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Gateway opens VIP service program

People who buy Gateway PCs are promised that their tech support phone calls will be answered within 30 seconds--if they pay up for a new premium service plan.

Gateway has launched a service-and-support program that promises a faster response for customers who pay to join--or their money back.

The Gateway Priority Access program, introduced Tuesday, aims to provide a faster service response and more direct technical support to people who pay an extra fee, starting at $99. The Poway, Calif., PC maker said the program addresses its customers' most nagging complaints about service, including wait times.

The program is groundbreaking in that it offers to expedite service for any customer who's willing to pay, though Dell Computer does have a similar program for its top-of the-line only.

Service and support is an important issue for Gateway, which has been working on improving relationships with customers as part of its effort to return to profitability. The premium-level support program looks likely to bring in additional revenue for the company.

Priority Access is aimed at home PC buyers. In a recent survey of such customers, Gateway found that the most frequently voiced complaints were about waiting too long for an answer to a support call and about being frustrated by stratified support organizations that require multiple phone calls to sort out an issue.

"Two of the top things customers said were that they wanted a quick response and they also wanted someone to stick with them (to resolve an issue) and not transfer them," a Gateway representative said.

The priority access program is designed to solve these concerns by providing subscribers with dedicated support staffers who can perform a broad set of tasks, from troubleshooting a problem with a PC to sorting out a bill. It also grants subscribers access to Gateway's Rapid Response Repair service, which promises next-day service for on-site calls or replacement-part delivery and same-day pickup for notebooks that need repairs.

Fees for Gateway Priority Access program range from $99 for a one-year subscription to $179 for a four-year subscription, on top of any other service plan that the PC owner might purchase.

Typically, a customer buying a $799 Gateway 300 desktop system might spend $119 on top of the price of the computer to upgrade from a standard one-year, parts-and-labor service plan to an optional three-year on-site service program. A three-year priority access subscription would be on top of that upgrade and would cost an additional $149.

The program comes with a money-back guarantee. Subscription refunds will be given if calls are not answered within 30 seconds and if simple issues, such as arranging for the delivery of replacement parts, are not reasonably resolved in a single phone call, according to a Gateway representative.