“Image is nothing; thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.” This soft drink mantra reflects a new honesty articulating what customers want and expect to get. To soft drink consumers, it says that some vendors foist products on the public that have advertising appeal, but do not meet the goals of a beverage satisfying thirst. A similar problem, which is becoming increasingly frustrating, exists with off-the-shelf software. WordPerfect Corp. epitomized the golden age of customer support in the mid to late ’80s. Excellent, free customer support was available even if you were not a registered user of the software. For a while, this multimillion-dollar investment in keeping and attracting satisfied customers paid off for WordPerfect with early domination of the word processing marketplace. Today, we routinely wait hours on the phone and then maybe get a working answer. To add to the frustration, upgrade and update software prices, particularly for the existing user, are universally rising. Today, it is common to be facing off-the-shelf upgrade pricing that exceeds the initial purchase price. This makes us, the customers, even more frustrated about why support accessibility has deteriorated. Many marketplace changes made that earlier model of support unaffordable and nearly impossible to provide. Most notably, user PC environments have become much more sophisticated and software applications have become more complex. In addition, the computer industry has trumpeted to us, the users, that software should be simple to use. Thus, for many more users than in the ’80s, the logical extension is, “Why would I need training?” More people are using more software that has limited standardization between each program, so familiarity with one software package still does not do much for another. Finally, because of cost and environmental sensitivities, many software developers recognized that their books were often unreadable anyway, so publishers have phased them out. For example, Windows 95 comes with far less written documentation than early versions of DOS! Recently, I was installing a popular fixed asset package, Best FAS, at a client site and was experiencing problems that were not documented. Upon calling Best as a dealer, I was told that the client must be “on maintenance” to get any support, even installation. While we eventually worked out the issue (the answer took about two minutes, but the bureaucracy to get it took more than two hours!), they ignored my request to discuss this matter with the vice president of customer support. In a different instance, I had a client payroll problem in January for another product I represent, a full-featured accounting system. While it was not urgent and did not involve a year-end tax or reporting issue, the support people, who took two full business days to return my initial call and leave a message for me, did not know the degree of urgency. Jim Moore, State of the Art’s vice president of customer support services, and two of his associates, Joy Lodeene and Bob Alcaneara, did recently talk to me about how they are trying to improve customer service and what some of the obstacles are. They explained that, ironically, they had recently won an award from Software Support Professionals Association for the greatest improvement in quality software support and gains in support productivity among their peers. In addition, they expressed that their customer support issues are not reflective of arrogance toward customers, but of some of the challenges facing software publishers. Much of what they said could apply to many other well-meaning vendors. Here are some of their points: ? Call volume for support runs at more than 1,000 calls a day with surges of much higher call volume at year end or when new updates or versions are released. Finding and training new support people who can properly respond to callers’ problems are challenges. ? Determining that a reported bug does exist and how and when to fix it is one of the most difficult processes. A pervasive bug that functionally affects all users may still be a complex software engineering exercise to fix. Other bugs may affect only a few users because the combination of features used that manifest the bug is unusual. Finally, software manufacturers are constantly improving the software and bug fixes may be intertwined in upgrade releases. (This explanation is frustrating to users with the bug.) ? Making timely information available to users and dealers for a product is possible using the Internet. However, manufacturers face challenges in keeping information up to date and making it available to the appropriate audience. For example, how do you productively maintain passwords of many users that keep access to the live support database with filters of what they should and should not see from the entire database? ? State of the Art’s goal in support might be a reasonable standard: Live answers to support calls within 5 minutes 85 percent of the time and, depending on the complexity of the remaining 15 percent, responses to all calls within 1 business day (some are 1-hour or 4-hour call-backs). Many feature-rich, off-the-shelf software packages are sold and installed by authorized software resellers. One of the greatest challenges for these people is how to respond to a customer problem that is not documented and that the reseller has never seen before. With Windows-based software complexities, many instances involve a compound problem that occurs when the software is performing strangely under a specific set of circumstances. And that can happen even when software does not have bugs! The dealer’s means of support is the vendor, and frequently the dealer is not getting an instant response from the vendor. So have patience with your dealer unless he or she is not attempting a resolution at all! Chaim Yudkowsky, CPA, is the director of management consulting services at Grabush, Newman & Co., P.A., a Baltimore-based regional certified public accounting and management consulting firm.