No Visible Means of Support

After a dozen years in the tech industry and more than 20 years as a computer user, I’m still chilled to the bone by one sentence: “I’ve never seen that before.”

Especially when those words are spoken by a computer tech-support specialist who’s trying to fix a PC problem of mine.

Yet, I seem to hear that phrase more as PCs are increasingly tied to the web. It’s almost as though adding the Internet to previously stable computers has become a new Revenge of the Nerds.

My latest experience with poor tech support came a few days ago when I couldn’t connect to any web sites. No problem, I swaggered: I am an industry expert. I ran every utility I had, read online discussion groups and databases, and finally… was stumped.

So I called Microsoft Personal Support. I paid $35 up front (since Microsoft, like just about every software company, has largely abandoned free phone support over the past decade as software prices and profit margins have fallen). After three hours of bonehead troubleshooting, the support tech said the fateful words, “I’ve never seen that before.”

All in all, it took me a total of 14 hours to finally trace the trouble to Norton Internet Security, my personal firewall designed to prevent Internet problems. In 10 minutes it was uninstalled, and everything ran fine.

Just days earlier, I couldn’t change some America Online settings and alerted AOL tech support. Their response was a very long, flowery email that basically admitted there was nothing I could do. But they added a P.S. telling me I could earn cash by referring a friend to AOL.

Now, it is hard to do PC tech support. And it’s not cheap. The industry newsletter Soft-letter estimates that the cost of handling tech-support calls has not improved since 1997, making it a “painfully expensive service.”

But when I pay 35 bucks for tech support, I expect the problem to be solved – or, at least, diagnosed. That rarely happens.

As computers get smarter, tech support seems to be getting dumber. What should consumers do next?

I’ll be glad to tell you. And it’ll only cost you $35.

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