Help Can Be Painful

Customer dissatisfaction with service is growing.

My recent decision to upgrade a couple of home PCs came at the same time as a Consumer Reports survey was released showing increased frustration with the telephone support lines at software manufacturers. I knew immediately how not to join the ranks of the frustrated. No matter how grim the upgrade march, I know the one step you never want to take is to dial for help. It is far better to drive all your co-workers and computer pals nuts than to start dialing. The upgrade problem was of my own making. I had one computer still running (or rather, not running) Windows ME. Over time and despite lots of patches and lame promises to get around to the upgrade, I had let the system slip into that pitiful state where you can only boot to the computers BIOS. Another system was running XP, but—again, it was my own fault—I had installed it with another Micro-

soft operating system rather than reformatting the drive. And like so many other situations requiring a service call, both systems went into their final death throes on a Saturday night.

The Consumer Reports survey found widespread dissatisfaction with the service offered by software vendors. The survey, according to a CNN report, estimated that of the nearly 8 million computer users who seek technical support from software manufacturers, nearly a third never get the help they need. This puts the quality of service squarely between the twin evils of cell phone service and cable television service. I suppose the only service thats worse would be from a government organization—such as the IRS—which you know will cost you money and will probably be faulty as well.

While the report on customer dissatisfaction rounds up the usual culprits, including budget cutbacks on service desks, offshore outsourcing of service and online help menus that take you into a maze of helplessness, I suspect there is more at play here. Moreover, Id say that with the proliferation of viruses, the avalanche of spam and the rise of high-speed connections that permit fast downloads, software makers cant outpace the problems unless radical changes are made in system design. As software is under the dual assaults of lower budgets and higher-grade attacks, it becomes more unreliable—which generates more calls and more frustration.

I had a chance to think about these issues as my system upgrades to two new versions of XP cranked away. Of course, I have access to the smart people at eWEEK Labs, who can send me out for coffee and cookies while they do the real work. In the end, I had two systems ready to once again take on the forces of teenagers and broadband access. Im curious to see how long the systems will run this time before faltering. My attempt to include one disk partition for Lindows was not successful, but I have not given up on that one yet. I am a believer in systems such as Lindows WebStation, not because it is inexpensive but because it secures the operating system against viruses and other problems.

When I asked members of our Corporate Partner Advisory Board if they think software is getting generally more unreliable, the answer was yes. "I do believe that, generally, releases of software are less reliable. Software manufacturers are under intense pressure from competitors, Wall Street and their own customers to enhance and expand their product offerings. Releases are too frequent and, as a result, not tested well enough, and many times the first set of fixes creates more problems than those in the original release," said Carol Knouse, senior vice president and CIO of Donna Karan International.

"As a user, I now am aware of the time of day that I call support in order to get a feel for whether I will be speaking to the outsourced or in-sourced portion of the help desk. I usually have more confidence in the responses from in-sourced technical support, with perceived quicker access to Level 2 when needed," said Kevin Wilson, manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy.

In the end, I think it will be up to hardware vendors to develop systems that can outwit software bugs. When that happens, Ill be the first to thank them for relieving me of the Saturday evening service calls.

Eric Lundquist can be reached at