The world's top PC vendor, Hewlett-Packard, beat competitors Dell, Lenovo and Apple to provide the best online customer support, according to survey released on Tuesday by The Customer Respect Group.
HP was also rated as providing the best online customer service among a sample of 18 technology companies surveyed, ahead of Intuit, Xerox, Microsoft and Lexmark, according to the survey, which rated online support for the first quarter of 2008.
Using metrics including Web site usability, content accessibility and responsiveness to queries, the survey independently measured a customer's interaction with a technology company via the Internet, the company said.
Dell lagged in 12th place behind hardware vendors HP, Lenovo, Apple and Gateway, according to the survey. Dell has a good community site linked from the home page but the support pages are difficult to locate, said Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group.
"I think the story with Dell is that they have excellent materials and content but it is not always as usable by the more naive users," Golesworthy said. Dell needs to mature support to cater to new users without neglecting the self-service experts, Golesworthy said.
Apple's product offerings are fairly simple compared to Dell's, and so is its online support, Golesworthy said. Apple provides no chat or e-mail support options and encourages users to contact Apple through stores and by telephone to resolve issues.
Apple's message may be about being simple, but a major glitch could become a big problem as self-help provided by Apple is minimal, Golesworthy said. Apple has plenty of technical articles on its Web site, which could be hard to locate at critical times.
While some issues linger, vendors are finding better use of technologies like RSS, online chat, e-mail, forums and self-support Web content to support novice and expert PC users, the survey said.
Technical customers are generally well serviced on location, so companies are looking to provide more basic information to support novice PC users, Golesworthy said. The documentation on some Web sites is being aligned for novice users to first identify a problem and then download the relevant drivers and programs to solve problems.
Companies are also adopting more interactive and real-time techniques to provide customer support, the survey said. Online chat is challenging e-mail as a support option, with more than 50 percent of companies surveyed including online chat, an improvement from 30 percent six months ago.
Online chat provides quicker response, cuts down on customer support costs and eliminates user concerns about speaking to support agents with foreign accents, Golesworthy said.
Some Web sites had data-intensive home pages that took time to load, but it could become commonplace as companies try to provide better and more interactive support to users, the survey said.
Two upcoming technologies -- remote support and intelligent monitoring -- could help improve customer support provided by vendors, Golesworthy said. With remote access, technicians will assume control of a machine from a remote location to fix a problem. Instead of wading through pages of content to diagnose an issue, intelligent monitoring will provide a clearer choice for users to diagnose and resolve issues.
Sun was rated as having the simplest Web site, followed by Xerox, Microsoft and Apple. Intuit was rated as being most responsive to customers' problems, followed by Microsoft, Symantec and HP.