Computer Glitch? Consider Calling the Phone
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
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,
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
and New Jersey,
plans next month to expand to the other 16 states where it
Corp. launched its technical-help service this week.
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.
Qwest Communications International
Inc. are both in the trial stages of their support initiatives.
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,
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
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
"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
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
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
Fla., retiree, who is the first to
admit he's not the least bit tech-savvy.