Low End Theory: The End of HistoryPhone Support



By Brendan I. Koerner

I've got this uncle who's just thirteen months away from taking early retirement. He won't miss the work whatsoever—let's just say it involves getting up at 5 a.m., and wearing a uniform—but he's bummed about one thing: he'll no longer have a tech support guy on call to deal with his PC woes. How bummed is my beloved relative? Last time we met up, he pleaded with me to serve as his go-to tech advisor, in exchange for a case of Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager per year. Considering that the bulk of the guy's queries are along the lines of "How do I erase my Internet Explorer history?", it seems like I'm getting the best of this deal.

After my initial jubilation, however, I got to thinking: what's the right price for tech support? You see, as a dedicated low-ender, the bulk of products I buy don't offer this luxury; if you want 24/7 phone access to a techie, you've got to pony up for a pretty recognizable name brand. The question is, how much more should a product cost if free tech support is one of the highlighted features? Especially in this day and age of ezboard and other online resources that, quite frankly, are often more effective at solving your problem than "Mike" in Mumbai. An answer that's admittedly muddled, yet hopefully somewhat entertaining, after the dreaded jump.

Knowing Gizmodo readers like I do, I'm sure some of y'all are getting ready to jump down my throat on this one: "Grow a brain! This is a simple calculation based on the cost of outsourcing the service to a call center, checked against a known percentage of consumers who will utilize said service during the lifetime of their product." Okay, granted, that's how the Logitechs and Samsungs of the world probably figure things out. But you don't think they're also padding the premium quite a bit? They know full well that the likes of my uncle view tech support as a highly desirable "spec", and will therefore pay a pretty big markup to get it.

How big? This is a toughie, but I think a good sector to look at is one I've got some experience with: external hard drives. I've long favored external drives by the likes of AcomData, simply because of the cost issue—always remember that I'm a cheap bastard at heart. (I'm currently rocking this tasty 120 GB number, which I picked up for even less than the $40 that CompUSA is asking.) Of course, the company offers zip in the way of phone support, and I'm certainly not going to delude myself into thinking that they're "Tech Support Request" form will get you any meaningful assistance. Caveat emptor to the extreme on this one.

On the other hand, you've got the SimpleTech SimpleDrive, which offers unlimited toll-free tech support. Same size as my AcomData drive, pretty much the same specs (though my drive is FireWire compatible, too), but a good $100 more expensive. I'll write off some of the difference to the SimpleTech drive being a newer model, but I'm still guessing estimating guesstimating they're charging a premium of between 30 and 70 percent for phone support.

This is an anathema to a low-ender, but also a pricing policy that just can't continue—can it? I can understand why someone of my uncle's generation may still enjoy the gentle vocal embrace of an operator, but it's hard to believe that those of us who're young enough to have mastered the Google search will be in the same boat. Honestly, show of hands on this: how many times do you call a gadget's support hotline, versus how many times do you just Google the model number looking for help? And when you do call the hotline, let's face it, for straightforward hardware (like those external hard drives) they're just reading off an instruction sheet anyway. The fact that they can't possibly know the specifics of your machine configuration means that, more often than not, the conversation is gonna end up in a collective shrug of the shoulders and a, "Sorry, sir, we've done all we can."

Low End Theory: The End of HistoryPhone Support

Does this mean the end of phone support? For a lot of products I'm going to argue, yeah, it will. If you want a snapshot of the future, take a look at Iomega, which has stopped offering toll-free support in order to better compete with the cheapo likes of AcomData. PCs will continue to be a different matter, since software flummoxes so many poor souls. (There's a reason, I reckon, why Geek Squad can afford those full-page magazine ads.) But with the increasing tech savvy of the consumer base, I just can't foresee toll-free support for, say, handsets or CD-ROM drives lasting a lot longer.

Okay, granted, this might be wishful thinking. As a bargain hunter, I want there to be some serious price wars, and that means higher-end brands abandoning their support premiums in favor of competing on nuts-and-bolts costs alone. And, yes, I'm aware that companies have tried to split the difference in the past, with those awful "online support agents" that have yet to resolve a single one of my pertinent issues.

Though I'd be happy just rolling the dice on the flotsam and jetsam of the low-end realm, I'll bow to reality and accept that, yes, some folks may not feel quite so comfortable leaving everything to chance. So I issue the following challenge to the software engineers of the world, who hold the key to dinosauring toll-free tech support: develop a bot that can do the work of 500 "Mikes" in Mumbai. I know you're almost there; just keep on striving for a sweet lick of that shiny brass ring, ai'ight?

NEXT WEEK: Microwaves—educational, and great at warming up frozen burritos.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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