You've got to hand it to Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Symantec and the other high-tech companies for how they have trained their customers to beg for service when their products break down.

It's a business model that says, "You can stick your customer service right up your anti-virus. We didn't get rich by having to talk to our customers in person. Wait on the phone and someone will get to you when we darned well please."

I understand that computer nerds don't like to deal with people in the real world, but when did American consumers decide they're fine with having virtual customer service when their computers don't work? If we got that kind of treatment after buying a washing machine or a refrigerator, we wouldn't stand for it.

But we've become sheep in the electronic world, allowing those in the high-tech industry to sell us expensive gadgets and then accepting their refusal to give reasonable technical support when there are problems.

What if we transferred this customer-service model to the rest of American business?

Imagine buying a car and it broke down by the time you got it home. Don't you dare call the dealership because once you're out the door, you have to deal with the manufacturer — by e-mail or phone.

So in this hypothetical, you call Ford to say your brand-new car won't run. An automated voice says a customer-service representative won't come on the line for an estimated two hours. That voice also says you might want to e-mail your service request.

You aren't an auto mechanic, but that's OK; they'll walk you through the problem with your new car. But you can't decipher the e-mail instructions for fixing the car, so you opt to wait on the phone to talk to someone in person. Maybe they'll help, maybe they won't.

Fortunately, the auto industry offers much better service than high-tech companies. So why have we decided that it's fine for Microsoft, HP and the others to get away with bad customer service?

The main reason is that we don't have a choice, at least those of us who are not computer experts. These companies control the market, and it's cheaper for them not to offer reasonable customer service. The companies won't be hurt because they all have the same customer service — bad.

Susan Geringer, a professor in the department of marketing and logistics at California State University-Fresno, said customer service is a big problem in most U.S. businesses, but high-tech companies can get away with it.

"People just give up," she said. "There is nowhere for them to turn."

I'm on this rant because of my latest problem with my computer at home and the anti-virus software that refuses to update, even though they have my credit-card number and my subscription has 166 days left.

I tried to call the Norton folks, but they don't make it easy to find the 800 number. To get e-mail help, you have to have the subscription number, which I can't access because of the problem.

After several days, I got it working with the help of a friend, but not because Norton Anti-Virus and its maker, Symantec, were any help.

Geringer is not just critical of computer companies. She says customer service is something most businesses have discarded.

It starts with the leaders of a company, she said. "They just don't care. You can write a letter to the corporate office, but customer service trickles down from the managerial attitude. Employees take cues from their bosses."

Geringer said she lets businesses know when there are problems with their customer service, although she admits that she's usually disappointed with the reaction to her complaints. "I think people are intimidated by corporations, but I have the tenacity of a Rottweiler, and I'll stay on them," she said.

If most companies have bad customer service, computer firms have made it worse. They pitch their customer service as a 24/7 operation. That's fine if you don't have anything else to do but be on hold forever at 2 a.m.

When I mention this problem to colleagues, they just humor me and say to get used to it: Customer service is only going to get worse. And maybe that's the problem. As long as we accept bad customer service, there's no reason for high-tech companies to change.


Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. E-mail him at [email protected]