Few are the computer programs with code so clean and manuals so clear you don't require assistance from their vendors. To determine the alacrity of responses to outside pleas for help, Inc. phoned 18 software publishers of various sizes and products, to see how long a customer typically waits be-fore being connected to live support.

Each vendor was dialed twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As any consumer would, Inc. went for a toll-free number first, if one was available and wasn't constantly busy. Lacking a complimentary line, we dialed direct, on us.

Here's a representative sample of Inc.'s findings, viewed through the dialers' notes.

Software type
Toll-free line
Hearing-impaired line
Hours *
Phoenix Call Reporting
Lincoln Park, N.J.

sales management





First Try: The toll-free line turns out to be a private one installed by big customer seeking immediate responses to service problems. Time elapsed: 0:10
Second Try:
Private line not fair measure, so try switchboard. Operator dumps me into silent hold. Impossible to tell whether still on hold or disconnected eons ago. Eventually decide latter is the case, call back, again request tech support. Get tech-support manager, who explains company's support system is being revamped. Time elapsed: infinity plus 1:00
Several customers already have their own dedicated 800 lines (customer pays monthly charges). However, vendor isn't yet sure how many incoming calls computer system will be able to handle. Putative advantages to customer: individual attention, cheaper than direct dial.

Lotus Development Cambridge, Mass.
general business


yes (800) 457-0909

8:30-8 24-hour support for Lotus 1-2-3


First Try: Polite "welcome to Lotus. . . ." Picked up by live operator who screens problems and connects to appropriate specialist. Puts me through. Time elapsed: 3:05

Second Try: Same polite message. Intermediary answers, puts me on hold. Brief bout of supermarket music. Time elapsed: 2:05
Lotus customers are given two service options -- an 800 number free for six months (starting with the first phone call) and for $99 each year after; a 900 number for faster service, but with limited hours. Feature: watchdog computer that realigns support staff when it detects phone-wait times edging into customer service unacceptability.

ViewLogic Systems Marlboro, Mass.




First Try:
Switchboard puts me through to tech support. Rings four times; recorded voice says no engineers available right now

but leave name and company, someone will call back. Someone does. Time elapsed: 6:30

Second Try: Again no one available right now. I leave return-call request, later receive call with explanation that staff member would have called back sooner but knew I wasn't a customer after consulting database. Company has generous policy of eventually helping anyone who calls. Time elapsed: 27:15
Phone attendants are electrical engineers doing a stint of product-support duty. Use of 800 number requires maintenance contract.

Microsoft Bellevue, Wash.
operating systems, general business





First Try: Busy, busy, busy. Finally get through to touch-tone menu; given option to go into second level for frequently asked questions about specific product. I try it; am advised that while there I'm not in line for support but can leave anytime to get back in. Not fair timing test, so I autodial again, go direct to technician-summoning touch-tone "2." This provokes immediate assistance. Time elapsed: 0:10

Second Try: Reach same menu, press "2." Recording says, "Welcome to Windows support group, please hold." Do so. Time elapsed: 2:25.
Submenu technique of defusing common problems has "really made a difference," says company. An average of 9,000 calls received a day; 85% are handled in less than 20 seconds.

WordPerfect Orem, Utah
word processing

yes (800) 321-3256


continuous, 9 a.m. Monday-midnight Friday

about 760

First try: Toll-free number is busy, so I dial direct. Connected with touch-tone menu. Get instruction to stay on line, next available blah blah blah. Music is wicked cool calypso-jazz. Piece ends, voice takes over, tells me how much longer. Also recites product promos like disc jockey. Time elapsed: 7:15
Second try:
DJ estimates a five-minute wait. Time elapsed: 4:00

Follow-up: Company reports 15,000 to 16,000 service requests a day. DJ "Traffic update" concept initiated in spring 1990 to reduce customer frustration. Reported reaction? "Extremely positive." Cost? For starters, four DJs make more than $20,000 each.

* Times given are Eastern time. -- Researched by Susan Greco and Chris Caggiano