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Communication Methods and Efficiency

Vendors vary greatly in terms of both the different ways that they communicate with their customers, and how well they use those communication methods. Depending on your preferences in terms of media, some vendors will be a better match than others to the way you like to communicate.

There is nothing more frustrating, when ordering a PC system or components, than not being able to get a hold of the company if there is a problem or if you have a question, so be sure to test out a company's "communications skills" before making major purchases. Here are the most common ways that companies communicate with their customers:

  • In Person: When shopping retail, the most important interactions will be made in person. While this seems simple enough, some companies do a remarkably poor job at this. The most common problem is understaffing; in many stores you can visit in person and have a hard time finding anyone who will actually help you; or you may have to fight with a dozen other customers for the attention of the staff. Other stores have no problem letting you wait for 20 minutes in a checkout line while they have people in the back room "on break". The best way to assess a store in this regard is to visit the store and see for yourself.
  • Telephone: The ability to reach someone who can answer questions or help you with your order is essential for most online, direct-market or catalog sources. While online methods (see below) are also important for online vendors, nothing replaces the speed and ease of communication that personal voice contact represents. Assess the reachability of every company by phone. Do they have a toll-free number or do you have to pay by the minute? Can you get through to a human quickly, or do you have to wade through ten levels of touch-tone menus? How long do you have to wait on hold before you get through? Long waits on hold sometimes mean the company is overwhelmed with unexpected demand, but just as often mean they are too cheap to hire more phone staff.
    Incidentally, the ability to reach someone by phone is also very important when buying a new PC at a retail store. You don't want to have to go down to the store to deal with every issue, problem or question.
  • Email: I had high hopes that by now most companies would be using email extensively to handle communications with their customers, because I think this has advantages for both the customers and the company. Certainly it is a better use of a customer's time, compared to waiting on hold. There are in fact some companies that use this medium to its full advantage, replying in a matter of minutes to product questions, requests for quotes or stock status inquiries. Unfortunately, most companies still seem to relegate email questions to their "this can wait" pile, and responses can take a day or more (sometimes much more) to arrive. Send an email question and see what the reply time is like before you rely on a company's claims that they respond promptly to email. A large company that takes a full day to respond to email order questions isn't taking the medium seriously.
  • The Web: The Web is a "passive" communications method, and therefore inferior to the others listed above. You can read static information about the company or its products, and you can provide information about yourself or place orders. This is useful, but very limiting, which is why I think it is extremely important when dealing with an online vendor to be sure that they are easily reachable on the phone. Most of these companies want you to order over the Web, and I can understand why: it saves them money. But web sites aren't always up to date, and email often is too slow to resolve important issues. Be sure to keep this in mind.
  • Carrier Pigeon: Just kidding. ;^)

Tip: Some companies will give discounts if you order online using the Web, as opposed to on the phone. You may still want to call if you want to verify stock status, then you can go back to the web site and order. Sometimes the person on the phone will give you the discount anyway; it doesn't hurt to ask.

Next: Order Fulfillment

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