product quality and service for its line of consumer-focused PCs and printers. The company was at the bottom in PCWorld’s most recent reliability and service survey, and the poor showing was not just a hiccup. HP has been rated very poorly by PCWorld readers for a number of years.

There are, though, signs that the company has been listening to its angry customers.

HP recently opened a $28 million service center in Arkansas has taken other steps, including the introduction of separate phone lines for business and consumer customer service calls. “We are investing in the support space in a way that we haven’t in the past,” Jodi Schilling, vice president of America’s customer support operations for HP,” said in an interview with InfoWorld’s Gripe Line columnist Christina Tynan-Wood. You can’t do support blindly,” says Schilling. “But cost should not be the driving factor.”

Even so, HP is getting flack from customers who say they still can’t find Windows 7 drivers for their printers. I asked HP about this issue last week at a demonstration of new enterprise printing technology that included something called a universal printer driver, or UPD, that allows any enterprise printer to work with the new OS. “Is there something similar in the works for consumer printers?” I asked. Short answer: no.

I understand that consumer printers lack the intelligence to handle a UPD, and developing and testing drivers for all of HP’s home and small office printers is a tedious and expensive proposition. But leaving the products orphaned when the owners move to a new OS is not what I would call customer friendly. Yes, HP seems to be doing better, but I’d say it has a ways to go.

Indeed, the whole industry has a ways to go. The industry won’t improve customer service until it admits it has a problem. Maybe the CMO report marks the beginning of that awakening.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at