Six months ago I purchased a pretty spiffy Dell desktop to complement my trusty Compaq Armada laptop (that just keeps going and going). I listened to the on-hold voice tell me over and over again that I could just go to Dell.com for technical support, since the scripts that the organic technical support team used to troubleshoot problems were the same scripts that the digital technical support team used.
This advice struck me as peculiar: If I could really get the answers I needed from the Web, then why was Dell spending so much money frustrating me with 800-number support? Was the voice implying that I was an idiot to actually want to speak with someone? I bounced from service rep to service rep, ending with a (live) Dell support professional telling me that she did not know how to solve my problem. (My DVD player quits every time I try to play a DVD -- not exactly a world-class problem.*) She walked me through the troubleshooting scripts, we reinstalled drivers, etc., but nothing worked.
What I experienced was the worst of all worlds. After several hours of Christmas music, and after being re-routed five times, it occurred to me that maybe we haven't come all that far -- at least in the computer industry -- with customer service. This assessment was punctuated by my being told that if the problem was a software problem, I would be charged a fee for the help -- even though I paid for three years of support (learning during the service experience that my warranty only covered hardware) -- or I could call the software manufacturer myself to discuss my problem.
That experience with Dell was re-defined after an experience with the Nordstrom retail chain. I find it hard to imagine a Nordstrom service representative telling me that I had to contact the manufacturer of the shirt whose sleeves were falling off because Nordstrom only supports the boxes in which the shirts are sold -- or if I wanted the shirt repaired or replaced, I'd have to pay an additional fee or take a trip abroad to solve my problem. If you've shopped at Nordstrom you know that there's essentially nothing they cannot do for you: the customer is -- literally -- always right.
Do you pay more for this service? Of course. Truly excellent service is embedded in the purchase price, and for those who want to make the price/service trade-off, the rewards are clear. Dell, of course, is not the only vendor whose "support" is far from perfect. In fact, given that Dell (and other hardware and software vendors) worries more about being cheap than supported, when one buys a Dell one should expect to receive the same service as one would receive at K-Mart or Wal-Mart, since these chains are often the low-cost retail provider. It would cost Dell -- and therefore us -- way too much to provide Nordstrom-like support at K-Mart, or any retail chain that guarantees low prices every day.
So how should the industry deal with complexity, support ambiguities, ineffective customer service and service loopholes? As a customer, I think it's simple: So long as desktop and laptop operating systems and applications software is so complex, the product of so many different vendors, and subject to so many failures and conflicts, whoever sells the (hardware + software) system should be responsible for supporting what they sell. They should not be able to point a finger somewhere else, charge for fixing problems that are bundled in their own branded boxes, or cut customers loose to solve problems on their own. Is there another retail industry that treats its customers this way? Only the low-cost ones. So what do we want? Cheap prices or great support? Yes.
All of this explains why desktop/laptop support is one of the fastest-growing outsourcing targets and why technology consultants for personal residences are popping up all over the place. We all need more help with less headaches. If I manufactured the hardware and software, I'd try to interrupt these trends; I'd try to own my customers. How about a little CRM? Maybe Nordstrom has the bar too high. How about JC Penny?
* I subsequently posted a message to a community board only to discover that lots of people have the same problem; I got some good tips on how to solve the problem from perfect strangers who were happy to receive a "thank you" as payment for their services. Maybe they worked for Nordstrom during the day...