When good software goes bad
Survey finds widespread dissatisfaction with tech support
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- Busy signals. Annoying online help menus. Technicians who didn't know what they're talking about.
Of the estimated 8 million computer users who seek technical support from software manufacturers every year, about a third never get the help they need, according to a survey in the latest issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
The March survey of 10,000 computer users found widespread dissatisfaction with the level of service offered by U.S. software manufacturers. Quality has been the victim as companies cut corners to cut costs. As a result, the magazine put software tech support among the lower-ranked services that it's rated in the last 10 years -- slightly worse than the customer support offered by cell phone carriers and just a little better than that provided by cable TV companies.
More and more, people are turning to tech-savvy friends, online message boards and paying independent computer service firms to get results.
"People are already so frustrated with tech support, they're not even calling," Jeff Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports.
'Unpaid army of product testers'
Malfunctioning software glitches have become harder to escape as billions of lines of code -- much of it, experts say, hastily written and poorly tested -- control cell phones, cars, stoves, cable boxes and personal computers.
A 2002 study funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology estimated software errors cost the U.S. economy about $59.5 billion a year. And the brunt of the cost -- more than half -- is absorbed by users. Sellers and software makers take care of the rest, the study found.
With software prices dropping about 30 percent in the last five years, software firms are starting to charge for technical support. And those customers who call in are unwittingly helping developers to identify problems and then post downloadable fixes on the Internet.
"Consumers are unpaid conscripts in an unpaid army of product testers who go and find the problems and alert the manufacturers," Blyskal said.
Two questions to ask
On the other hand, a spokesman for the Software and Information Industry Association said members of his group, which includes CNN's parent company AOL Time Warner, are constantly trying to upgrade products, lower costs and improve customer relationships.
"I'm unaware of any company that would shortchange the customer in their speed to get the software to market," said Jonathan Thompson, vice president of the Washington-based trade group, which has more than 650 members.
Thompson said customers need to have realistic expectations. He urged buyers to ask themselves two questions before plunking down cash for software: "What is it that I want this software to do?" and "Am I going to use this software as it's been marketed?"
"Make sure that your expectations are appropriate to what a product is marketing," he said.
As glitches multiply, tech staff dwindles
Almost one in five computer users surveyed by Consumer Reports encountered software problems serious enough to contact technical support in the past 12 months. The high number of pleas for help, suggests the magazine, may be caused by frequent and persistent software glitches.
Software is riddled with errors because of its growing complexity, experts say, but also because much of the development costs -- as high as 80 percent by some estimates -- are spent on finding and fixing defects in millions of lines of code.
But at the same time, many companies are slashing tech support staffs. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show software and hardware makers and other firms reduced support staffs by 5.6 percent last year -- about 30,000 workers. Some of those jobs went to overseas phone support operations, but many companies also channeled more of their customers to online help menus.
Those menus, computer users complain, often aren't very useful. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed by Consumer Reports said Web solutions are hard to find, navigate or don't work at all.
E-mail requests don't fare much better. Fifty percent of survey respondents who sent tech support e-mails said replies took longer than two days, didn't help or were not answered.
Building brand loyalty lost in the shuffle
Carl Zetie, an analyst with Forrester Research, said software companies need to focus on the importance of building up their brands.
"It's really no great surprise that people are dissatisfied," he said. "Very few companies are able to measure the lifetime value of a customer. Otherwise, service just looks like a cost."
Perhaps what's worse is that industry watchers don't see much hope for improvement.
"You're adding more complex software, more hardware devices, home-based Internet applications. These things interact and they don't always work together," Blyskal said. "That's going to make this a bigger problem."