HP's big bet on better tech support

Hewlett-Packard is pouring money and initiatives into its customer support offerings. Is it working?

I got a press release from HP recently announcing the opening of its new service center in Conway, Ark. "The $28 million site will employ more than 1,000 employees and is evidence of HP's continued investment towards the goal of delivering the best support and service in the industry," read the release. "HP selected Conway in part due to its close proximity to the universities and colleges in Central Arkansas."

I've also been receiving plenty of gripes lately from readers grumbling of offshore technical support experiences. Gripe Line reader Kevin, for example, writes in to complain about chat support in general, explaining that he gets very irritated "when I ask a question that 99.9 percent of the population would interpret one way but the support representative interprets in some other way. Or when a representative is unable to do anything but go through a script even if that script makes no sense."

[ Beware the perils of offshore tech support and get the inside scoop on why offshore tech support has become so frustrating | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

Or as reader Tommy said of Adobe in my recent Gripe Line post "Beware the perils of offshore tech support": "Just like the rest of America, we're failing economically here in California. For a San Jose, California, company to send jobs to India while our unemployment is in the double digits is wrong."

So I sent a note to HP asking if this new Arkansas service center meant more support calls to HP would be handled here on our shores by newly minted graduates of Arkansas colleges. That action got me a phone conference with Jodi Schilling, vice president of America's customer support operations at HP. While she could not say if your next call would be routed to a fresh-faced graduate in Arkansas, she did say that HP has been giving the question of support a lot of thought -- and money -- lately.

"We are investing in the support space in a way that we haven't in the past," she says. "We are moving toward a leadership position in the industry in this area."

Offshore vs. onshore tech support

I pressed Schilling on the overseas-vs.-Arkansas question, and she said that decisions regarding where calls are routed and how support is administered to the caller can't simply boil down to making the call as cheap as possible for the customer service organization.

"You can't do support blindly," she says. "But cost should not be the driving factor. We have tried to shift our mental model to, 'What does the customer want and need?' We want to be the leader in our customers' support experience so they will continue to come back to us. We want loyal customers who come back to us both at work and at home -- for generations."

Thus, HP has implemented a number of changes lately with that goal in mind. One of those was creating separate phone numbers for its commercial and consumer customers.

"This change was the result of customer feedback," says Schilling. "People were getting lost in the phone system, and we realized that having that having one number was not working. On the consumer side, we also simplified the phone system considerably. Callers now no longer have to know what model computer they have when they call. And we reduced transfers by more than half and improved accuracy of those transfers by 35 percent."

An independent study done by VocaLabs found these changes to be having the desired effect. "In 2009," reads a press release from VocaLabs, "HP customers reported that they found it easier to reach an agent, felt they endured fewer irrelevant steps and experienced fewer problems with the automated portion of the call, or the IVR system."

The new frontline of tech support

There are more improvement plans for HP tech support as well.

"We -- in customer support -- are in the frontlines," says Schilling. "We take that information right back to the development labs."

Anticipating calls before they happen by preventing problems and providing better self-diagnostic tools are becoming essential elements in keeping customers from getting frustrated.

"If we can send customers to the Web to get diagnostics before they call, we can solve their problem a lot quicker. So we are funneling back into the businesses and looking at next-generation opportunities from the hardware and software perspective. You can't depend on the frontline agents to solve everything. Sometimes, we have to prevent that call from ever happening," Schilling says.

I put one of Kevin's questions to Schilling as well: "Is it unreasonable to think that at least half of the support interactions one experiences could end without head shaking?" (Or as I put it: "Why is it talking -- or chatting -- with support technicians so often makes me wonder if I'm speaking to an extraterrestrial?")

Kevin and I are not the first ones to notice that this devotion to the "script" makes for some pretty strange human interactions.

"We have been working very closely with call center agents so that the training is not so much, 'Here's what you do and when.' We are also doing some role playing so they can develop some soft skills in dealing with people," Schilling says. "But customers expect a very similar experience no matter what agent they reach. So some of that 'scripting' is in place for consistency."

What do you think, Gripe Line readers? Are the new phone systems and other changes making a difference in your support calls to HP?

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "HP's big bet on better tech support," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.