In the course of a recent Microsoft Access programming project, we had
three difficult technical problems where we decided to call a support
hotline for advice.  This article compares the two support numbers we
tried: Microsoft Technical Support and the Psychic Friends Network.  As
a result of this research, we have come to the following conclusions:
1) that Microsoft Technical Support and the Psychic Friends Network are
about equal in their ability to provide technical assistance for
Microsoft products over the phone; 2) that the Psychic Friends Net work
has a distinct edge over Microsoft in the areas of courtesy, response
time, and cost of support; but 3) that Microsoft has a generally better
refund policy if they fail to solve your problem.

In the paragraphs that follow, we will detail the support calls we made
and the responses we received from each support provider.  We will
follow this with a discussion of the features provided by each support
provider so that readers can do their own rankings of the two services.

Our research began when we called Microsoft regarding a bug that we had
detected when executing queries which pulled data from a Sybase Server
into Microsoft Access.  If we used the same Access database to query
two databases on the same server, we found that all of the queries
aimed at the second database that we queried were sent to the first
database that we had queried.  This problem existed no matter which
database we queried first.  Dan called Microsoft's Technical Solutions
Line, gave them $55, and was connected with an official Microsoft
Access technical support person.  As Dan began to explain the problem,
the support person interrupted him, and told him that since it was
clear that it was not just a problem with Access but with the two
programs together, Microsoft would not try to help us.  They did,
however, have a consultant referral service with which he would be glad
to connect us.  Dan then asked if we could have our $55 refunded, since
Microsoft was not going to try to answer to our question.  The tech
support person responded by forwarding Dan to the person in charge of
giving refunds.  The person officially in charge of giving refunds took
Dan's credit card info again, after which Dan asked about the referral
service.  It was too late, however - the refund folks could not
reconnect Dan with the tech support guy he'd been talking with, nor
could he put Dan in touch with the referral service hotline.  End of
Call One.

Our second call came when Dan was creating some line graphs in
Microsoft Access.  Microsoft Access actually uses a program called
Microsoft Graph to create its graphs, and this program has a "feature"
that makes the automatic axis scale always start the scale at zero.  If
all of your data are between 9,800 and 10,000 and you get a scale of 0
to 10,000, your data will appear as a flat line at the top of your
graph-not a very interesting chart.  Since Dan was writing Visual Basic
code to create the graphs, he wanted to be able to use Visual Basic
code to change the graph scaling, but he could not find anything in the
help files that would tell him how to do this.  After working with
Microsoft Graph for a while, Dan concluded that it probably didn't have
the capability that he needed, but he decided to call Microsoft just to
make sure.  Dan described his problem to the technical support person,
whom we'll call Microsoft Bob.  Microsoft Bob said he'd never gotten a
call about Microsoft Graph before.  He then left Dan on hold while he
went to ask another support person how to use Microsoft Graph.
Microsoft Bob came back with the suggestion that Dan use the online
help.  Dan, however, had already used the online help, and didn't feel
that this was an appropriate answer for a $55 support call.  Microsoft
Bob didn't give up, though.  He consulted the help files and learned to
change the graph scale by hand and then began looking for a way to do
this via code.  After Microsoft Bob had spent about an hour on the
phone with Dan learning how to use Microsoft Graph, Dan asked for a
refund since he had no more time to spend on the problem.  Microsoft
Bob refused the refund, however.  He said he wouldn't give up, and told
Dan that he would call back the next week.

Microsoft Bob did call back the following week to admit failure.  He
could not help us.  However, he couldn't give us a refund either.
Microsoft Bob's supervisor confirmed Microsoft Bob's position.  While
Microsoft Technical Support hadn't solved our problem, they felt that a
refund was inappropriate since Microsoft Technical Support had spent a
lot of time not solving our problem.  Dan persisted, however,
explaining that if Microsoft Bob actually knew the program, he would
have been able to give Dan a response much sooner.  The supervisor made
no guarantees, but he instructed Dan to check his credit card bill at
the end of the month.  The supervisor explained that if Dan saw that
the charge was still there at the end of the month, then he would know
that he hadn't gotten a refund.  End of Call Two.

