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Going online for support

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 5, 2003
(Issue 2136, Everyday Heroes)

A new study from Consumer Reports magazine found that consumers give the customer support departments of most software companies a failing grade.

So dismal was the software industry's report card that they ranked below cell phone companies and just above cable TV companies.


Among the complaints were long waits on hold when calling the support line, and customer service representatives who didn't know enough about the product to be of help.

In the online arena, customers found most online help menus to be confusing.

None of which is likely to generate much in the way of repeat sales.

Having worked in the software industry as a technical writer, I've seen both sides of this issue. For small start-up companies, customer support can be a catch-22 – put too many resources into technical support, and you're not putting enough into developing your product. Get stingy on tech support, and you start getting product returns and a poor reputation.

The Internet, of course, offers a cost-effective alternative to having a fully staffed call-in center. By combining a well-designed Web site with e-mail support, a company can offer effective technical support for a lower cost.

Another option

As mentioned, one big complaint from customers was that the company representatives they finally got on the phone didn't know the product – couldn't answer their questions.

But by relying on an online solution, smaller companies might be able to actually make their tech savvy staff members – programmers, product testers, even tech writers – available to their customers on a limited basis.

One San Diego-area company has even designed an off-the-shelf solution to allow client firms to add chat support to their existing web site.

Friendly Help ( sells software of its own that installs on your web server that lets you add chat directly to your site.

This is hardly the only product to add chat to a web site – but it is one of the few to market this option as a customer support tool. (It's also undoubtedly one of the few developed and programmed by a 17-year-old – Joshua Writer in this case.)

Not every company will find this tool useful, but for those looking to add a more personal touch to their customer support, it might be worth exploring.

Another PDF for the masses

In response to a recent column on a low-cost PDF export product, reader Steve Jones wrote in with a link to PDFCreator – a free program that also allows you export PDFs from most software applications.

You can find PDFCreator at The page is in German, but there is a link to an English-language version.

P DFCreator is part of the open-source software movement, thus the lack of a price tag.

Spam overreaction?

Cox Cable recently sent a letter to all its home Internet subscribers informing them that it now blocks access to all outside external SMTP (outgoing e-mail) servers.

The letter rationalizes the move by saying that while Cox's own SMTP servers are set up to block spam, not everyone's are.

What the new policy overlooks is that many folks use different e-mail services for a variety of reasons. What if I'm home with a sick kid and want to access my e-mail at work? What if I use a Netscape e-mail account – Cox is going to make me go with the slow and clunky Web interface rather than uploadig directly to the Netscape SMTP server? And why should I have to do that when the POP3/SMTP system is so much more efficient? The same question could be asked of Apple's .mac subscription service as well.

Cox's own move is also likely to umdernine its common-carrier status. Common carrier is a legal definition Congress and the courts applied to telephone companies – indicating that their service was simply a connection. Thus, what the customer did with that connection was not the company's responsibility – or liability.

But if Cox is going to block where you can go online via your Cox Internet connection, then they're hardly just selling a connection, now are they?

Ironically, what is undoubtedly an effort to reduce the company's legal liability under the various state anti-spam laws may have the unintended effect of making them more liable.

And it's not even necessary – Cox could easily tell by sheer volume who the spammers are, while leaving everyone else alone.