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Packard Bell lends a helping hand

The company adds better support along with DVD and the Pentium II.

Packard Bell NEC has incorporated a new suite of user support software in its new line of PCs to overcome one of the company's chief problems: its reputation.

The company has been burdened with a reputation for shoddy products and poor service for years, said analysts and dealers. A lot of it, most added, was earned. Years ago, Packard Bell did not screen component suppliers well, which led to computer breakdowns, said James Staten, an analyst at Dataquest. In 1996, the company paid out $5 million to settle claims that it incorporated used parts in new computers. Support lines have been notoriously slow. Market share, said Staten, slid to 27.4 percent in the consumer segment for the first quarter this year.

And although added oversight by investor NEC has helped alleviate some of the problems, the company still has a long way to go to change its image in the public's mind.

The new software suite, which was developed internally at Packard Bell, consists of a series of wizards and help programs designed for home users. "Our main focus is to help the users prevent accidental damage," said Jack Yovanovich, product line manager at Packard Bell. "Our hold times were a bit longer than we wanted in the past.?

CyberTrio, one of the new programs, allows users to simplify the Windows 95 interface to certain "comfort levels" Yovanovich explained. CyberWarner, another program, notifies users when they are about to take a critical action, such as deleting an application, and logs a record of such actions in case calls to the support center occur later. Further enhancements make it easier for users to cure their own problems as well as prepare their queries for the support desk.

The package will first be released on the four new computers announced yesterday, according to a spokeswoman. The new computers are a 266-MHz Pentium II computer with a DVD drive for $2,499; a 233-MHz Pentium MMX machine with DVD for over $2,000; a similar DVD computer with a 200-MHz Pentium MMX chip for under $2,000; and a 200-MHz Pentium for $999.

While the new systems and software may help build the company's reputation, it still has a long, difficult road ahead. "It?s hard to live down a reputation," said Seymour Merrin, president of Merrin Information Services, a Palo Alto, California-based retail analyst. On top of that, price cuts by the rest of the industry have taken away the company's main marketing tool: lower prices. "They have to find something to get people to get off the dime and buy their products. They have a real problem."

Like consumers, dealers are wary about the company, but for different reasons. "Packard Bell is constantly a problem. The warranty is a problem. They don't pay much," said Ron Cook, president of Connecting Point, a Las Vegas reseller. Connecting Point, in fact, has dropped carrying Packard Bell products and is considering dropping its agreement to service computers from the company. "They are very difficult to deal with," he said.

Despite the quality problems, the company appears to have reached industry standards, according to Roger Kay, senior industry analyst at International Data Corporation. Rough data from retailers indicated that the return rate on Packard Bell machines was in line with the return rate from other manufacturers. "They were all in the 4 to 6 percent range," he said.

"We haven't seen this level of hand-holding at the consumer level. If Packard Bell can pick up market share, you might see others try it," said Staten.

Yovanovich further added that the company has invested approximately $100 million in call center operations since 1996. "We've got more people, better people. The average now is a two-minute hold time," he said.