Pat Persiano's encounter with a customer-support phone line is an all too familiar story for many computer users. Unable to open attachments that came to her by E-mail, the CEO of Professional Partners, a 22-employee Century 21 franchise in Mayfield Village, Ohio, called America Online's tech-support line for help. "They said, 'I'm sorry, that's a software problem, not our problem," she recalls.

Persiano didn't have time to figure out the problem's source. But neither could she justify the expense of full-service technical support. She was stuck. That is, until she happened upon a Help in a Flash computer-service card that was up for auction at a local realtors' association meeting. The CEO bid $135 and won what looked like a prepaid calling card, which she brought to the office. The card was good for technical support for five "incidents" of computer meltdown. The real kicker: the 10-person staff at F1 Ltd., the $1-million Cleveland company that sells the cards, promises to solve any technical glitch, no matter which software package is at the bottom of it. The company even provides training over the phone.

Persiano gave the card to her assistant, Barbara Pokorny, who put it to use while running her recently installed QuickBooks accounting application. When Pokorny called Help in a Flash for assistance, an F1 support specialist gave her a 90-minute QuickBooks training session. "He walked me through entering the checks, doing the payroll accounting, and calculating taxes," she says.

That's just what Damon Hacker, founder and CEO of F1, wants to hear. Hacker conceived of the service after he found that small and midsize companies were reluctant to purchase F1's long-term technical-assistance packages. "But they still needed the service," he says.

F1's solution: provide a low-risk, low-cost, 24-hour help desk that's versed in more than 80 applications. The Help in a Flash card comes in two models: a five-incident card priced at $125 and a 10-incident card for $199. When a customer calls, an F1 support specialist "takes ownership" of the problem at hand and logs a detailed incident report in order to track the customer's use of the service.

While existing customers seem happy with the concept, Matthew Nordan isn't sold on the idea. An analyst at Forrester Research who covers technical-support services, Nordan says efforts like Help in a Flash rarely make money. "They're trying to squeeze profits out of a traditionally unprofitable business," he says. Hacker admits that the card service's profits are 8% to 12% lower than those of the long-term help-desk contracts that F1 has with larger companies. But that's OK for now, he says, since those long-term contracts make up close to 85% of F1's revenues.

While Professional Partners isn't likely to sign up for long-term IT services with F1, Persiano says she'll purchase another Help in a Flash card when the one she's using runs out. And judging from Pokorny's enthusiasm, that could be any day now. "I can't wait until my next problem," she says.