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Michael Kanellos

Staff Writer, CNET

Do you hear what I hear? It’s Dad, screaming about how he can’t figure out the configure settings for the new flat-panel monitor.

PCs and consumer electronics have become hot holiday gifts, but with that popularity comes a bulge in tech support calls that starts the morning of Dec. 25 and trails into January. In fact, the three busiest days for support lines are the day after Christmas, the Monday after Christmas and the Monday after New Year’s, said Jim Kahler, North American consumer support manager for Hewlett-Packard.

Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Dell, made a similar observation. “We do certainly see an increase in calls,” she said. “We see hold times double for the immediate time period after Christmas.”

Many calls come from first-time buyers–a shrinking segment of the population given the proliferation of PCs–while in recent years companies have seen more calls on how to operate flat-screen televisions or DVD players as those products have grown in popularity.

PCs from different vendors have become very similar to one another, so customer service, particularly during crunch times, can play a significant competitive role. Gateway’s slide in the PC business in 2000 was partly attributed to poor customer service.

Dell, which experienced a slide in customer satisfaction ratings earlier this year, has put greater emphasis in the past few years on customer service skills when hiring phone support personnel. Customer skills are now rated about equal with tech skills, she said.

HP begins to plan for its year-end customer support needs in June, Kahler said. The company tries to anticipate demand at both the back-to-school season and Christmas, then begins the process of retaining employees and ensuring it has enough phone capacity to handle the increased traffic. The company also tries to anticipate the resources it will need to perform warranty repairs.

Like other companies, HP also continues to work on ways to wean consumers off phone support. In a day or so, for example, HP will launch a support Web page in Spanish.

For its part, Gateway increases the number of staffers on support lines around the holidays and keeps hold times about the same.

“We definitely see a spike in calls, but most of it is pretty basic stuff (such as) ‘how do I get this started?'” said David Hallisey, a Gateway spokesman. “It tends to be a pretty jovial atmosphere.”

Still, the industry needs to get to the point where consumers can get products running without having to call for help, analysts say.

“The best customer support is the one you don’t have to use,” said Steve Baker, an analyst at NPD Group. But he also notes the psychological benefits of having someone to vent to. “At least you have someone to call to let out your frustrations,” he said.

Of course, if you’re on the receiving end of consumer gripes, being in a good mood tends to help. In an interview last year, WebTV founder Steve Perlman recalled how sales surged in 1997 after Microsoft dropped the price of WebTV boxes to $199. Most of these new units were plugged in on Christmas Day, and “we were getting thousands of subscribers every hour,” Perlman said. “Our servers were overwhelmed.”

Every employee in the WebTV division had to come in and work the support lines. Luckily, someone remembered to bring in a spiked bowl of eggnog, which made it easier for support personnel to stay calm when dealing with irate subscribers, he said.

Although vendors say the calls begin to subside as January begins, consumers need to pay close attention to return policies. While some companies have a 21- or 30-day return policy, some retailers limit unqualified returns to 7 to 14 days after opening.