technology companies are grappling with how to provide more effective and efficient customer support. Participants in an Interactive Services Association conference this week in Washington said the issue is critical because the operational savings gained from moving customers to cheaper channels can be negated by the costs of teaching how to use them. For example, free support lines have proven popular with consumers banking via personal computer, but the companies operating the lines say customers often need more than a simple oral tutorial in how to install and use their software. "The questions are not simple-such as, 'Myst (a computer game) was working on my computer until I installed this,'" said John C. Backus, president of Herndon, Va.-based Intelidata Technologies Corp., which supports Visa Interactive home banking programs. Faced with unexpectedly high costs-calls last an average of 10 minutes at $1 a minute-Intelidata opted several months ago to hand off its call- center support function to ATC Communications of Roylett, Tex. "We did not think there was a business proposition in it," Mr. Backus said. "We could have continued to charge the banks $10 to $15 a month (per customer) to support the product, but we decided to let someone else be the bearer of bad news." Others in a panel discussion said the root of the support problem is consumers' general lack of technical knowledge. "It is impossible to underestimate the technical sophistication of the American public-even among very well-educated and successful people," said Barry K. Schwartz, vice president of Philips Home Services, the division of Netherlands-based Philips Electronics that makes screen phones. Mr. Schwartz, whose company has worked with Citicorp and others in a screen-phone pilot test on Long Island, N.Y., said it is not enough to deliver a device to a consumer's home. "Next time, I would also send someone to take it out of the box," he said. After discovering many customers had copies of its proprietary software that they were not using, the bank sent out branch representatives on personal visits. The branch officials installed the software and gave instruction in how to sign on, heading off two of the more common reasons for service calls. A Citibank spokeswoman, Maria Mendler, said the bank is pleased with the results. "It is a way to help people get going so that they can feel comfortable," she said. The experts at the conference did not offer sure-fire ways to reduce near-term support costs. Indeed, the costs may prove necessary to getting enough consumers to use home banking. "Customer service is very expensive," said Intelidata's Mr. Backus. "That leaves two options: Either make them unavailable, or develop a product so (people) don't have to call customer service." In many cases, technology companies are simply letting their phones ring, said Leslie Byrne, director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. Although auto repair is still the most-complained-about industry, the stimulus to 40% of complaints to the consumer office, tech support lines were the fastest-growing source of complaints. From stimulating only 2% of complaints to the federal agency, tech support now accounts for 10%.
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