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Reliability and Service: The Best Companies to Buy From

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Reliability and Service: The Best Companies to Buy From
Who offers reliable products and hassle-free service? We polled 35,000 PC World readers about their PCs, printers, cameras, and other hardware, and learned that good help can be hard to find.

PC World
Friday, December 2, 2005; 12:10 AM

When your PC breaks, you shouldn't need a U.N. interpreter to communicate with tech support. Just ask Ronald Pippin, a CPA from Wheaton, Illinois, who twice encountered communication problems with technical support: once when he called Belkin about a defective wireless router, and again when he phoned Dell about a bad CD-ROM drive in his Dimension 8400 desktop system.

The thick-accented Belkin rep "kept asking, 'What? What?'" Pippin says. "I even hung up once. I figured I'd call back and talk with someone who could speak better English." He did call again and eventually resolved the problem. His experience with Dell was just as frustrating. "It's not that they're dumb people," he acknowledges. But accents can pose a barrier "when you're talking about something technical."

Ongoing problems with overseas tech support are among several key trends in the latest edition of our annual Reliability and Service survey. We asked readers to rate vendors across the spectrum of computer hardware, including the makers of desktop and notebook PCs, printers, digital cameras, wireless routers, and audio players. We asked in-depth questions about readers' satisfaction with the reliability of their products, as well as their experiences with tech support both on the phone and via the Internet. Overall, readers reported that all products were slightly more reliable this year. In general, service performance showed no significant change in overall effectiveness.

Responses from the nearly 35,000 readers who participated in our survey indicated a trend away from the use of phone support and slow movement toward company Web sites as vendors do a better job of supplying relevant answers there. However, a majority of respondents were down on tech support via e-mail, stating that companies failed to resolve technical problems that way: Many readers reported having to wait a day or longer to get a response, if one came at all. And when vendors did write back, the information was often less relevant, less coherent, and less likely to resolve the problem than phone-based tech support.

Indeed, fewer people this year said their problem was resolved the first time they contacted the company, despite the fact that vendors in recent years have made first-time resolution a top service goal. And when it's unclear whether the problem is hardware or software related, some readers got the runaround, with hardware vendors passing the buck to software makers, while others received help if the software came with the system.

Our survey also confirmed the growing perception that Dell's halo is fading. Once known for its excellent reliability and service, Dell received scores for desktops and notebooks that were average overall and below average in some areas, including phone support hold time. Dell's overseas reps with thick accents also featured in many reader complaints. Recent changes by the company to shorten some warranties and alter delivery policies may tarnish its image as well.
Will You Repeat That?

As with previous surveys, lots of readers gave us an earful about hard-to-understand tech reps. Dell customer Todd Garlick says that the few times he has phoned Dell for help with his son's Inspiron 1150 laptop, the support reps were "friendly and knowledgeable" but hard to communicate with. "I've had fouled-up orders on replacement parts. I've had to call back two or three times because I couldn't understand what the reps were saying," says Garlick, a dental technician in Boise, Idaho. "I probably won't buy a Dell again" because of such problems, he adds.

The accent issue is a sensitive topic for vendors, who invariably offer vague, carefully worded statements about how they're training tech reps to communicate better with callers. Some companies have responded by returning support centers to North America. For instance, Gateway, which bought eMachines in 2004, decided last year to use only U.S.-based support for many of its products, including desktops and notebooks. Toshiba reports that 80 percent of its North American support calls are handled by its Toronto center.

Both HP and Sony have call centers worldwide, although neither vendor lists specific locations. Smaller vendors have gone international, too. For example, Alienware, which makes high-end gaming PCs, has support operations in both Ireland and the United States. Peripheral makers, for the most part, keep support near the States. Printer companies Brother and Xerox, for instance, have call centers in Canada. (Brother also has a U.S. center.) And both PC maker Shuttle and digital camera vendor Vivitar have United States-based technical support reps.

