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Befuddled PC Users Flood Help Lines, And No Question Seems to Be Too Basic.

By JIM CARLTON
Staff Reporter of THE: WALL STREET JOURNAL

AUSTIN, Texas - The exasperated help-line caller said she couldn't get her
new Dell computer to turn on. Jay Alblinger, a Dell Computer Corp. technician,
made sure the computer was plugged in and then asked the woman what happened
when she pushed the power button. "I've pushed and pushed on this foot pedal
and nothing happens," the woman replied. "Foot pedal?" the technician asked.
"Yes," the woman said, "this little white foot pedal with the on switch."
The "foot pedal," it turned out, was the computer's mouse, a hand-operated
device that helps to control the computer's operations.

Personal-computer makers are discovering that it's still a low-tech world out
there. While they are finally having great success selling PCs to households,
they now have to deal with people to whom monitors and disk drives are as
foreign as another language. "It is rather mystifying to get this nice,
beautiful machine and not know anything about it," says Ed Shuler, a
technician who helps field consumer calls at Dell's headquarters here. "It's
going into unfamiliar territory," adds Gus Kolias, vice president of customer
service and training for Compaq Computer Corp. "People are looking for a
comfort level." Only two years ago, most calls to PC help lines came from
techies needing help on complex problems. But now, with computer sales to
homes exploding as new "multimedia" functions gain mass appeal, PC makers say
that as many as 70% of their calls come from rank novices. Partly because of
the volume of calls, some computer companies have started charging help-line
users. The questions are often so basic that they could have been answered by
opening the manual that comes with every machine. One woman called Dell's
toll-free line to ask how to install batteries in her laptop. When told that
the directions were on the first page of the manual, says Steve Smith, Dell's
director of technical support, the woman replied angrily, "I just paid $2,000
for this damn thing, and I'm not going to read a book." Indeed, it seems that
these buyers rarely refer to a manual when a phone is at hand. "If there is a
book and a phone and they're side by side, the phone wins time after time,"
says John McQuilkin, manager of service marketing for AST Research Inc. in
Irvine, Calif. "It's a phenomenon of people wanting to talk to people."

And do they ever. Compaq's help center in Houston, Texas, is inundated with
some 8,000 consumer calls a day, with inquiries like this one related by
technician John Wolf: "A frustrated customer called, who said her brand new
Contura would not work. She said she had unpacked the unit, plugged it in,
opened it up and sat there for 20 minutes waiting for something to happen.
When asked what happened when she pressed the power switch, she asked,
'What power switch?' "Seemingly simple computer features baffle some users.
So many people have called to ask where the "any" key is when "Press Any Key"
flashes on the screen that Compaq is considering changing the command to
"Press Return Key." Some people can't figure out the mouse.

Tamra Engle, an AST technical support supervisor, says one customer
complained that her mouse was hard to control with the "dust cover" on. The
cover turned out to be the plastic bag the mouse was packaged in. Dell
technician Wayne Zieschang says one of his customers held the mouse and pointed
it at the screen, all the while clicking madly. The customer got no response
because the mouse works only if it's moved over a mat surface.

Disk drives are another bugaboo. Compaq technician Brent Sullivan says a
customer was having trouble reading word processing files from his old
diskettes. After troubleshooting for magnets and heat failed to diagnose the
problem, Mr. Sullivan asked what else was being done with the diskette. The
customer's response: "I put a label on the diskette, roll it into the
typewriter...."

At AST, another customer dutifully complied with a technician's request that
she send in a copy of a defective floppy disk. A letter from the customer
arrived a few days later, along with a Xerox copy of the floppy. And at Dell,
a technician advised a customer to put his troubled floppy back in the drive
and "close the door." Asking the technician to "hold on," the customer put the
phone down and was heard walking over to shut the door to his room. The
technician meant the door to his floppy drive.

The software inside the computer can be equally befuddling. A Dell customer
called to say he couldn't get his computer to fax anything. After 40 minutes
of troubleshooting, the technician discovered the man was trying to fax a
piece of paper by holding it in front of the monitor screen and hitting the
key for "send". Another Dell customer needed help setting up a new program,
so Dell 'technician Gary Rock referred him to the local Egghead. "Yeah, I got
me a couple of friends," the customer replied. When told Egghead was a
software store, the man said, "Oh! I thought you meant for me to find a couple
of geeks." Not realizing how fragile computers can be, some people end up
damaging parts beyond repair. A Dell customer called to complain that his
keyboard no longer worked. He had cleaned it, he said filling up his tub with
soap and water and soaking the keyboard for a day, and then removing all the
keys and washing them individually.

Computers make some people paranoid. A Dell technician, Morgan Vergara, says
he once calmed a man who became enraged because "his computer had told him he
was bad and an invalid." Mr. Vergara patiently explained that the computer's
"bad command" and "invalid" responses shouldn't be taken personally.

These days PC-help technicians increasingly find themselves taking on the role
of amateur psychologists. Mr. Shuler, the Dell technician, who once worked as
a psychiatric nurse, says he defused a potential domestic fight by soothingly
talking a man through a computer problem after the man had screamed threats at
his wife and children in the background. There are also the lonely hearts who
seek out human contact, even if it happens to be a computer techie. One man
from New Hampshire calls Dell every time he experiences a life crisis. He gets
a technician to walk him through some contrived problem with his computer,
apparently feeling uplifted by the process. "A lot of people want reassurance,"
says Mr. Shuler.