Sony support: From free to fee in 15 minutes

Sony responds to one reader's complaint that the company purposely prolonged the duration of a support call in order to extract money from him

To determine if his older Viao laptop could be upgraded enough to run Windows 7, Steve availed himself of Sony's online chat support. But before he received an answer to his question, the support technician demanded a $25 payment, leaving Steve with a distinctly sour impression of the company's help line. Steve wrote, "I used to like Sony's helpful and thorough tech support, but it seems as if that quality Sony Tech Support went south for the winter when they moved online support to another third-party outsourcing company."

Steve continued, "Sony is angering customers like me with deceptive and misleading '15 minutes free tech support' policy that is really a disguised 'pay as you go' support." He felt that the support person he spoke to intentionally slowed the conversation to spend Steve's free 15 minutes before answering his question in order to profit from the call.

[ Also on InfoWorld, a Toshiba customer watches his repair bill skyrocket for a Qosmio system in "The high price of 'high-quality' laptop repair." | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

I forwarded Steve's complaint to Sony and spoke to Dean Richmond, senior manager for Sony service operations. "Over half of our out-of-warranty claims are resolved in that first free 15 minutes," Richmond assured me. "And we are very on top of our vendors to make sure that they are not pausing too much or taking too long to answer questions."

In fact, Richmond says, that 15-minute time is more of a guideline than a rule. "If it looks like they can solve the question in something near 15 minutes, the request for money doesn't come up," he says. "It's only when it looks like resolution will take much longer that they charge."

He also pointed out that this was Steve's second call to technical support over this upgrade question -- the first call lasted 20 minutes and was free. That's why his tech support representative decided it was time to pay. Steve felt that his second call was for a different set of questions on his upgrade issue, but Sony didn't see it that way.

As for Sony moving to a new vendor to provide this support? "This isn't a new vendor," says Richmond. "It is the same vendor we have used all along. And they are a more of a partner relationship than an outfit we simply throw calls over the fence to."

Steve's impression that Sony's support has degraded probably had more to do with the age of his system than any changes to Sony's technical support. Because his system is 4.5 years old and he has not purchased any premium support for it, he is now experiencing Sony's out-of-warranty, pay-for-support plan -- something he would not have encountered in his laptop's youth.

That's not to say that Steve and Richmond didn't agree on something. Part of the reason Steve was calling for support in the first place was that he could not find the memory he needed on Sony's site. "Steve complains that the navigation for validating the memory he needed was difficult," says Richmond. "I think we do need to link that to the sales side to make finding that upgrade memory easier. So I plan to change the site so that it is easier to find what Steve was looking for."

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