Interestingly, an accented rep may be closer to home than you think. Toshiba's Toronto call center, for example, is in an area with a large Indian population, many of whom work for Toshiba. "People think our call center is in India because of the ethnic sound of a rep's voice, but it's in Canada," says David Norris, Toshiba vice president of service and support. Among Toshiba laptop owners who took our survey, 63 percent said their support reps spoke clearly and intelligibly, on a par with ratings from all survey respondents.

Accents aside, 67 percent of PC respondents reported that the information they received from a phone-based support rep was relevant and 56 percent said that the information solved their issue. Vendors consistently claim that they're always improving their techs' knowledge and training. Some also recognize the changing needs of their users and expand their support to cover new areas. HP, for one, is tackling increasing questions on connectivity with a new Wireless Solution Center lab. The lab is filled with different kinds of products, including routers and PCs, with which agents can re-create the problems that users experience. After correcting a customer's problem, an agent can then send out information on the fix to the rest of the support staff.

Dell customers were particularly vocal this year about reps with thick accents: 43 percent of Dell desktop and notebook owners reported that the rep they talked to did not speak clearly and intelligibly, compared with an average of 34 percent for the whole survey group. Online forums, blogs, and other sites, including BuzzMachine , are gripe fests for the Dell disgruntled.

JoAn Easton Marchese, a mother of six in Kissimmee, Florida, has bought plenty of Dell PCs over the years for her family. But her frustrations with Dell's tech support may soon end her loyalty. "I get ticked off when I talk to people who don't understand me," says Marchese, who recently phoned Dell support because her Dimension desktop kept crashing. Much like Todd Garlick, she reports that during one call "the guy couldn't understand two words I was saying." She had better luck with a follow-up call: "I got a rep who was very good. She was from India and spoke good English."

Dell acknowledges such complaints but maintains that foreign accents don't necessarily translate into poor service. "If a customer can't understand a rep for whatever reason--whether it's an accent or telephony or solar flare--there's potential for a poor satisfaction rating," says Dell support chief Steve Young.

He notes that one of Dell's support centers in India has the "highest level of customer satisfaction," according to the vendor's internal customer surveys. Dell remains bullish on international support, having added four new call centers last year in Canada, El Salvador, India, and the United States. In addition, the company is establishing support teams to handle the growing PC security threats of spyware and viruses, Young says.

Get What You Pay For

Certainly, the more you pay, the better the service. Dell's high-end XPS PCs, introduced last year with desktop prices starting at $1000, offer priority assistance with shorter phone support hold times. XPS customers also are assigned to separate tech reps, who are located in the United States and India, according to Dell spokesperson Jennifer Davis.

For low-end PCs, however, Dell has shortened its standard warranty period to 90 days. Customers have the option of upgrading to a one-year warranty for $19 to $29. "This lets customers pick what best fits their needs," says Davis. (Even longer warranties are available at added cost.) But industry watchers are skeptical: A one-year warranty has long been standard for consumer PCs, says technology analyst Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "Part of Dell's marketing is to come out with the lowest advertised price and, once having attracted the traffic, trade people up to more profitable configurations," he says.

Perhaps not enough of Dell's customers are accepting the trade-offs or choosing to upgrade, since its once-high support scores across multiple product lines have turned mediocre in our survey. Its marks dipped below average in some areas as well, including phone hold time. Dell desktop PC users told us that, on average, they waited on hold for about 14 minutes (compared with 11 minutes for other system vendors), and Dell notebook owners said they waited a little over 11 minutes (compared with about 9.5 minutes for other laptop makers).

In general, readers have few serious difficulties getting through to tech support. Only about a third of this survey's respondents--the same as last year--said their wait on hold was not acceptable. Some vendors insist they're trying to cut hold times and resolve customer issues faster. "We want to get you to a live technician in 1 minute or less," says Mike Zimmerman, Gateway's senior vice president of customer care services. Still, Gateway desktop owners reported waiting on hold for an average of about 7.5 minutes.

