AUSTIN, Texas - The exasperated help-line caller said she couldn't get her new Dell computer to turn on. Jay Ablinger, 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 a 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 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 Craig 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 by 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 Eagle, 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 flat 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 his 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 "send" key.
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."
No 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 his 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.
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Unless otherwise noted, all photos and text is Copyright © Richard G Lowe, Jr.