Befuddled PC users flood help lines, and no question seems to be too

AUSTIN, Texas – The exasperated help-line caller said she couldnt get her new
Dell computer to turn on. Jay Ablinger, a Dell Computer Corp. technician, made
sure the computer was plugged in and then asked the woman what happened when she
pushed the power button.

Ive pushed and pushed on this foot pedal and nothing happens, the woman
replied. Foot pedal? the technician asked. Yes, the woman said, this
little white foot pedal with the on switch. The foot pedal, it turned out,
was the computers mouse, a hand-operated device that helps to control the
computers operations.

Personal-computer makers are discovering that its still a low-tech world out
there. While they are finally having great success selling PCs to households,
they now have to deal with people to whom monitors and disk drives are a foreign
as another language.

It is rather mystifying to get this nice, beautiful machine and not know
anything about it, says Ed Shuler, a technician who helps field consumer calls
at Dells headquarters here. Its going into unfamiliar territory, adds Gus
Kolias, vice president of customer service and training for Compaq Computer
Corp. People are looking for a comfort level.

Only two years ago, most calls to PC help lines came from techies needing help
on complex problems. But now, with computer sales to homes exploding as new
multimedia functions gain mass appeal, PC makers say that as many as 70% of
their calls come from rank novices. Partly because of the volume of calls, some
computer companies have started charging help-line users.

The questions are often so basic that they could have been answered by opening
the manual that comes with every machine. One woman called Dells toll-free
line to ask how to install batteries in her laptop. When told that the
directions were on the first page of the manual, says Steve Smith, Dell director
of technical support, the woman replied angrily, I just paid $2,000 for this
damn thing, and Im not going to read a book.

Indeed, it seems that these buyers rarely refer to a manual when a phone is at
hand. If there is a book and a phone and theyre side by side, the phone wins
time after time, says Craig McQuilkin, manager of service marketing for AST
Research, Inc. in Irvine, Calif. Its a phenomenon of people wanting to talk
to people.

And do they ever. Compaqs help center in Houston, Texas, is inundated by some
8,000 consumer calls a day, with inquiries like this one related by technician
John Wolf: A frustrated customer called, who said her brand new Contura would
not work. She said she had unpacked the unit, plugged it in, opened it up and
sat there for 20 minutes waiting for something to happen. When asked what
happened when she pressed the power switch, she asked, What power switch?

Seemingly simple computer features baffle some users. So many people have
called to ask where the any key is when Press Any Key flashes on the screen
that Compaq is considering changing the command to Press Return Key.

Some people cant figure out the mouse. Tamra Eagle, an AST technical support
supervisor, says one customer complained that her mouse was hard to control with
the dust cover on. The cover turned out to be the plastic bag the mouse was
packaged in. Dell technician Wayne Zieschang says one of his customers held the
mouse and pointed it at the screen, all the while clicking madly. The customer
got no response because the mouse works only if its moved over a flat surface.

Disk drives are another bugaboo. Compaq technician Brent Sullivan says a
customer was having trouble reading word-processing files from his old
diskettes. After troubleshooting for magnets and heat failed to diagnose the
problem, Mr. Sullivan asked what else was being done with the diskette. The
customers response: I put a label on the diskette, roll it into the

At AST, another customer dutifully complied with a technicians request that she
send in a copy of a defective floppy disk. A letter from the customer arrived a
few days later, along with a Xerox copy of the floppy. And at Dell, a
technician advised his customer to put his troubled floppy back in the drive and
close the door. Asking the technician to hold on, the customer put the phone
down and was heard walking over to shut the door to his room. The technician
meant the door to his floppy drive.

The software inside the computer can be equally befuddling. A Dell customer
called to say he couldnt get his computer to fax anything. After 40 minutes of
troubleshooting, the technician discovered the man was trying to fax a piece of
paper by holding it in front of the monitor screen and hitting the send key.

Another Dell customer needed help setting up a new program, so Dell technician
Gary Rock referred him to the local Egghead. Yeah, I got me a couple of
friends, the customer replied. When told Egghead was a software store, the man
said, Oh! I thought you meant for me to find a couple of geeks.

No realizing how fragile computers can be, some people end up damaging parts
beyond repair. A Dell customer called to complain that his keyboard no longer
worked. He had cleaned it, he said, filling up his tub with soap and water and
soaking his keyboard for a day, and then removing all the keys and washing them

Computers make some people paranoid. A Dell technician, Morgan Vergara, says he
once calmed a man who became enraged because his computer had told him he was
bad and an invalid. Mr. Vergara patiently explained that the computers bad
command and invalid responses shouldnt be taken personally.

These days PC-help technicians increasingly find themselves taking on the role
of amateur psychologists. Mr. Shuler, the Dell technician, who once worked as a
psychiatric nurse, says he defused a potential domestic fight by soothingly
talking a man through a computer problem after the man had screamed threats at
his wife and children in the background.

There are also the lonely hearts who seek out human contact, even if it happens
to be a computer techie. One man from New Hampshire calls Dell every time he
experiences a life crisis. He gets a technician to walk him through some
contrived problem with his computer, apparently feeling uplifted by the process.
A lot of people want reassurance, says Mr. Shuler.

(Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, March 1, 1994)

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