Contacting tech support is one thing, but getting a busted PC or peripheral fixed is another. When it comes to resolving problems, only one desktop and notebook vendor stood out as either exemplary or terrible: Sony scored the worst at problem resolution in the desktop PC category--a fact that probably won't shock George Brown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Last year Brown bought a new DVD writer for his Sony VAIO PCV-RZ22G. But when he connected the drive, the desktop wouldn't recognize the device (which was still under warranty), so he phoned Sony tech support for assistance.

"They said it's not their problem, it's Microsoft's," says the former electronics engineer. An annoyed Brown then phoned Microsoft, which sent him a free copy of Windows XP to reinstall on his computer. The fix worked, but Sony's apparently indifferent and pass-the-buck attitude soured him on the company.

Vendors grudgingly support software issues. "It's not good marketing to point the finger at the software supplier and not solve the customer's problem," analyst Kay says. Sony states that it helps its customers resolve operating system and software issues, including spyware and virus glitches, for one year.

Vendors who go the extra mile fixing a customer's problem can earn undying loyalty. When Brad Hulyk of Katy, Texas, bought his Apple iBook laptop in 2002, the machine worked great. After a couple months, however, a vertical red line started appearing near the left edge of the screen. At first, "it would come and go, but it did not impair the functionality of the machine," says Hulyk, a geophysicist.

A while later, the line began to show up more often. He phoned Apple, which agreed to repair the iBook for free--even though the laptop's warranty had expired. Hulyk was impressed, and Apple gained a repeat customer. "When this laptop goes, I'll replace it with an Apple," he says.

Similarly, IBM customer Jerry Straub, a former engineer from Charleboin, Michigan, has glowing things to say about Big Blue's tech support. When the hard drive in his IBM ThinkPad notebook started working erratically last year, IBM quickly sent a new drive and gave Straub 90 days to transfer his data before returning the defective disk. When the old one was due, Straub asked for another 3 or 4 days to finish the transfer. IBM gave him two extra weeks. "What a class act," says Straub, who adds he'd buy another IBM system "in a New York minute." (Lenovo acquired IBM's Personal Computing Division in May; IBM continues to provide technical support for its customers.)

Reliability Matters

Obviously, customers want a reliable product. Readers were hard on companies this year, resulting in top scores for just a handful of vendors in the Overall Reliability category. Apple and Lenovo (IBM) notebooks won kudos, as did Canon inkjet printers. But no one stood out in MP3 players, wireless routers, and laser or multifunction printers.

Desktops had some bright spots. For example, Alienware received high customer satisfaction scores for the reliability of its high-end machines. Justin Smith of Castle Rock, Colorado, who runs an Internet startup, calls his Alienware 5500 the "best computer I've ever owned." The company, which sells primarily to gamers and other power users, says it inspects each system carefully--and even runs performance benchmarks--before shipping it out the door. Smith appreciates the customized service. "It's fun when your system is delivered, and you have a personalized program that shows all the [benchmark] scores," he says. "It gives you a sense of pride in your system."

Repeat problems have the opposite effect and drive customers off. When Mary Lynn Bower of Des Plaines, Illinois, purchased a Brother HL-5040 in December 2003, she figured her new laser printer would last for years. Less than a month later, Bower pressed the Job Cancel button on the printer's control panel--and the button remained stuck in the down position, making the unit inoperable. Brother quickly replaced the machine, but Bower encountered the same problem last year with the replacement unit--months after the warranty had expired. Her solution: Remove the button and patch the resulting hole with tape. Bower, a project manager for the American Academy of Pediatrics, calls the printer "really cheap, flimsy." Next time, she says, she'll buy from another vendor. Brother calls Bower's issue "a strange anomaly" that hasn't been a common problem with the HL-5040. The company earned an average rating for overall reliability.

Not only can product returns and repairs impact future sales, but companies also take a hit on any profit they would have made from the original sale. "If you take a return back, it costs [the manufacturer] several hundred dollars," explains Gateway's Zimmerman. Even bargain-basement products need reliable components, he says--despite the widely held belief that cheap PCs use inferior parts. "That's not the case at all. By spending a little more on the front end, we'll reduce our service costs on the back end," Zimmerman explains.

