ATLANTA -- In the old days, customer service training was based on a naive notion. Businesses told new employees "the customer is always right." End of orientation.
Nowadays, there are vice presidents of customer service and colleges teach M.B.A.-level courses in the stuff. A hunk of advertising budgets goes toward ads promoting great service.
But ask 10 friends about calling technical support for help with a computer problem, and they'll probably tell you things have gotten worse instead of better. My guess is they'll say getting help is somewhere between unpleasant and impossible.
But there are ways to increase the odds of proving them wrong.
Check online resources: The fastest and best way to fix a problem is to do it yourself. Check the Web page of the manufacturer of your hardware or software. You'll usually find a searchable database that offers fixes to known problems. When it comes to software problems, you may find downloadable patches.
E-mail versus phone: If you have a choice between e-mail technical support and telephone support, select the telephone option. E-mail technical support is often used as an ingenious way of appearing to offer help without really giving it. That e-mail you get saying "this is an automated reply, one of our representatives will answer your question within 24 hours" is sometimes the last communication you receive.
Even when you are lucky with e-mail support, you aren't very lucky. There will be a daily series of e-mails that can stretch the time between when you ask for help and get some sort of resolution to the breaking point. Put a human face on the problem by talking to someone if possible.
Be prepared: Whether your technical support comes by telephone or e-mail, expect a barrage of questions. Be ready to answer them patiently. It's very difficult to fix a computer or solve a software problem remotely. So do your part to help - it's in your best interest.
Have model or serial numbers handy when you call. The person on the other end of the telephone line will want to know technical details, and not all of them will be at the tip of your tongue.
There's a free program that will let you answer questions about a PC as adroitly as a certified wirehead. It provides all sorts of esoteric information, as well as serial and version numbers of software installed on it. It's called Belarc Advisor, and you can download it at www.belarc.com/free_download.html.
Be comfortable and polite: A speakerphone or a hands-free headset will make it easier to use the keyboard or take notes.
Tech support sessions can be frustrating, but be polite. The ordinary rules of human nature apply. If you treat the tech support person poorly, they're likely to return the favor.
What if there's no help?
In some cases, you won't get help at all, or the help won't be, uh, very helpful. Don't be afraid to ask for a different technical support person, or for that person's supervisor. Just do it in a polite but firm way.
When all that fails, write a letter - the old-fashioned paper kind - explaining the facts and asking for a resolution with copies to the head of customer service, technical support and marketing. You'll often find the mailing address on the company's Web site. If you don't, try this Web address: www.hoovers.com/free/
Hoovers is a commercial service that charges for information. But the free section will give you the mailing address and names of key executives.