Critical Conditions

Ask Bobbie Connolly about her experience with her computer manufacturer's support team, and she responds tartly, "How much time do you have?" As the member services coordinator for Prairie Health Ventures in Lincoln, NE, Connolly's the go-to tech-gal for her staff of five, and the point person for buying and maintaining the business' computers. Her saga began shortly after purchasing a "lemonesque" laptop last August.

"I couldn't open attachments or e-mail, and the printer driver kept installing, then disappearing on its own," she says. Reboots, hung-up files, and Internet access problems ensued. The final straw came via a "problem with power adapter" pop-up during a reboot. "I plugged it into a different outlet, shut down, and started again," she says. "Then I got this message filling up my entire screen: FAILED."

It gets worse. "I called tech support, reached a 'supervisor' in another country with a thick accent, explained the problem, and faxed her a repair request," she says, but then heard nothing for days. Connolly called back, and asked for the supervisor again. The new tech person, located somewhere in Asia, couldn't confirm the supervisor's name or phone extension.

"I called another support number, explained the entire situation again, and faxed the info again," she says. A few days later the first supervisor resurfaced, asking "Where's the info?" After a month of similarly frustrating, back-and-forth calls, then months more of trying to get reimbursed for her business loss, Connolly's problematic hard drive was finally repaired and a check delivered. The final tally: 350 hours wasted, conservatively. "Customer care? It's an oxymoron. It's a joke," says Connolly. "Despite their endless verbal apologies they didn't care enough to follow through. I will never purchase another machine from them and, if given one, I'd toss it."

Refer Madness
While Connolly's story rates as prime fodder for a Saturday Night Live sketch, it's no laughing matter. In the rush to outsource service and support, computer and electronics manufacturers have created what's become a running bad joke. As a result, independent and small-business planners who have tight budgets, packed schedules, and precious little in IT support, may be the most vulnerable.

"Tech support is the most important aspect of a company, second only to the quality of the product," says Deborah Shadovitz, a Los Angeles-based author, speaker and technology consultant who specializes in Apple products and the Internet. "Unfortunately, as prices on computers went down, tech support went with it." By the late 1990s, personal computers were affordable and ubiquitous, and the Internet was well on its way. "It quickly moved beyond North America and Europe and into places like India and Asia, and its technical infrastructure made outsourcing possible and inexpensive," says Shadovitz.

Enter what has since become a familiar drill. Consumers contact (either on-line or by phone) a computer manufacturer, quickly reach a U.S.-based sales agent, and conveniently complete a purchase. A month later comes the call to tech support, which starts off with a lengthy maze of automated phone commands before landing at an entry-level service agent, on a speaker-phone, in a foreign country. Their connection is scratchy, their English challenged, and their approach tightly scripted. If the problem is simple it may get resolved. If not, as in Connolly's case, it's likely "referred" somewhere, perhaps to a supervisor or an escalation department. In Connolly's case, the referrals were a merry-go-round of misinformation until her dogged persistence forced a resolution to the issue.

Steve Collins, president of Resort Meeting Source, LLC, in Breckenridge CO, relates a similar scenario with his former internet service provider. "In this part of the world we don't have cable or DSL, so I hooked up with a satellite company four years ago," says Collins. The service, while necessary, didn't come cheap: A $600 fee up front, plus $69.95 per month. When hit with a series of outages, he immediately contacted his service tech, where the wait time approached 90 minutes before even reaching a human being. After hours of walking through basic scripted troubleshooting, Collins was referred to another technician, who would "call in three to five days" to make a house call appointment. "I said, 'I can't afford to lose my Internet for three to five days, never mind waiting that long just to schedule a service call,' " says Collins. "I'm in the middle of nowhere, three miles from a town of 180. I had to have this service. My only alternative was to double-up on my sole phone line for, at best, a 26KB dial-up connection."

Knowledge = Power
It's not surprising to find wisdom born from such nightmarish experiences. For Connolly, it meant signing on with a local tech support firm. "The thinking was that if they couldn't solve something we could then go to the manufacturer," she says, while admitting that even they were befuddled by her laptop's problems.

Collins' solution was to become very satellite tech-savvy. "Once you go through the script three times you have it memorized," he says. "Needless to say I've sometimes solved my own issues as a result." He also switched services in the past year when a new satellite provider came to town.

For others, the learning curve came early on and was blessedly brief. Janet Pickover hired a personal tech consultant over a decade ago for her company, JR Associates and has not looked back since. "I'd encourage everybody to consider it," says the NJ-based independent planner, whose office gadgetry includes a fax, scanner, copier, printer, laptop, and cell phone. Besides peace of mind, Pickover says she's learned a thing or two along the way.

"I'm the Queen of Glitch and I don't like to mess around with things," she says. "I've picked up the basics from my IT person—I watch him and figure things out—but I don't need or want to know everything." Better yet, finding someone smart and reliable was surprisingly simple, courtesy of Pickover's planner networking. "He's been with me for 12 years and works with a lot of other small business owners and entrepreneurs," she says. "It's an expense, but well it's worth it. Just think of all the hours it's freed me up to do other things, like run my business."

"My goal is to make computers easy for people," is Shadovitz's motto. To that end, she offers a self-help check list for planners when it comes to purchasing and troubleshooting their computers:

* Never buy hardware based solely on a friend or relative's purchase. What others consider to be acceptable for their use isn't necessarily what will work in your own business. Do your own research and compare products on a professional basis.

* Ask up front and in detail about a manufacturer's warranty. What's the cost, duration, type of support it entails, and where is the support team located? Get it in writing if possible.

* Call tech support during a company's business hours. During the business day you stand a reasonable chance of getting someone in North America, including supervisors, who tend to work nine-to-five. After business hours, chances are you'll get 24-hour staffing thousands of miles away.

* If your screen freezes—be patient. Something may still be happening. Make the room quiet, put your ear to the machine and listen for sounds of activity. If there's noise then give it time to unfreeze.

* Make nice. No matter how satisfying an epithet may seem, "I hate to bother you," "With all due respect," and "I humbly request," will likely get you faster, more efficient tech support service, if not a supervisor and eventually get satisfaction.

Computer 101
For those who are unable to catch techno-guru Jeff Levy's presentations or his KRLA radio show, his pithy, to-the-point advice on computing is worth the trip to Below, a cut-and-paste selection from Levy's ongoing Jeff's "Lessons" series (for the Windows user).

Boot Up a Bit Faster
To make the boot process go faster, click on Start, Run, and type CMD. Next, press the Enter key. You are now in the Command Line Prompt or DOS (Disk Operating System) mode. Type CHKNTFS/T:X where X represents a number in seconds that sets the AUTOCHK initiation countdown time. The default setting is 9. Reducing that number to 4, for example, sets the AUTOCHK initiation countdown time to 4 and makes the boot process fun faster. That command is CHKNTFS/T:4. After typing the command with the number you have selected, press the Enter key.

Type EXIT and press the Enter key.

Try Before You Buy
To extend your initial 30-day trial period [for Windows Vista], just click on the Start button, type "slmgr-rearm" and press the Enter key. You can do this a total of three times, creating a 120-day trial period.

Reduce Temporary Internet File Space
Click on Tools on the Internet Explorer menu bar, then click on Internet Options and open the General tab. Under the Temporary Internet Files section click on the Settings button.

Slide the slider all the way to the left so the size indicated in the text box on the right is one. Now click OK, and then click OK again to close. That's it—you're done.

Originally published March 01, 2008

For more ideas, tips, and tools for better meetings and events, get Successful Meetings' weekly e-newsletter delivered to your inbox.