Starting in September, some customers who want telephone help from Microsoft are going to have to pay for it.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant today announced it will start to charge for some of the product support that, to date, has been free. Customers, for instance, will get free support with Microsoft Office for only two "incidents," or problems, starting Sept. 14. An incident can involve multiple phone calls. Currently, Microsoft gives Office customers unlimited free assistance.
Consumers will also get only two free support incidents on Windows 98 or Windows 2000. Customers now get free, unlimited support for the first 90 days after installation.
Windows 95, meanwhile, will move to a "paid-only assistance model," according to Microsoft.
Phone assistance will cost $35 per incident when any free offers expire, the company stated. The new policy will go into effect the same day Microsoft releases Windows Me, its next consumer operating system. Customers can use any free support calls for help on Internet Explorer or Media Player.
The new policy doesn't apply to all copies of Office and Windows. It only applies to software bought at retail or downloaded from the Web, but not to Microsoft products pre-loaded on computers. Typically, computer makers will provide customer support for this software.
Customer support is a flash point in the computer industry. Manufacturers and software developers often complain about the high cost of providing advice and telephone support to customers and spend millions annually on ways to cut these costs.
On the other side of the coin, customers complain that they wouldn't be calling support lines if their computers worked properly in the first place. Many companies have also been hurt by poor reputations for customer service.
The change in policy is part of an effort to migrate customers to using Microsoft's Web site to help themselves. Matt Fingerhut, director of global support offerings at Microsoft, said the shift is occurring because more customers are using the Web for their support questions.
"There has been a dramatic increase in the number of customers who use our Web site for self-support," he said. In fiscal 2000, which ended in June, 140 million customers logged onto Microsoft's support site, he said. That number is expected to grow to 200 million this year. Most customers use fewer than two support incidents, he added.
"We are investing deeply in areas where we see the greatest benefit," he said. "This (support) is not a profit center for the company."