In-Depth

High Anxiety: Microsoft Tech Support Survey

How does the world's No. 1 software company deal with you when something goes wrong? Our readers speak out.

It's the thing you dread most when you make a call to one of your vendors, needing immediate help for your dying Web server: a voice with a heavy foreign accent. It most likely means you're talking to an outsourced worker, someone sitting in front of a computer with a flowchart and script, trying to figure out why your particular problem isn't represented on his screen. After giving him some information on your system, he asks it -- the question you know is coming: "Have you tried rebooting your server?"

That's when you politely ask him to escalate your call. Tech support is often as critical a part of a buying decision as the product itself. You have to know the company that stands behind your server, software, router or UPS. If you can't rely on the vendor, you could find yourself up a digital creek without a virtual paddle.

And when the vendor is the one that supplies more software to more computers than anyone in the world, the question of support is more crucial than ever. If Microsoft can't do it right, you're in big trouble.

That's why we polled our readers, to ask them how the Redmond Goliath is doing when it comes to tech support. The response was terrific, with 711 people giving us their opinion on Microsoft's tech support. That gives us a lot of confidence in our results.

What we found, in general, is that you're happy with Microsoft's tech support, although there are a number of areas where the company could be doing better.

Just Hold on a Minute
About half of you have used Microsoft tech support between one and five times, and just less than half have used it more than that, with a significant percentage (21) using it often, more than 15 times (See Chart 1).

Chart 1
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Chart 1. How many times have you dealt with Microsoft tech support?

To Microsoft's credit, it doesn't usually make you wait too long. The largest single percentage, at 34.5, has to wait five minutes or less, with another 30 percent listening to annoying hold music between five and 10 minutes. That's not too much Lawrence Welk. However, nearly 13 percent report a hold time of more than 15 minutes on average. That's enough muzak to make a strong man weep, and a number that Microsoft should strive to reduce.

Once you do get through, chances are good, but not great, that you'll talk to a live human being (66 percent of respondents) rather than get lost in a voicemail Bermuda Triangle (almost 30 percent). "Bring back live support persons and cut out the 100-choice voicemail solution. [It's] maddening and confusing," says Dave Sanek of Atlanta, Ga.

A Quick Fix
When you do get a real person on the phone, good things usually happen, or at least you certainly hope they do. About 52 percent said tech support staffers have adequate knowledge, and 31 percent said they're very knowledgeable. Only 11 percent of survey-takers felt they're not sufficiently knowledgeable or completely unknowledgeable.

Chart 2
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Chart 2. How knowledgeable are Microsoft technical support staffers, in general?

Dan McFarland of Tacoma, Wash., says Microsoft's expertise was critical in a recent upgrade. "The people I've dealt with have all been knowledge experts. They also haven't been afraid to escalate the issue to senior staff when needed. With our upgrade to 2003 from NT about a year ago, I had five Microsoft tech support people on the phone with me for about four hours. Each was an expert in their area, and they all contributed to solving the issue."

That level of knowledge leads to pretty quick problem-solving (See Chart 3). The majority said that issues are resolved within a reasonable timeframe (50.4 percent) or even quicker (17.9 percent). Still, that left nearly 21 percent feeling like their problems were fixed either "slowly" or "very slowly."

Chart 3
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Chart 3. How quickly is Microsoft tech support normally able to solve a problem?

Communications Breakdown
Whether readers are satisfied or not with the speed of problem-solving, there's almost no doubt that fixes could be even quicker without the impediment of a language barrier. Approximately 90 percent of survey respondents were from primarily English-speaking countries (88 percent from the United States and Canada); they report that nearly half of the time they reach tech support personnel that appear to be based outside the U.S. When we asked what Microsoft could do to strengthen its tech support, having more native English-speakers on the other end was the overwhelming No. 1 response; nothing else was even close.

Chart 4
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Chart 4. How good are Microsoft tech support personnel at communicating?

"Make sure all support technicians can speak English," says a respondent who asked not to be identified. "There have been times when I've contacted Microsoft for support issues only to find that I've been connected to someone who can't speak a word of English. Talk about frustrating."

Scott McBride (who didn't give his location) echoes those sentiments. "While the technical abilities of the first tier support is good enough, their communication skills in English are seriously lacking. I spend more time repeating what I say several times and asking them to speak more clearly than I do actually communicating my problem. I feel that my problems could have been resolved in a quarter of the time or less if bad linguistic skills hadn't gotten in the way."

But that anger may be a bit overstated, because a large majority of you say that the communication skills of tech support personnel is "adequate" (34 percent), "good" (32 percent) or "very good" (14 percent). Compare that with about 16 percent who label those skills as "not very good" or "inadequate."

The response from Kurt Teare of Atlantic, Iowa, is typical: "They hire smart technicians that are good at problem solving. The techs also typically have a great human touch. The combination of the two makes for a killer support resource."

For others, the language barrier is overcome with doggedness. "Those same people who can't speak English clearly are determined, and they stick with it until you're satisfied and the problem is solved," says T. Weitz (no first name given) of San Antonio, Texas.

