"Befuddled PC Users Flood Help Lines, And No Question Seems to Be Too
AUSTIN,Texas - The exasperated help-line caller said she couldn't get her
new Dell computer to turn on. Jay Alblinger, 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.
"I've 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 computer's mouse, a hand-operated device that helps to control the
Personal-computer makers are discovering that it's still a low-tech world
out there. While they are finally having great success selling PC's to
households, they now have to deal with people to whom monitors and disk drives
are as 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 Dell's headquarters here. "It's 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 Dell's
toll-free line to ask how to install battereis in her laptop. When told that
the directions were on the first page of the manual, says Steve Smith, Dell's
director of technical support, the woman replied angrily, "I just paid $2000
for this damn thing, and I'm 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 they're side by side, the
phone wins time after time," says Craig McQuilkin, manager of service
marketing for AST Research Inc. in Irvine, Calif. "It's a phenomenon of
people wanting to talk to people."
And do they ever. Compaq's help center in Houston, Texas, is inundated
with 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
Seemingly simple computer features baffle some users. So many people have
called to ask were 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 can't figure out the mouse. Tamra Engle, and 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 it's
moved over a flat surface.
Disk drives are another bugaboo. Compaq technicain Brent Sullivan says a
customer was having trouble reading wordprocessing 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
customer's response: "I put a label on the diskette, rolled it into the
At AST, another customer dutifully complied with a technician's 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 a 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 couldn't 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
Not 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 the keyboard for a day, and then removing all the keys and
washing them individually.
Computers make some people paranoid. A Dell technician, Morgan Vergara,
says he once calmed a man who became enraged bevause "his computer had told
him he was bad and an invalid." Mr. Vergara patiently explained that the
computer's "bad command" and "invalid" responses shouldn't be taken
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
"A lot of people want reassurance," says Mr. Schuler.
From: maus@Morgan.COM (Malcolm Austin)
Subject: Re: Computer idiocy (was Re: Stupid People)
You will think I am making this up, but I swear that this is true:
I was working for a now defauct merchant bank when another guy in our
(computer) department came into my office in hysterical laughter. He told me
he had just fielded a question from a woman whose department had gotten PCs
installed two months previously. (Not by our group, we wrote software).
She told him her problem, and he figured out that a few files were lost
from a floppy disk. "Do you make backups?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh, yes, we were instructed to copy all of our data disks every day."
"Well, put the backup copy in the computer, and I'll show you how to
restore the files."
"You mean put it in the printer?"
"Huh? Put it in the disk dirve."
"How am I going to do that?"
You see, each night they used a Xerox machine to copy their disks, and
neatly stored the pictures of each disk in a filing cabinet. My response was
to suggest that we fax them a new copy of their disk. :^)