Direct vendors of home computers are providing their customers with the best technical support, according to a new survey.
Micron (MUEI), Gateway (GTW), and Dell (DELL) topped the HomePC ranking, which took into account the responses of 10,138 readers of the magazine. Respondents evaluated companies on both product reliability and customer support.
The lowest-ranking companies in the survey were Packard Bell and Compaq Computer (CPQ).
The rankings may have as much to do with each company's customer base as it does commitment to service.
"The direct vendors are going to attract a more knowledgeable PC customer," said International Data Corporation analyst Kevin Hause. "By contrast, both Compaq and Packard Bell have a broad array of products, including substantial sub-$1,000 lines that cater to first-time and less knowledgeable customers who tend to ask more questions and require more support."
But customers' expertise, or the lack of it, is not the whole story.
"Packard Bell has a reputation for not really caring, for seeing customer support as an overhead expense and throwing minimal resources at it," said Hause. "But over the past year, they have been ramping up how much attention they're paying, and from what I understand they have gotten much better in answering questions and keeping customers off hold."
The survey, which was distributed in HomePC's April edition and which accepted responses through the second week of May, does not reflect recent customer service reforms. Compaq, for instance, in May lifted an unpopular $35 charge for nondefect-related calls. Compaq blamed its last-place ranking on that charge and on the now-discontinued practice of collecting customers' credit card numbers first and answering questions later.
Compaq also doubled its telephone support staff and quadrupled its online support staff, according to company spokesman Mike Berman.
Meanwhile, direct vendors called their high ranking a validation of the direct sales model. "Because we configure them on site, we know everything about those individual PCs," said Dell spokesman Bill Robbins. Dell attaches what it calls an "express service code" on back of its machines that provides reference to its configuration and service history, which helps route phone service calls and customizes online service pages. Robbins also said that Dell has just revised its site with improved features.
Other companies are moving to improve their service, partially goaded by poor rankings in the survey, according to HomePC editor-in-chief Ellen Pearlman.
"The survey is meant to be a service to our readers, to give them information on who gives better service and support," she said. "But it's getting the attention of the vendors as well and encouraging them to improve areas where they can do better. Companies have come to us and told us what they're doing to improve. It's a win-win for everybody."
Despite those improvements, the survey reported that overall quality of technical support went down from last year. Seventy-three percent of respondents said their technical problem was solved satisfactorily this year, down from 84 percent last year.
Users spent more time on hold this year as well, waiting an average of 17 minutes, up from 13 in 1996 and 9 in 1995.
One development sure to cheer companies looking at expensive phone-based customer support budgets: Roughly a third of the respondents said they tried to seek technical help online, more than double the 14 percent who tried last year. This year, one-third of those who tried that were satisfied with the help they received, with one-third dissatisfied.
Pearlman said her readers were starting to take the quality of technical support more seriously when buying a computer.
"They're telling us that how a company delivers support is as important as the price, the features, or the bundled software," she added. "Consumers are becoming more and more savvy."