And that's crucial, as high service costs can spell disaster for vendors. "A single [support] call, depending on how long it runs, can cost $25, which wipes out the extra profit," says analyst Kay.

Vendors report that they're always working to improve the quality of their wares. For instance, Lexmark, which received low grades for overall reliability of its laser, inkjet, and multifunction printers, says that its products undergo numerous performance and durability tests in a variety of temperature, humidity, and altitude conditions. And Dell says its QuietCase desktop with a space-saving BTX chassis design, introduced last year, should improve reliability by allowing better cooling inside the PC. Toshiba, which received a score of average in the overall reliability of its notebooks, says that it is adding shock-absorbing mounts to various notebook components such as hard drives and LCD screens to increase reliability and reduce potential damage.

In the Overall Reliability category, CyberPower PCs, Compaq laptops (made by HP), HP and Vivitar digital cameras, 2Wire routers, Brother inkjet printers and MFPs, and all types of Lexmark printers all had low marks. The vendors attribute their low scores to various factors. HP, for instance, says it's working to improve the quality of its cameras and has seen significant improvement in the past 12 months. The company has focused in part on enhancing its cameras' zoom lenses, which get a lot of wear and tear and thus have a large impact on reliability. However, HP's camera reliability scores showed little improvement in our survey from last year to this year.

Brother, while not directly addressing the poor reliability scores for its inkjet and MFP models, says it has had enormous sales growth over the past two years of its inkjet printers, which has increased support calls. Vivitar says many of its help queries come from entry-level users unfamiliar with digital cameras. Several other vendors, including 2Wire, CyberPower, and Konica Minolta, declined to comment on their poor survey scores.

User Friendly

Ease of use matters as well, particularly with peripherals. Readers gave makers of digital cameras, MP3 players, wireless routers, and printers mixed scores in this category. Among camera vendors, for instance, Kodak and Sony received above-average marks for usability, while Konica Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Vivitar fared poorly. What kinds of usability issues bothered our readers? One example comes from former pharmaceutical researcher Myron Slotsky of Boynton Beach, Florida, who says that the Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom point-and-shoot camera he bought for his wife last year was simply too difficult for her to learn to operate. Now it's his camera. The Olympus model's confusing menus make shooting, say, a panorama difficult: "You should be able to press a button and get it," Slotsky says.

Most people are still inclined to pick up the phone and call a vendor when something goes wrong. Across all six product categories we surveyed, some 56 percent of readers said they first contacted tech support via phone, down slightly from 60 percent a year ago. However, Web use saw a slight uptick: Site visits bumped up one point to 26 percent.

Companies would rather you click than call. Though they've been trying to nudge customers online for years with limited success, their efforts continue. They're investing heavily in Web-based support, including online chat and automated diagnostic and repair tools that download software fixes via the Internet. What percentage of support queries are handled online? Vendor estimates vary greatly: 10 percent for Gateway and Xerox, 40 percent for Alienware, 60 percent for Brother, and nearly 90 percent for Sony. That said, not all vendors define an online support experience in the same way. Gateway's low estimate, for instance, doesn't factor in customers who use the company's online FAQ pages or its Big Fix diagnostic software to download driver updates. On the other hand, Sony's high figure takes into account all online visits.

Think of it as the fast-food approach to customer support. Intense competition, particularly among PC vendors, means lower prices for consumers--and lower profit margins for vendors. To cut expenses, vendors implement self-serve Web support. "You're expected to bus your table when you go to McDonald's," says analyst Roger Kay. Computer vendors, he adds, work in a similar fashion: "They don't want employees on phones. They want you to bus your own table."


