by Bill Snyder

Tech Support Hell: Ways to Avoid It

Jan 19, 2010
Computers and Peripherals

Tech support is a broken system. Low-margin products leave little room for good customer service. But you can minimize the pain.

Marylyn Tesconi, who manages a large office, takes graduate-level courses and volunteers at a local health clinic in San Francisco, has more than enough to do without spending hours on the phone trying to get her home router to work. And she certainly has no patience for techs who yell and supervisors who hang up without solving her problem.

An enterprise IT manager who spends thousands with Oracle or IBM pays to get prompt support from them. But that same person, too often, has a very different experience when trouble strikes products used at home — or at a friend or family member’s home. Like many of you, I’m often the designated help desk guy when a friend or family member has problems with a computer or related device. Generally, I lend a hand and then forget about it. But Marylyn’s unpleasant experience with Netgear’s tech support last month got me thinking about why her story is still all too common.

[For more on how tech support is failing now, see’s related story, Tech Vendors Behaving Badly: Support Just Gets Worse. ]

Poor service is never excusable. But simply put, there is a huge disconnect between the complexity of many products and their price. When a company sells a home networking router for $79, it doesn’t take many calls to tech support for the profit margin to evaporate. “If everyone who bought one of our products called tech support, we wouldn’t make any money,” says David Henry, senior director of home/consumer products for Netgear.

Henry wasn’t making excuses. The company seems genuinely concerned about the incident, although there is some of the inevitable disagreement about who said what to whom. I’m going to tell you more about what happened to Marylyn, and more importantly, give you some suggestions that will help you avoid tech-support hell.

Making a Simple Problem Difficult

When Marylyn asked me to stop by and get her home network running again, I noticed right away that her desktop PC had a working, wired Internet connection. That told me the modem was OK and the ISP was doing its job. I verified that her laptop’s Wi-Fi adapter was turned on—but there was no connectivity. I took out my iPhone and saw that it was not detecting a Wi-Fi signal in the house.

My next step: Power cycle the router, modem and laptop. Bingo. Problem solved in about 10 minutes.

Marylyn, a friend, had called me after spending two or three unsuccessful hours with Netgear telephone support. As I went through my troubleshooting routine, I asked her if the tech had her “power cycle” the system, the first and most basic step to take. Not surprisingly she didn’t know what I meant. “You know, turn stuff on and off,” I explained. He hadn’t, Marylyn replied.

What did he do? First he attempted to access the router by having her type in the IP address. Multiple attempts, but no luck. Here’s what happened next:

“I kept telling him that the system was ‘stuck’ and there was no response,” Marylyn recounted in an email. “He initially was silent to my input, but as time went on his attitude changed. Eventually he started berating me, ‘What’s wrong with you? I tell you to do something and you are doing nothing! We have been here one hour now and nothing is happening. I give you the most simple instruction and you cannot handle it. What do you want me to do?’

“I finally asked for his supervisor and waited about 10 minutes. He listened to my problem (now including the rude and unhelpful treatment by the initial tech) and then hung up on me,” she noted. A second call later that evening resulted in a lot of time on hold, a tech who unsuccessfully repeated the first tech’s measures, and a promise by Netgear to call back. The company never did.

When I first contacted Netgear, a spokeswoman asked to give the company time to investigate the incident and listen to a tape of the conversation. (Calls to tech support are routinely recorded.) Unfortunately, Henry could not find the tape, so he was unable to comment on Marylyn’s version of the call.

He did say that notes of the call (taken by the techs) indicated that one of them had asked her to power cycle the system. Marylyn disagrees. At the very least, it is clear that the techs did not make sure that the customer understood their instructions. As to their out and out rudeness, I’d say it speaks for itself. And ultimately, Netgear couldn’t solve a simple problem.

How to Lessen the Pain

Netgear, like most tech companies, outsources its consumer help desk. By all accounts, working in a call center is a difficult, low-paying job, and the staffers are under pressure to handle as many calls as possible per shift—hardly an ideal situation.

Again, there’s no excuse for rude, sub-standard service. But we’re looking at a low-margin system that only works when costs are ruthlessly squeezed out of every step from manufacturing to sales and support. Vendors could charge more, but consumers have been trained to look for bargains and expect computer-related devices to get cheaper and cheaper.

There’s no easy solution to this conundrum, but here’s what you can do. 1. Start by shopping more carefully; give as much weight to a vendor’s reputation for service and reliability as you do to price and features. There are numerous ways to get that information. PC World, InfoWorld and NetworkWorld (our sister companies), test and review hundreds of products a year, and so do their competitors.

2. When service is poor, don’t be shy: complain loudly and publicly. In today’s world of Facebook and Twitter, your opinions travel. Praise good service and note bad service. Savvy companies monitor these mediums and will often to jump in to help. At the very least, you’ll make other shoppers aware of the issues.

3. When you’re ready to buy, be honest with yourself. Do you have the expertise to set up the device you’re going to purchase? Best Buy, for example, will charge an extra $60 or so to send its Geek Squad to your home and install a Netgear router. That’s a lot to spend for a $79 item, but in some cases, these services can be worth it. Other technology providers offer similar services.

4. Find out how long you’re entitled to free telephone support. For example, if you’re buying a router and think you may add additional devices to your network, do it while you’re still covered. Netgear offers free phone support for 90 days; after that it will cost $36.50 for up to 30-minutes of help. And you’ll pay whether your issue is resolved or not, so try and have all of the relevant information (operating system, firewalls, anti-virus programs and so on) close at hand to save time. And perform the most obvious troubleshooting steps before you call.

For their part, of course, vendors have to do more than pay lip service to customer service. No one should ever have an experience like Marylyn’s. But let’s be fair. Netgear is far from the only company consigning its customers to tech-support hell. Don’t put up with it.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.