The Association of U S West Retirees



Computer Glitch? Consider Calling the Phone Company
By Andrew LaValle
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, July 31, 2008

When Rob Tugman's computers started acting up, he called the manufacturer.  After an hour waiting on hold and going through basic troubleshooting steps, the Dell Inc. representative told him the problem was his operating system and to call Microsoft Corp.

He spent 90 minutes on the phone with Microsoft, only to be told to call Dell again.  "It's like catch-22," said the 58-year-old antiques dealer, who lives in Arcadia, Fla.

After paying $100 for a local repairman to help, which also didn't solve his problem, Mr. Tugman was out of ideas when his wife made an odd suggestion:  Call the phone company.

She had signed up with their carrier,
Embarq Corp., for a trial program that provided them with over-the-phone technical support for $7.95 a month.  He was skeptical.  "I said, O God, for $7.95, what am I going to get?  'Is my computer plugged in?'"

The technician walked him through a software reinstallation and recovery of his email.  "Not only were they extremely courteous," he said, "but they knew exactly what to do."

Land-line phone companies across the country are wading into the tech-support business, seeing it as a way to hold onto customers while developing a new revenue stream.  As they have gotten deeper into selling Internet services, as part of bundled packages with TV and voice, technicians are often already in the house installing routers and other devices, making tech support a natural add-on.

People want the same level of IT support they get in the workplace, said Dan Alcazar, Embarq's consumer marketing officer.  "When you're at home, you don't have access to these kinds of things," he said.  "It became apparent that there was a business opportunity there."

Carriers also are barraged with questions unrelated to the products they sell, such as software installation, photo-sharing and spyware removal. Instead of telling customers it's not their problem, they're attempting to tackle the questions -- for a price -- over the phone, in person or with outsourced technicians, depending on the carrier.

Embarq, which has been testing its service in Florida and New Jersey, plans next month to expand to the other 16 states where it operates. 
Windstream Corp. launched its technical-help service this week.  AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. both have offered support to their broadband subscribers, while Verizon last month started letting customers sign up for a "device protection" option for their PC, phone or TV.

While those carriers limit their service to existing customers, Frontier Communications Corp., whose name change from Citizens Communications Co. is effective Thursday, is taking the unusual step of selling its help-desk services outside its coverage area and even to competitors' customers.

In addition,
Qwest Communications International Inc. and CenturyTel Inc. are both in the trial stages of their support initiatives.

Comparing Costs

The services cost anywhere from a few dollars a month, if customers sign up for continuing phone-based help, to $100 or more for house calls and one-time issues.  In contrast, an in-home repair by Geek Squad,
Best Buy Co.'s well-known support business, costs about $300.

Lynn Healy, 52, called Frontier after moving to Rhinebeck, N.Y., because she couldn't connect a PC to her wireless home network.  The technician set it up, then told her that the router she brought from her previous home was a better choice than the one Frontier provided, a tip that she appreciated.

"That was a first for me," she said.  "Usually, you call and just end up talking to computers, and then end up getting disconnected."

Customer Satisfaction

Customer satisfaction is a critical part of these offerings, as phone companies fight to keep customers from defecting to wireless and cable operators.

This type of add-on service is an important part of retaining customers, said Melinda White, head of new business operations at Frontier.  For the Stamford, Conn., telecom, which operates in 24 states, it is also a way of gaining new customers.  Unlike the other carriers, it is offering its support service nationwide and to competitors' customers after seeing a strong response in its existing territory.

"Hey, it's part of doing business," she said.  "And frankly, all of our ways of doing business will need to adjust and change and grow to keep our businesses growing at the pace we need."

Limits to Offerings

Verizon and Windstream outsource their help desks to
Circuit City Stores Inc.'s Firedog service and HiWired Inc., a Needham, Mass., remote-support start-up, respectively.  The others are determining how broad their offerings will be.

For example, Verizon likely wouldn't be able to help a customer transfer files between a PC and a digital video recorder if it was provided by another vendor, said Pete Castleton, its director of corporate marketing.

Carriers are also realizing that troubleshooting requires people skills as well as technical know-how.  By the time customers call, they're often already at the end of their rope.

"It's a pretty emotional space," said Dan Yost, Qwest's executive vice president of product and information technology.  Before Qwest rolls out its version of the Geek Squad, he said, it wants to make sure it can assist customers in a user-friendly way.

Spelling It Out

A recent experience with his own parents -- he gave them a digital photo frame, which his mother unplugged, then called to tell him it was broken -- was a reminder that what might seem obvious to someone who understands the latest technology might need to be spelled out to a customer.

One of the things H.D. Shinn appreciated when he needed help fixing an AOL snafu was that the Embarq technician didn't talk down to him.  "They're nice, they're polite, they don't make you feel stupid, which I am," said the 74-year-old Minneola, Fla., retiree, who is the first to admit he's not the least bit tech-savvy.