When The Pc Breaks Down, You Don't Have To

It's no exaggeration to suggest that all hell could break loose if a small company's computers go haywire for very long. In a major corporation, an in-house technical team can investigate--and maybe even fix--a personal-computer problem fairly quickly. But a faulty machine may threaten the lifeblood of a small enterprise. As a result, the kind of technical support offered by computer companies is critical to such customers.

Since service varies, would-be buyers should call a tech number to see how long it takes to reach a human being. War stories abound of folks who twiddle away the hours while waiting for assistance. Be forewarned that the looming Christmas season is particularly busy, and the arrival of Windows 95 has pushed up demand. In its most recent reliability and service survey, PC World magazine readers rated Apple, Compaq, Dell, Digital Equipment, and Hewlett-Packard best overall. AST, AT&T, IBM, and Micron got good grades, while Acer and Gateway 2000 received just fair marks. Packard Bell and Zeos were among those that were strapped with a poor ranking.

CYBER-SERVICE Many companies provide some sort of service around the clock. Apple, Compaq, Gateway 2000, IBM, and Packard Bell are among those that offer 24-hour toll-free telephone support--and three-year warranties--on most systems. These and other companies also have fax-back services, and they maintain a strong presence in cyberspace, where people can zip off technical queries at odd hours via online services such as CompuServe and the Internet.

With some exceptions, PC companies don't distinguish between the service they offer small-business customers and the support given individual buyers. While a small business may receive special help from the retailer or computer reseller who sold it the system, typically only major corporate and government accounts get a dedicated phone number from the manufacturer allowing them to reach a technician quickly.

Gateway says the average wait time on hold for a major customer is usually less than a minute vs. "several minutes" for everyone else. Nonetheless, the small-business customer is becoming increasingly important to PC companies. For instance, Gateway is considering a fee-based "help desk" that will take calls about any computer a business owns, be it a Gateway brand or not.

Gateway has already initiated a $99 plan called Gateway Gold Premium in which any customer can extend to three years the one-year on-site service that comes with its systems. It also issues a priority 800 number that gives quicker access to the tech support staff. Dell has a special 800 line for small and medium-size businesses, but it charges $99 for the three-year warranty with a year of on-site service. (Some others offer similar warranties for free.) Dell's plan includes a next-business-day guarantee for on-site service to anyone who calls by 5 p.m. Central time, or a free month of service is added.

Exactly when and what you'll pay for service may depend on what you buy, even across a single company's product lines. AST Research Inc.'s consumer-oriented model Advantage! systems come with a one-year limited warranty. Certain higher-end AST Bravo desktop machines and Ascentia notebooks have three-year carry-in service agreements. And AST's Manhattan servers come with three-year on-site warranties.

REMOTE REPAIR. IBM's no-extra-cost support scheme, dubbed HelpWare, includes a special service called Online Housecall. With a customer's approval, a company technician can connect to a machine by modem and fix many problems remotely. (AST and Compaq offer similar remote capabilities.) IBM's Aptiva computers feature an express maintenance program in which replacement parts or, if need be, a new machine will be dispatched within five days. If that's not good enough--and it probably won't be for a small company that depends on its machine daily--a small business can pay for overnight shipping. IBM picks up the shipping tab for commercial desktop, ThinkPad, and server customers during the warranty period. Businesses seeking advice on such matters as designing a network system can call an IBM consulting line at a cost of $240 an hour.

These days, computer makers usually don't offer gratis software support, especially if the programs were not bundled into the system. But some companies offer fee-based software help. IBM customers who need assistance on any software programs can purchase telephone support in packs of 1, 5, 10, or 25 "incidents," costing $35, $169, $329, or $799, respectively. For $249, people can opt for a one-year contract covering an unlimited number of phone calls. Or they can phone a 900 number, at $2.99 per minute. Now, if you could only figure out that darn spreadsheet program.

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