Certainly, vendors prefer that their customers use Web-based support because it's cheaper to operate. But as users' sophistication with the Internet grows, they're coming to accept online help. Over the past year, Sony's online chat feature has gone "from pilot to mainstream," says Sony VAIO customer service manager Stephen Nikel. The company's internal surveys show a positive bump in user reaction to online support, he adds. And HP reports a 65 percent increase in the use of chat over the past 12 months. Other vendors are moving more cautiously into chat. Dell started a pilot chat program a year ago and has been "giving it a bit more real estate" on its site lately, says Dell support chief Steve Young. Although he did not provide usage percentages, he says that the number of Dell customers who use online support is on a par with--if not greater than--the number calling up phone support.

Despite vendors' enthusiasm for chat, our survey respondents remain cool to it: Only 5 percent of readers said they used chat to contact a tech rep, up just 2 percent from last year. Why the resistance? Toshiba's internal customer surveys provide a strong clue. "With chat, one of the responses we'd get is, 'How do you expect me to use online chat if my computer is down?'" says Toshiba's David Norris.

"People want to talk to a person and tell them their problem. They want to get it fixed by a person who can cut to the chase," says Kay of phone lines' appeal.

E-mail is equally unpopular. As is the case with chat, nearly 7 percent of surveyed readers used this method to contact vendors. Companies aren't all that happy with e-mail queries either, since they can be difficult to answer. "It takes anywhere from four to five e-mails just to identify the customer's problem because of interpretation or description," Norris says. That makes people cranky. "They'll write an e-mail, get a question back, write another e-mail, and get another question back." It might take as many as eight messages before a company is able to provide an answer, he adds.

Then again, readers are more likely now to surf Web sites to find product information and drivers, according to our survey results. A hard-to-navigate site can irk people, of course. Ken Moorhouse, a maintenance man from Cammore, Alberta, Canada, couldn't get the TV tuner on his HP Media Center m480n desktop system to work. He went to HP's site to download an updated driver. "I couldn't find it anywhere," he says. He turned to online chat, though, and an HP rep guided him to the right driver and ultimately helped him resolve the problem.

Overall, PC and peripherals users say they want tech reps who are native English speakers (preferably American English); better-trained reps who aren't merely reading from a script; shorter hold times for phone support; faster response to e-mail queries; and, finally, better-made products that don't require a tech support call in the first place.

The eternal moral for vendors: It pays to treat a customer right. Tech reps must be intelligent, polite, and--readers stress this most--easy to understand.

Survey Overview: Overall Winners and Losers

According to our readers, very few companies in 2005 stood out from the pack for either the reliability of their products or the service and support they provide. In fact, no company qualified as a winner in either the desktop PCs or the wireless gateway category. The winning companies in the chart below scored better than average on two or more measures and had no worse-than-average scores; losers, on the other hand, scored worse than average on two or more measures.

Desktop PCs: Few PC Manufacturers Excel Across the Board

It was a relatively good year for PCs made by small, independent shops: Even though such systems tended to have more than the average number of failed components, readers felt they received superior service from small companies on virtually all measures, an improvement over last year's results. Readers were satisfied with the reliability of Apple and Alienware computers, but Apple's scores for failed components and failed core components slipped into the average range, a drop from last year's high ratings, while Alienware customers were more satisfied with the reliability of their machines than they were last year. CyberPower, a high-end gaming PC manufacturer, earns the dubious distinction of having the worst reliability scores among desktops. Nearly 46 percent of CyberPower owners reported having at least one problem. ABS fell behind other manufacturers in reliability of components.

Notebook PCs: ThinkPad and PowerBook Users Most Satisfied

Laptops from Lenovo (n #00026#233; e IBM) and Apple topped the satisfaction charts in reliability for the second year in a row. eMachines, another of last year's chart toppers, lost momentum this year, ranking at the low end of average for system reliability. Sony's products showed marked improvement from last year, when readers criticized both the company's service and the reliability of its products. As in the last survey, Compaq's ratings were among the lowest of any notebook manufacturer. Oddly, even though HP and Compaq are one company, HP-branded notebooks scored in the middle of the pack for both reliability and service, beating those with a Compaq logo.

