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Consumers unhappy with PC support

A new survey shows consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the level of customer support they are getting with PCs.

While consumers are paying less for their computers, a new survey shows they are also increasingly unhappy with the level of customer support they are getting with those PCs.

Consumer Reports magazine, which recently polled subscribers to its Web site, said this week that the results show customer satisfaction with technical support is down across the PC industry.

"It's significantly down," said Mark Kotkin, assistant director of survey research for Consumer Reports. Consumers are particularly concerned with increased time spent on hold as well as dropped calls to technical support, Kotkin said.

The lone bright spot in the survey was Apple Computer, which grabbed the top spot in the survey with a score of 74 out of 100 and was the only company to earn higher marks this year than it did last year. Dell and Gateway were neck and neck with scores of 65 and 64 respectively. Hewlett-Packard was fourth with a score of 56 while Compaq Computer received a score of 52.

Cost cuts at the major makers are taking their toll, said Brooks Gray, analyst at Technology Business Research.

"We've seen some evidence over the last couple of quarters that satisfaction levels are declining," Gray said.

One challenge for PC makers comes in that although the industry is seeing slower growth, prompting job cuts, the total number of computers that the large PC makers have to service is not declining.

Gateway representative Ashley Wood said the company's internal results show satisfaction at an all-time high among recent PC purchasers. "It's one of our main goals to make sure we're providing quality service and support," Wood said.

Customer service has also been an area of focus for both pre-merger HP and Compaq, HP spokesman David Albritton said.

"We've definitely seen that we've needed to improve over time," said Albritton, who added that HP's own analysis of customer service data differs from the Consumer Reports' study. "Obviously, we are disappointed with these results."

Albritton said the company has already taken steps, including increased training for customer service workers as well as shifting schedules so more people are on the phones during peak calling times to cut down on the time customers spend waiting to talk to HP staff.

Although much of the industry has seen PC sales stagnate, Dell has continued to grow and that creates challenges as well, Gray said. Dell has continued to add support staff, but because much of its growth is coming from less technically savvy consumers and because many of its support staff are new, the company still may be falling short, Gray said.

"They still may be behind the curve in a couple of areas," Gray said.

Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman said the company has been focused on improving customer support as its consumer business has grown. (The number of PCs sold to consumers was up 45 percent in the first quarter compared with the prior year).

In the past six to eight months the company has tried to improve its service in a number of areas and is starting to see results, Kaufman said. He said that the average hold time has decreased 45 percent since last November while 11 percent more problems are being resolved the first time. "It's critical to how our business will succeed over time," Kaufman said. Another factor could also be leading to lower satisfaction throughout the industry, Kotkin said. As customers grow more used to computers, their inquiries get more complicated. Instead of calling in with a problem that can be solved by plugging in the monitor, consumers are now asking questions about how to connect their PC into a home network, he said.

Consumer Reports' study polled subscribers on purchases made between 1998 and May 2002.