Pros and cons of giving tech service as a gift

Best Buy Expands Geek Squad To Office Depot
A "Geek Squad" agent helps a customer with computer repair at Best Buy store in Niles, Ill. Best Buy now has more than 20,000 "geeks" nationwide, and the company has a variety of service plans for computers, TVs, gaming systems and home appliances.Tim Boyle / Getty Images file

Maybe you won’t be splurging on a new computer or TV this holiday season because of the economy, instead trying to keep your existing tech gear running as smoothly as possible. Buying tech service as a gift itself can be a good idea.

But there are caveats. Talk to friends, coworkers and your own network of “knowledgeables” about the services they’ve tried, and do your homework online as well.

A good place to start is with the Better Business Bureau, which keeps a registry of complaints that can tell you whether a company is a BBB member, how many complaints against it have been filed and if those complaints were resolved.

If you or someone who know is buying a new computer or TV, think twice about purchasing additional service before the warranty on the products expire.

“The main concern is that these services tend to be very overpriced and for most products probably are not necessary,” said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy and education organization.

“Certainly, in terms of the repairs most, if not all, of what a person would need would be covered by the warranty or the extended coverage you might get from the credit card you used.”

If you want to augment such a present, McEldowney suggests giving them a gift card to the store where the equipment was purchased, rather than buying tech support.

That way the recipient could decide for herself or himself how they wanted to use the ‘free’ money,” he said. “If the person wanted help with setup, they could use it for that. If not, it could go to buy additional products that they wanted.”

Setup help is becoming more important, especially for high-definition TVs, with the sets seeming as complicated as computers.

Geek Squad universe
Best Buy’s Geek Squad is one of the best-known tech services and has more than 20,000 “geeks” around the country, said a company spokeswoman. The service, which initially focused on computer set-up and repairs, has expanded to include TVs, home appliances and even gaming systems.

There are one-time charges for services such as computer installation and set-up ($129.99), TV and video set-up ($99.99) and home theater installation, which ranges from $199.99 to $799.99.

Perhaps because it is so large, the Geek Squad has also been the subject of criticism by customers on Web sites, blogs and even on Twitter. Many of the complaints center on the amount of time it takes for a repair to be done, as well as frustration over not getting a call back.

One recent posting on Best Buy’s community forum was from a man who bought a 50-inch plasma TV in November along with a $350 Geek Squad service plan.

He wrote that when the TV “stopped working” Nov. 18, he called Geek Squad, and was told a representative could not come to his home until Nov. 22. Then, family problems prevented the assigned “geek” from showing up that day, and the customer was told he would get another call on Nov. 24. That did not happen.

“My TV has … not worked for 6 days, and I still don’t know when someone will be out to look at it, let alone fix it,” he wrote. In his last posting, dated Dec. 3, he said there was no resolution in sight.

But a Best Buy spokeswoman responded to his postings on the forum, apologized for the delay and said she was e-mailing him directly with additional information.

“We’re not perfect,” said Robert Stephens, who in 1994 founded Geek Squad, which later became a subsidiary of Best Buy. “But our rate of imperfection is actually lower than you’re going to get with a small- or medium-sized business. But you know, when Al’s Computer Repair makes a mistake, no one writes about it, and no one’s going to write about it.”

Customers, he said, “don’t expect you to be perfect. They expect you to try and they expect you to communicate. So our No. 1 focus right now is increasing communications. So, if we have your laptop and we have to ship it somewhere to get it repaired, we’re developing the systems to keep you up-to-date.”

Every laptop, even a new one, is “pretty much like an antique, in that the parts inside of it are not as standardized as desktop computers,” said Stephens.

“So, we might have your computer, which takes about three hours to fix, but it takes a day or two to ship it each way.” If fixing the computer involves replacing a part that has gone bad, “it might be a week or two before we can get that part in,” he said. “There’s nothing Best Buy is able to do about that. But we’re working on new ways of solving that.”

Criminal checks done
Geek Squad employees are heavily trained and screened, including criminal background checks, Stephens said.

“That’s one of the nice things about being a large organization,” he said. “A lot of small businesses can’t afford a 50-state criminal check, so your smaller, independent operators lack some of the things that I think most consumers expect if they’re going to let someone into their home. Best Buy, by being a Fortune 100 company, is subject to an extreme, rigorous set of standards as a public company. That is its own kind of insurance policy.”

The company's service plans vary widely in cost, and are not limited to those who buy products from Best Buy. But in September, the company added a "Black Tie" program for those who purchase a product from Best Buy. For example, a "standard" protection service plan for a laptop that cost between $400 and $599.99 would be $119.99 for four years, according to a company spokeswoman.

Standard protection includes a laptop replacement while yours is being serviced, but not Geek Squad house calls or telephone support. More expensive “advanced” and “premium” plans are also available, with the premium plan covering house calls and phone support.

Geek Squad has been emulated by Circuit City with its “Firedog” program. And earlier this year, Target started using third-party provider Zip Express to do installation of home entertainment equipment, with costs ranging from $99.99 to $499.99.

Both Geek Squad and Firedog offer in-store or online support for computer software problems. Firedog, for example, charges $19.99 for 30 minutes of online support. Six months of unlimited tech support is $99.99; a year is $189.99.

Other online services
There are numerous online services available to help with software issues, which often revolve around problems with wireless connections, driver conflicts and anti-virus programs., for example, charges $40 for a diagnostic session to “see what might be making your PC sick or slower than you want,” and $89 for a session to diagnose and repair various other technology problems., another service, has monthly plans, as well as “pay by the minute” plans for online help. You can buy a 60-minute plan for $89.95, for example, and use the time in blocks — at $1.50 a minute — if you don’t need all 60 minutes at once. charges $74.99 for a "system tune-up" that will speed up your computer, the company says. If you're struggling with setting up a wireless network with your PC, the company charges $99.99 to help you "configure, connect and establish" secure connections.

Digital Support Technology charges $19.99 for a support session, with no time limit on it, $69.99 for a six-month subscription with “unlimited live support,” and $109.99 for a year of unlimited support.

Haiying Wang, CEO of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company, said he believes the “market is huge” for such services to help people deal with common problems of slow computer performance, driver incompatibility and software conflicts. Those issues can become more pervasive as more users hold onto their equipment for longer periods of time.

“If you call the vendor, they spend lots of time to verify it’s not their fault, that it’s somebody else’s fault,” he said. “Independent service providers like Geek Squad or Firedog are too expensive. Most users need to find a solution that’s more effective and at their fingertips.

“The Internet is the best way. You just click, it’s convenient, and you don’t need to bring your computer to my shop. We can just look at it while you’re looking. It’s like having an IT guy sitting next to you.”

Wang said there is no time limit on service sessions, but that most usually last one to two hours depending on the problem. One case did take four hours, he said.

“It’s just like housecleaning. If you haven’t cleaned your house for years, there’s lot of issues there to deal with.”