Technical support is closely related to warranty coverage, but they're not exactly the same. The warranty protects you against defective equipment, but tech support also includes help and advice about installing and using your computer's hardware and software. Even if the computer never requires any repairs, you still want access to a reliable source of support.
Finding decent support is an important part of deciding where to buy your computer. Bad technical support can often be worse than none at all.
It might be difficult to evaluate the quality of a computer supplier's technical support before you buy, but it's worth the effort. Ask friends and colleagues about their experiences and use the Internet to find other owners' reports.
For most users, the first line of technical support is not the official support center provided by a computer company; it's that informal network of friends, relatives, and co-workers who know about computers and who answer questions and offer advice. It might be the Help Desk or IT department that provides support for your business. Don't forget about those people when you're choosing a new computer. Although it's true that most computers have similar designs, your personal technology advisor's experience with a particular combination of hardware and software makes it easier for him or her to help when you have a simple question or a more serious problem.
In a business or other organization that uses a lot of computers, the in-house support group probably keeps a small inventory of spare parts for quick repairs. If you depend on a friend or a relative for that kind of support, he or she probably has a junk box full of odd parts that can keep you going when something goes wrong. Either way, it's often a good idea to adopt one or two makes and models as a standard system. When a part fails, it's often convenient to install an existing spare and restore the computer to service without the need to send the bad one back to the service center and wait for the replacement to arrive.
When you're looking for a laptop computer, it's even more important to talk with your resident computer guru before you make a selection. Each make of laptop uses somewhat different keyboard layouts, special features, and controls, and each comes with a different set of bundled software. Somebody whose experience is limited to Hewlett-Packard or Dell laptops might not be able to offer as much help after you buy an Acer or a Sony.
And don't overlook the value of appealing to your friendly expert's ego by asking for advice before you get into trouble, rather than after you're knee-deep in digital quicksand. When your advisors encourage you to buy a particular computer make and model, they might feel an obligation to justify that recommendation by continuing to help keep the computer working properly.
When your local support system can't help you, it's time to move on to the official technical support centers provided by the builder of your computer and the companies that supplied individual parts and software. Some support centers accept questions by telephone, but others insist that you send your questions through e-mail.
A good telephone support center answers most incoming calls within a minute or less and connects callers to helpful agents and technicians who have been trained to recognize common problems and to use a knowledge base and other resources to find answers to more obscure questions. If you have consistently good experiences with a company's technical support services, you should seriously consider rewarding them with your repeat business.
On the other hand, a bad support center can be a nightmare for callers and a hellhole for the people working there. Fortunately, stories about such places circulate quickly through the Internet and in magazines. To find them, run a Web search for the name of the company with the words "review" and "support." If you discover that a company has a reputation for terrible technical support, don't buy its products.
If your computer comes with an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version of Windows, you have to call the computer maker for Windows support. Microsoft won't take your calls. This is not as bad as it sounds, because the tech support of brand-name-computer makers should have the same kind of training and access to the same information resources as the people you reach when you call Microsoft directly.
Evaluating the quality of a computer company's support operation is a subjective process that can be extremely difficult before you have a problem. In many cases, the best you can do is talk to friends, colleagues, and other experts and look on the Internet for a pattern of praise or horror stories about a particular company (but don't become overly concerned about one or two complaints among dozens of positive reports. Everybody's entitled to a bad day). If this is not the first time you have purchased a computer, remember your previous support experiences; if a company has been especially helpful, you should encourage them with more business.
Your new computer's warranty should include free access to technical support for at least the first year. After that, some companies continue to offer free support, and others charge a per-incident or per-minute fee. Although it would seem that every manufacturer really ought to provide unlimited free service for the life of their products, it does cost money to keep a support center going, and it's reasonable to pass that cost to the people who choose to call for help rather than reading the manual or searching the company's Web site. Because the alternative is to increase the cost of the product to all users, there is some logic to this approach.
Many companies that charge for service calls after the warranty period is over waive the cost if you're calling about a problem that is their fault (such as a bug in a software upgrade). If you think you're being unfairly charged, it never hurts to ask for free service.
After the warranty has expired, you don't have to go to the computer builder's support center for help. If you're willing to pay, many independent service and support businesses are happy to answer your questions. If necessary, they might either send a service person to your home or office or accept walk-in customers at their local service center. Sometimes, these are the very same businesses that the computer makers use to provide on-site warranty service.
If your business has an assortment of computer equipment made by several different companies, an independent service center might be the best way to maintain your entire fleet. You don't have to worry about knowing which company to call for each system because the same people can fix any of them. You might save some money with a single service contract that covers all of them, because the repair folks can often combine calls for service on different brands into a single trip.
One sign of a less-than-great technical support center is an inadequate number of telephone lines and staff to answer the calls. Most of the time, you should expect to reach a live support person within a minute or two. A support center that consistently forces callers to wait 15 minutes or more on hold (with or without a reassuring "your call is important to us …" message) does not deserve your business.
