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Gateway bids to cut customer-support costs

The PC maker aims to raise the profit margins by nipping customer service and support calls in the bud.

Gateway is aiming to raise the profit margins of its PCs by nipping customer service and support calls in the bud.

The direct-sales manufacturer is looking to reduce operating expenses and improve customer support by introducing an electronic support initiative called E-Support Solutions.

By pre-installing software from Wild File on consumer desktop PCs, Gateway will enable users to easily undo actions that could have caused a system to malfunction. For instance, if program settings are accidentally changed, they can be restored in one step, Gateway said.

Eventually, the company hopes to gain revenues from providing support and services to Gateway and non-Gateway customers alike, executives say.

Every PC maker is looking at ways to earn more money as the average selling price of computers continues its steep descent. Customer support is an increasing area of concern because of the high cost of answering calls and sending parts back and forth, especially when compared with the initial cost of a consumer computer.

To be sure, major PC companies and even chipmaker Intel are all trying to reduce customer support costs, but to date most have focused on service to small and medium-size businesses, rather than consumers. Dell, Compaq, and IBM all have offered services targeting these groups this year.

Dell, for example, recently introduced a support plan that uses Internet-based system diagnostic tools. Under Dell's plan, small businesses can detect and fix simple computer problems without going to phone support; the company has also added features such as "natural language" search technology on its online support database.

In the consumer arena, though, cutting support costs has largely meant charging consumers for calls after a PC's warranty expires. Gateway wants to administer more preventive care in the consumer market by helping buyers solve problems themselves.

Should the problem prove a match for Wild File, similarly preinstalled software from Motive Communications can be used to try to resolve a glitch either from information loaded in the computer or information the system finds in a Web-based database it can automatically call. It will send information about problem areas to a technical representative if all else fails, which also can reduce the cost of the support call by providing faster response times, Gateway said.

In addition, the company is using software from Kana Communications in an effort to improve response time to email inquiries from Gateway clients.

"It helps those clients, especially when they are new to the PC world," said Ron Clark, product manager for electronic support. "They are downloading PC programs...and a lot of times they don't understand the complexity of that product and what it might do to the PC."

Eventually, the company could offer a "service portal" that provides help--possibly for a fee--to any consumer, not just Gateway owners, he said. Gateway has registered the domain name "HelpSpot.com," which could be used for this service. Dell is also looking into a similar idea, according to an industry source.

Gateway said it plans to install the software on its entire line of desktops, portables, and servers starting next month.