Non-Verbal Communication
Of course, being IT folks, many of you prefer the online method of communication. Microsoft provides a huge variety of offerings, including live chats, e-mail dialogues and discussion forums. Far and away the most popular method of online help (almost 59 percent) is the Knowledge Base, a treasure trove of information. It got the most positive response of any item in our survey.

Chart 5
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Chart 5. How often do you find what you want from Microsoft's Knowledge Base?

"I can find the answer to 99.9 percent of my problems in [its] Knowledge Base," says Mike Benson of Bloomington, Minn. "It just keeps getting better. In the last year I have only had to call Microsoft once, and that was because the Knowledge Base article told me that the answer to my problem was in a hotfix. It's the best in the world. I have searched knowledge bases from many other major vendors; most do not hold a candle to Microsoft and usually result in a phone call."

Dave Crowe of Shelbyville, Ky., agrees. "Incredibly vast amount of information. Even accounting for my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I can't really imagine any other way to make the sheer volume of material readily available."

Chart 6
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Chart 6. Of Microsoft's online offerings, what support method do you find to be the most valuable?

Of the online offerings, live, online chats were in a very distant second place, with about 15 percent saying they were the most valuable, and e-mail help third, with 13 percent. Bringing up the rear were discussion forums, with less than 6 percent.

Although you love the Knowledge Base, a significant issue related to its usage kept popping up in comments: It's a fantastic resource, but it can be tough to find what you need. In fact, this is where the dreaded "G" word kept popping up: "Make the Knowledge Base search engine better. I find more of Microsoft's own articles faster using Google," says Gregory Werner of Aiken, S.C.

In fact, only about 37 percent of respondents believed the built-in search engine produced relevant results; about half said that it returned useful information "sometimes," and 14.5 percent said it's useless.

"Searching on a term in Google hits the Knowledge Base article far faster than searching on Microsoft.com," agrees Jeff Bales in California. This has to be particularly galling for Microsoft, considering the "to-the-death" battle it's locked in with the search giant.

Once the information is found, though, it's generally accurate. More than 80 percent of those who took the survey said the information is either good, with some small errors, or excellent, with very few errors.

"If I can find a Knowledge Base entry, it's likely to be complete and correct," says Elliott Robinson of Hunt Valley, Md.

Second in online helpfulness is chat, and part of that popularity is due to its responsiveness; nearly half get help within a single minute, and another 20 percent within one to five minutes.

The Microsoft chatters generally know their stuff. Almost 58 percent found them to be "adequately knowledgeable," while nearly 11 percent said they were "very knowledgeable." Fewer than 10 percent found them lacking.

Chart 7
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Chart 7. Rate the overall value of Microsoft's support mechanism (0-10, with 1 being the worst, and 10 being the best).

E-mail came in just after chats as far as usefulness, and respondents said that nearly half the time they heard from Microsoft within a single business day, and the vast majority within two business days.

The e-mail answers you get are usually helpful. There were 45 percent of you who said they "occasionally" get their problem fixed that way, and more than one-fifth said they "often" find a resolution.

In contrast, discussion forums, while used by many, aren't as useful as other online support methods. About three-quarters said forum participation is moderate to light, and more than half of you said you find answers to your problems "occasionally" (36.8 percent), "rarely" (15.8) or "never" (3.1). Slightly more than 15 percent usually find what they're looking for. It might help if Microsoft encouraged employees to be more involved in the forums: About 58 percent of survey-takers said Microsofties participate rarely or not at all, compared with 29.4 percent who felt they participate a lot.

Two Thumbs, Way Up
So, given all these numbers, what does it add up to? When we asked you to rate Microsoft's tech support from zero to 10, with zero being the pits and 10 being the pinnacle, a sizable majority rated Microsoft highly. The single largest slice of respondents (25.6 percent) gave Microsoft an eight, a very high score. More than 17 percent rated it a nine and 4 percent are so pleased that they gave Microsoft a perfect 10. That's 48 percent who think Microsoft is outstanding at helping customers. When you throw in the nearly 23 percent who gave the company a seven, still a solid score, and that's more than 70 percent giving Microsoft's tech support a big "thumbs up."

Chart 8
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Chart 8. How would you rate Microsoft's tech support in comparison with the rest of the IT industry, including both hardware and software vendors?

Frank Ong of Honolulu, Hawaii, is one of those satisfied customers. "If you have a server down or security issue, they are on it. No asking for charge cards, no scriptmonkeys wasting your time. You get an expert/engineer ASAP and they will bring in whatever resources are needed and stay with you as long as needed to get you back up and running."

For Jeri Sample of Meadville, Pa., it's Microsoft's desire to keep customers happy that makes the difference. "They always get back with you on the solution before closing out the case. They will leave a case open until you're satisfied."

What About the Other Guys?
Given the general contentment with its tech support, it's not surprising that survey-takers place Microsoft near the top of all tech support companies. About 60 percent say it's "above average" or "in the top five" of all companies they've dealt with. Another 6.5 percent put Microsoft at the very top. Rockie Smith, of Forth Worth, Texas, is definitely in that group of satisfied customers. "I don't have any problem with Microsoft tech support. The only reason I didn't definitely rate it No. 1 in the world is that it's always possible there's someone better I've never seen."
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