Our third call to Microsoft involved using the standard file save
dialog from within Microsoft Access to get a file name and directory
string from a user in order to save an exported file.  The
documentation didn't make it clear how to do this using Visual Basic
code within Microsoft Access, and Dan decided to call Microsoft to ask
if and how a programmer could do this.  The technical support person he
reached told him he was asking about a pretty heavy programming task.
He cheerily informed Dan that he'd called the wrong number and advised
Dan to call help for Visual Basic, not Access ($195 instead of $55).
This technical support person was extraordinarily helpful in getting
Dan his refund.  End of Call Three.

Stymied by our responses from Microsoft, we decided to try another
service provider, the Psychic Friends Network.  There are several
noticeable differences between Microsoft and the Psychic Friends
Network.  Microsoft charges a flat rate per "solution," which is a
single problem and can be handled in multiple phone calls.  As
described above, Microsoft may or may not issue a refund of their fee
if they fail to provide a solution for your problem.  The Psychic
Friends Network charges a per minute fee.  They do not offer a refund
if they cannot solve your problem.  However, unlike Microsoft, they
will not charge you extra if they provide more than one solution per

We decided to test the Psychic Friends Network by asking them the same
questions that we had asked Microsoft Technical Support.  We called
them and were quickly connected with Ray, who was very courteous and
helpful.  Like Microsoft Bob, Ray quickly informed us that he wasn't
fully up to date on the programs that we were working with, but he was
willing to help us anyway.  We started off with our first problem:
making a connection from Microsoft Access to two different Sybase
Servers.  Ray worked hard on this problem for us.  He sensed that there
was a problem with something connecting, that something wasn't being
fulfilled either in a sexual, spiritual or emotional way.  Ray also
identified that there was some sort of physical failure going on that
was causing the problem."  Do you mean that there's some sort of bug?"
we asked.  Ray denied that he knew about any sort of bug in the
software.  "Are you sure there's not a bug?" we asked.  Ray insisted
that he did not know of any bug in the software, although he left open
the possibility that there could be some bug in the software that he
did not know about.  All in all, Ray did not do much to distinguish
himself from Microsoft Technical Support.  He wasn't able to solve our
problem for us, and he wasn't able to confirm or deny that a bug in
Microsoft Access was causing the problem.  We then asked Ray our
question about using Visual Basic to set the axes of a chart.  Ray
thought hard about this one.  Once again he had the sense that
something just wasn't connecting, that there was some sort of physical
failure that was causing our problem.  "Could it be that it's your
computer that's the problem?" he asked.  "Is this something that
happens just on your computer, or have you had the same problem when
you've tried to do the same thing on other computers?"  We assured Ray
that we had the same problem on other computers, then asked again,
"This physical failure that you're talking about, do you mean that
there's some sort of bug?"  Once again he assured us that there wasn't
a bug, but that he didn't know how to solve our problem.  "I sense
there's some sort of sickness here, and you're just going to have to
sweat it out.  If you'd like, you can call back tomorrow.  We have a
couple of guys here, Steve and Paul, and they're much better with
computer stuff than I am."  To conclude our research, we asked Ray
about our problem with the standard file dialog box."  It's the same
thing as the last one," he told us.  "There's some sort of sickness
here, and you're just going to have to sweat it out.  There is a
solution, though, and you're just going to have to work at it until you
get it."

C o n c l u s i o n s

In terms of technical expertise, we found that a Microsoft technician
using Knowledge Base was about as helpful as a Psychic Friends reader
using Tarot Cards.  All in all, however, the Psychic Friends Net work
proved to be a much friendlier organization than Microsoft Technical
Support.  While neither group was actually able to answer any of our
technical questions, the Psychic Friends Network was much faster than
Microsoft and much more courteous.  Which organization is more
affordable is open to question.  If Microsoft does refund all three
"solutions" fees, then they will be the far more affordable solution
provider, having charged us no money for having given us no assistance.
However, if Microsoft does not refund the fees for our call regarding
Microsoft Graph, then they will have charged us more than 120% of what
the Psychic Friends charged, but without providing the same fast and
courteous service that Psychic Friends provided.

Microsoft Tech Support (800) 939-5700 
The Psychic Friends Network (900) 407-6611