The last time I ran into a glitch operating a software program -- my copy of Lotus Organizer had been taken over by an evil spirit -- I put a call into Lotus hoping to set the problem straight.
Tom, a guy on the company's support team in Texas, spent the better part of 45 minutes on the phone, stepping me through the paces as he attempted to troubleshoot the application back into working order.
This program, which I had seriously scrambled, was seemingly immune to any and all revival attempts. But he stuck with the job, resolved the problem and saved yours truly from the mother of all conniptions.
Oh, did I mention that all this was free?
I got to thinking about the good old days in the aftermath of Microsoft's announcement that it plans to charge for much of the product support that had previously been free. Starting next month, the company will extend only two free support "incidents" for Windows 98 or Windows 2000, a retreat from the current unlimited that users receive during the first 90 days after installation.
Just like most of its rivals, Microsoft has discovered the beauty of pointing customers to a Web page where they can get their questions answered by simply typing in their questions and clicking on the proffered links.
This is the biggest scam going, and the software industry is getting away with it.
I don't know about you, but my idea of customer support is not firing up a Web page to have a Boolean conversation with Mr. Cyber Answer Man. If things really worked as advertised, I'd probably change my tune. But have you ever tried to use a company Web site to get a speedy answer for a complicated support problem?
The fact is most Web support pages appear to have been designed by people who get their kicks torturing small animals. The least bad thing I can say is that it takes time, a lot of time, before you get the answer you're looking for. So it was that, when I went to Microsoft's support area to resolve a problem I had with PowerPoint, the system came up with a blunderbuss offering of "help" that made the entire process too difficult, too long and too much trouble.
I understand the calculation behind the move. Any software moguls worth their salt understand that support is a cost center that can eat away at the company's bottom line. And many of the questions phoned in are boilerplate queries that could be handled in a lapidary fashion by an automated Web page.
So why is it that most of the Web support pages out there are lousy? It's hard to find anything you need in a timely way, and more likely than not you're going to throw up your hands in disgust after wasting your time.
Even at their best, the current crop of support pages couldn't do for me what Tom from Texas was able to accomplish. My guess, though, is that employers are cutting back on the services of folks like Tom.
One day this will all get straightened out (he said, sounding the part of a Panglossian optimist). In the meantime, it's more of the same -- which means that you, the consumer, wind up getting the short end.
Of course, you could phone the company and speak with a live human being. But bring your credit card if you want to get more than a perfunctory hello.
What are your experiences with tech support? Let me know in the TalkBack below.