Someone on Usenet recently asked what people thought about charging for technical support via a 900 number. The principle is that the call would not be free but the user would be guaranteed of getting through and getting an answer. The 900 numbers are generally quite expensive, on the order of $1 per minute after a set charge for the first few minutes. However, users only requiring occasional help would not have to pay a large fee for a year's support that they wouldn't use often.
Reaction on the whole has been negative. Most feel that it could be a good system if the cost was reasonable (i.e. lower), the answers were good and quick (i.e. you should never be on hold), the product was stable and well-designed so few calls would be needed, and the company would call back if they couldn't answer the question right away. However, a large percentage of the postings complained about these very issues, which points towards the 900 number support not being particularly useful. One person mentioned that a tax preparation company liked the idea also, but on trying it found that customers hated it. People like toll-free numbers and sometimes feel that even a long-distance call is too much to pay for technical support. Other disadvantages mentioned include the association with the sex-call numbers and the fact that some companies prevent employees from calling the 900 numbers.
Our feeling is that Lotus has a fairly good system in that you get toll-free support for the first six months, after which you have to use the normal long-distance number. Another possibility would be to have a flat fee for technical support calls, say $10, as well as a flat fee for a period of technical support. That way, the occasional users would not pay for everyone else's support, and frequent users would pay much less than the per call rate. A company should at best break even on support because otherwise there is temptation to put out a complicated, confusing, or badly-documented product. Even better, support should be handled by email, as is done informally by some companies on Usenet, and more on CompuServe, GEnie, America Online. Email forces the user to think more carefully about what happened in writing the mail and removes some of the sense of urgency from the problem, allowing the support folks to work more calmly, completely, and (we hope) rationally.
A company called PC Helpline recently started offering independent technical support at a rate of $2 per minute, billed to your credit card. They looked at the 900 number system but shied away from it because of its negative connotations, because many companies restrict 900 calls, and because it bills indiscriminately, whereas they can determine when to start billing themselves with an 800 number. The people who started PC Helpline felt that users needed a source of technical support other than the various hardware and software companies. We don't yet know if they will answer Macintosh questions as well as PC questions, but if their service is popular enough they could probably be persuaded to set up a Macintosh division.
PC Helpline -- 404/956-8125
John Whitehead -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Russell Donnan -- russ@convex.COM
William Kucharski -- kucharsk@number6.Solbourne.COM
Cory Kempf -- cory@three.MV.COM
Michael Nolan -- nolan@tssi.UUCP
David A. Fedor -- email@example.com
Andrei Herasimchuk -- amherasimchu@amherst
Kevin Purcell -- kpurcell @ liverpool.ac.uk
Shirley Kehr -- kehr@felix.UUCP
George D. Nincehelser -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Schumann, PC Helpline, 404/956-8125
InfoWorld -- 14-May-90, Vol. 12 #20, pg. 42