Printers: Only Canon Stands Above the Crowd

This year we broke up our printer category into separate charts that cover each major type of printer. The most significant story appears at the bottom of each chart, where respondents continue to criticize Lexmark and Xerox on most measures of reliability, ranking those companies' products below average for the second year. Users of Brother, Epson, and Dell inkjet printers, and Brother multifunction printers (all-in-one printer/copier/fax machines) expressed wide dissatisfaction as well.

Digital Cameras: Sony and Canon Top the Camera Group

Readers reported, for the second year in a row, that Sony's cameras were particularly easy to use. Canon cameras were the least prone to problems, an improvement over the previous year's results. At the other end of the spectrum, survey participants rated HP and Vivitar cameras below average in four of six reliability measures--landing both companies at the bottom of the heap for the second consecutive year.

Wireless Gateways: No Brand Makes Its Mark in Reliability

Participants in this year's survey told us that none of the major brands of wireless gateways stood out on any measure of reliability. Netgear, which topped the chart last year, now rates average across the board. Readers complained about ease of use--in particular, the difficulty of initial setup--with all brands of wireless routers, but rated SMC's devices and chart newcomer Cisco's products the worst in that category.

Audio Players: iPod Remains the Easiest Player to Use

For the second year running, readers gave Apple's popular iPod MP3 player kudos for being the easiest to use in the market. Ease of use was a big problem in last year's survey, and several manufacturers seem to have improved this key aspect of their players' design. Sony slipped the most overall: This year, fewer owners of Sony players were satisfied with the products' reliability than they were last year.

What the Survey Measures Mean

Any Hardware or Software Problem (All Devices):Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem at all during their product's lifetime.

Problems on Arrival (All Devices):Based on the percentage of owners who reported that a device had some sort of problem right out of the box.

Failed Component (Desktop and Notebook PCs):Based on the percentage of owners who reported replacing one or more original parts that failed.

Dead Peripheral (Printers, Cameras, Wireless Gateways, and MP3 Players):Based on the percentage of people who reported that they had a problem serious enough to make their device unusable.

Failed Core Component (Desktop and Notebook PCs):Based on the percentage of respondents who reported a failure of a CPU, motherboard, system memory, power supply, graphics board, or hard drive.

Product's Ease of Use (Printers, Cameras, Gateways, and MP3 Players):Based on the owners' rating, on a seven-point scale, of the ease of working with the device and with any accompanying software.

Satisfaction With Reliability (All Devices):Based on the owners' rating, on a seven-point scale, of their satisfaction with the reliability of a device.

Overall Reliability (All Devices):An overall score that weighs some of the more serious individual reliability measures (such as a failed core component) more heavily than others (such as ease of use).

Phone Hold Time:Based on the average time a brand's owners reported waiting on hold to speak with a tech-support rep.

Phone Rating:Based on the cumulative score from a question in which we asked brand owners to rate, on a seven-point scale, several aspects of their experience in phoning the company's tech support. Among these were whether the information was easy to understand and whether the support rep spoke clearly.

Failure to Resolve Problem:Based on the percentage of a brand's owners who said that their problem was not resolved to their satisfaction.

Service Experience:Based on the cumulative score from a question in which we asked brand owners to rate, on a seven-point scale, important aspects of their service experience.

How We Conducted the Survey

Working with Lynd Bacon #00026 Associates of Belmont, California, and Research Results of Fitchburg, Massachusetts,PC Worldsurveyed nearly 35,000 subscribers about their experiences with desktop and notebook PCs, printers, cameras, wireless gateways, and MP3 players. The online survey was open to our subscribers between May 1 and August 1, 2005. We limited respondents' reports to devices that were three years old or newer.

Lynd Bacon #00026 Associates then used statistical analysis, including multivariate statistics and psychometrics, to determine which companies performed significantly better or worse than average across a number of measures.

In our charts, we arranged the companies with the most better-than-average scores at the top and those with the most worse-than-average scores at the bottom. When a vendor had both better-than-average and worse-than-average scores, we subtracted the worse-than-average scores from the better-than-average scores. When two or more vendors received the same number of average, better-than-average, or worse-than-average scores, we arranged the list alphabetically.
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