Techniques: Road Warrior

What do we want? Problem solving. When do we want it? Now

I'd just arrived at my hotel room in Munich, and time was of the essence. A few days before, a colleague who was slated to introduce some American entrepreneurs at a panel discussion there had had an emergency, and he'd asked me to fill in for him. I'd hopped on a plane in the morning and set to work typing up my remarks. I figured that when I got to my room, I'd fax the document to myself via the hotel's front desk so that I'd have a hard-copy version to read from.

The first thing I did when I walked into my room was to unpack my Dell Latitude LM notebook computer and my voltage converter. Then I plugged the converter into the wall, hooked the computer up to the converter, and called up my notes. Within minutes the machine began to beep the kind of beep it does when the battery is low, which seemed odd, since it was plugged into the wall socket. But the machine kept beeping--and then went dead. Completely. Nada. Nothing. Zip. The speaker bios and notes for the next morning's panel were sealed away inside this handsome, sleek, totally powerless black thing sitting on the bed.

I freaked. It was about 4:30 p.m. Munich time. I felt around inside my notebook case and found the Dell Latitude LM Reference and Troubleshooting Guide. There, on page 5-11, I saw a number for customer support in Germany. I dialed it and was connected to a German-language voice menu that instructed me to do various things, none of which I understood, because I don't speak German. Two thoughts--one born of frustration, the other wishful thinking--sprang to mind. First: hadn't it occurred to anyone at Dell that if the company is selling its machines to English-speaking customers and giving them English-language troubleshooting guides, it might make sense to tell them how to get customer support in, oh, say, English? And then: how delightful it would be if I could merely stroll down to the hotel lobby (or shout "Tech support!" at the top of my lungs outside my room) to get the help I so desperately needed.

That wish sparked another, and then another, until I had compiled a short list of innovations that would greatly reduce the anxiety level of any road warrior. Herewith, then, the wish list born out of desperation in a Munich hotel room:

Multilingual customer-support services. Most major computer-hardware companies have a foreign presence. How hard would it be for them to set up support lines in various languages and post instructions in the manual on how to get to your native tongue ("Dial in and punch *2 for English, *3 for Spanish, *4 for Japanese," and so on)?

Central hotel-chain help centers with toll-free telephone access. It's great that many hotel chains have created Web pages that feature everything from on-line booking to customized searches for the perfect room. But when you get to a hotel and your laptop isn't meshing with the data jack or you have a basic question about how to reformat your PowerPoint presentation, a Web page may fall sadly short--especially if you can't turn on your computer. You want a real person on the other end of a phone line. Why not create a central IS department for lodgers and staff it with technicians knowledgeable enough to field basic calls from guests in crisis?

Hotel shops that stock basic connectivity and laptop supplies. I've yet to visit a hotel shop that carries any basic laptop equipment. Nothing major needed here, just some telephone cords, a set of plug adapters, a set of data-jack adapters, a voltage converter, a telephone-line splitter, an inexpensive tester to see whether the phone lines are analog or digital (notebook computers need analog), and some floppy disks.

Hotels with high-tech emergency accoutrements. Most good hotels will supply you with a razor or a toothbrush if you've forgotten to pack one. But how many have offered to supply a plug adapter? Or some extra phone cord? Or a data-jack converter? I can always use my finger as a toothbrush in a pinch, but I've yet to figure out a way to plug an American data jack into a European data jack without an adapter.

Technology concierges. Large convention hotels especially should consider hiring a concierge whose main function is to field guests' technology questions. The concierge could even have a speed-dial number on the guest-room phones. He or she could double as a traditional concierge for those times when there aren't any technology emergencies.

Customer-support people empowered to make quick decisions. Computer companies should stop training support folks to operate "by the book." When a customer in crisis calls, it's time for fast thinking. What's your reaction when you finally reach a live person who says, "Well, Mr. Hungadunga, I'd love to help you, but you don't qualify for that kind of help"? Exactly. In the time it took him to tell you that, he probably could have gone a long way toward solving your problem.

That last wish, as it turns out, came true--and helped me solve the mystery of my sleek (but dead) black box that afternoon in Munich.

Since it was still morning back in Austin, where Dell is located, I decided to call the switchboard directly and see if I could get help. I asked the operator to connect me with customer support for small-business accounts. I had no idea whether I had a small-business account and was entitled to live support, but I needed help, and I figured that since I worked for a small business, I'd give it a shot. I was quickly connected with David Lipchak, one of Dell's senior technicians.

After Dave helped me find the service number on my machine so he could look up my account ("Is this it?" "No, that's the bottom of the machine. Look at the port area"), he told me that it didn't look as if I had a small-business account but that given my situation, he'd worry about that later. He walked me through a battery-power test, which revealed that no juice was getting to the battery. That's when I described to him the setup of the Dell plug into the converter into the wall. "Oh," he said. "I have to check on Munich's power. I'll be right back."

He came back within minutes and told me to put the batteries back into the machine (I'd taken them out for the test), pull the converter out of the wall, and just use the plug-prong adapter (which lets you stick a U.S. plug into a European outlet) to connect the Latitude directly into the outlet. (The Latitude, it turns out, has a built-in voltage converter, so all I needed was the plug adapter in the first place.) I did as I was told. The machine powered up and I was all set.

Apparently, I'd purchased a low-power voltage converter, which meant that the laptop couldn't draw enough power through the converter to run. Don't get me started on why it says right on the converter, "Use with: electric shavers, portable cassette/CD players, radios, oral-hygiene devices, rechargeable-battery packs, camcorders, notebook computers..."

Dave more than fulfilled item six on my list--he inspired it. He heard my problem, and--without fear that he might get into trouble for helping a guy who was speaking with the wrong department--he talked me through it. I don't think his behavior was a fluke. Somewhere along the line in his training at Dell, Dave learned to trust his instincts about how to help the customer. That is what customer service should be. Sure, it was an international call on my dime, but it was worth it.

My only regret is that I never got to ask Dave if he'd ever thought about moonlighting as a technology concierge.

Jeffrey L. Seglin would love to hear what's on your wish list, as well as your stories of hotels and manufacturers that do a great job of catering to the needs of road warriors.