There are some exceptions. Certain days and times are busier than others at a support center, so you might have to wait longer on a Monday morning than a mid-week afternoon. But if it seems as though you can never get through to somebody without a long wait, the company you're trying to call has a serious problem.
Look for a computer company that stands behind their product with helpful support people. Excellent support and service is worth the extra cost it might add to the price of a new computer.
Working in customer support can be a rewarding and satisfying job if you enjoy helping people solve problems. Good technicians in a support center run by a company that believes in real customer service spend as much time as it takes to answer a question or solve a problem. They might even call or e-mail a day or two later to make sure the problem didn't reappear.
But many companies look upon their support operations purely as an unfortunate expense and an opportunity to reduce overhead instead of an opportunity to build good relationships with their customers. It's a lot faster to tell a caller to reformat a hard drive and reinstall Windows, instead of searching the Windows Knowledge Base (Microsoft's set of articles about known problems) to identify the real source of a problem and explain how to edit the Registry or install a new device driver to fix it. If they can convince the caller to order a $150 replacement for a motherboard or some other expensive part (with a big built-in profit) instead of searching for a loose connector, that's even better.
Working in one of those places is no fun at all. These are the support centers that tell their agents to work from a one-answer-fits-all-problems script, regardless of what the caller really needs. It's not fair to blame the people who give you bad support because they're also victims of their employers' poor attitude. But if possible, you should find a way to avoid dealing with those companies.
Most computer companies and their suppliers offer information on Web sites and accept questions by e-mail as alternatives to live telephone support. By offering answers to frequently asked questions and public forums where you can read about other users' problems, companies can often supply useful information without the need to devote as much staff time and other resources to accepting telephone calls.
It's worth the time to explore a computer maker's online support services before you decide to buy anything from them. It's a very good sign if it appears that they are committed to providing as much information as possible in clear and easy-to-understand form. If there's an enthusiastic community of individual users who contribute to the support forums or news groups, you have probably found a company that takes good care of its customers.
But don't limit yourself to the official company Web sites. Many other Web sites are maintained by independent groups and self-appointed experts. On these sites, users share hints and tips without the filter that a company site might apply when irate customers turn against them. A Web search for a particular make and model number can often find pointers to both official and independent sources of helpful information.
Many companies prefer to receive questions from users via e-mail rather than by telephone. From the support center's point of view, e-mail is a much more efficient way to provide support because it allows them to let messages stack up without a customer tying up a telephone line. And a support technician can send the user a prepared answer without the need to talk them through a complicated procedure; while the user is trying the suggested fix, the tech can respond to several other questions from other people. Because a support center can handle several e-mail questions at the same time, many companies offer free support by e-mail, even if they charge for telephone calls.
A cost-effective e-mail support center may make sense for a computer maker, but it's not always in their customers' best interest. Some companies treat their e-mail support addresses as some kind of electronic black hole, where requests for help often disappear without a trace. Others can take several days to send a reply. Still others might reply quickly, but their answers don't contain any useful information. "This information is covered in your User's Manual" or "This is a known problem. We will fix it in a future release" is not what you want to hear from a support technician.
Finger-pointing is another common method that computer support centers can use to avoid solving a user's problem. Whenever a customer calls with a new and difficult-to-fix problem, the support person tells you that it's not the support center's fault. If you're talking to a hardware company, they might blame it on the software. If they're a software developer, it must be a hardware problem. Or they might tell you that using the computer with a plug-in card they haven't approved cancels the warranty. Sometimes this is legitimate, but more often it's just a way to get you to go away and take your problem with you.
Computers are complex assemblies of hardware and software produced by several different suppliers. Your computer might have been assembled by Dell or Gateway, but it contains a motherboard made by a company based in Taiwan, with a video card from Malaysia, and a Korean monitor. The Windows operating system came from Microsoft in the suburbs of Seattle, and other software was produced by three different companies in California and by some shareware places you found on the Internet. When something goes wrong, it's not always easy to know exactly which component caused the problem, but you have to start someplace. The computer is still under warranty, so you call the computer maker's support center. Eventually, you reach an expert at fixing your particular make and model of computer. But they don't recognize the problem you describe, and there's nothing in this month's list of known problems. So they blame it on somebody else.
Don't let them get away with this. While it's true that every support center receives calls requesting help for somebody else's product, you shouldn't feel like the technician is just trying to get rid of you. Computers are supposed to work with a wide variety of hardware and software. If you have found a product that is not compatible with your computer (which is possible), a good support center wants to know about it. That way, they can either work with the other company involved to find a way to fix the problem or warn other users away from the offending program or gadget.
Once again, if you discover that a company has a reputation for frequent finger-pointing, you want to look elsewhere for your new computer.