May 30, 2008 // 1:14 am
- Tech support is going mass market, moving out of the office and into homes as the proliferation of gadgetry in the average house makes a geek contact essential.
Tesco is currently trialling its recently acquired PC Guys service in several branches of the supermarket.
And a host of other companies are springing up, promising to troubleshoot all those IT niggles from the comfort of your home.
BBC News spent time with three of the more established services - The Geek Squad, The Tech Guys and BT's Home IT Visit service - in an effort to learn what people are using such services for and how the firms measure up.
If someone needs a plumber or a mechanic there are some basic professional qualifications they can measure them against and, although there are plenty of qualifications available to IT workers, there is no one recognised standard.
With so many independent firms offering home IT support, this could be a problem, says Matthew Poyiadgi, vice president of CompTIA, an IT trades body which designs training courses.
"There needs to be standards in place," he said.
He has seen take-up of its A+ scheme, which teaches people basic computer skills, go up three-fold in the last six years.
"We find guys are doing it as hobbyists and then offering repairs to their local communities. It attracts all sorts of ages and both sexes," he said.
The Tech Guys use a variety of training schemes, including CompTIA.
"All our domestic engineers have A+ accreditation which is similar to a Corgi gasman. And our commercial guys have Microsoft accreditation and similar from companies such as HP and Dell," said a Tech Guys spokesman.
The idea of a kite marked qualification is something that the Geek Squad is considering.
"We're currently working with a range of manufacturers to develop an accredited training plan so our agents can be trained to a recognised industry standard," said Les Wadeson, chief operating officer, Geek Squad UK.
But, he also pointed out that good social skills were as important as technical expertise.
"It's important that our agents are able to empathise with our customers and not make them feel incompetent," he said.
BT's Home IT Visit service also put a lot of emphasis on how well their engineers interact with the public.
"We need people with soft skills of dealing with people rather than just technical skills," said Emma Sanderson, director of value-added products at BT Retail.
"There is a degree of trust associated with letting an outsider tinker with your PC," said Mr Poyiadgi.
"People are extremely protective of their homes and they need to know they can trust the person they are letting in," he said.
In some of the home visits that the BBC News witnessed the problem machine was located in the bedroom, normally one of the most private rooms in the house.
Privacy, and the lack of it, has got the Geek Squad into trouble in the US where it faces a couple of lawsuits brought by customers, unhappy that the engineer has crossed the line between searching the computer for a problem and being nosey.
The most well-publicised of these involves a woman who alleges that the engineer downloaded some very private photos of her, not only to his own company-issued thumb drive but to those of fellow employees and other customers.
US online magazine The Consumerist launched its own "sting" on the Geek Squad and caught a staff member stealing pornography from a customer's computer.
Editor Ben Popken believes that as services offering home and telephone support grow so the skills base employers can draw on narrows.
"Some of these people were working at Domino Pizza two weeks ago," he said.
Geek Squad in the UK prides itself on the skill of its workforce. It is also proud of its internal culture where helping each other and taking pride in the work they do are priorities.
It has a network of some 15,000 so-called "agents" and encourages them to talk through issues with each other.
"It's about getting them to give a crap about the brand every day," Robert Stephens, founder of the service, told the BBC.
Geek Squad is on the verge of extending its home and telephone based support service in the UK to physical centres where people can bring their broken PCs.
This is pretty standard in the US although, according to Mr Popken, as they have sprung up so have complaints about laptops and other devices going missing.
"If someone is thinking of using one of these centres we remind them that bringing in your PC also means you are bringing in access to your entire life. We always recommend they back up their stuff beforehand," said Mr Popken.
There is no doubt that for those with no technical knowledge such services are going to be invaluable as technology continues its march into the fabric of peoples' lives
But Michael Phillips, of UK consumer website Consumerchoices, questions whether currently such services are an expensive luxury.
"Consumers should think carefully before splashing out with services like Geek Squad. For example, you would pay £90 for Geek Squad to set up a home wireless network, while ISPs such as BT, Sky and AOL provide pre-configured wireless routers and software that make getting online very simple with no additional charges."
While there might be some benefit to home workers and small businesses, he advises consumers to look closer to home.
"Before you pick up the phone and pay for help, we would recommend customers try friends and family that have a patient disposition and are technically minded," he said.
Alternatively, people could switch to an ISP with a reputation for good after-sales service, he said.
Whichever route people take to get it, it seems that a geek contact is fast becoming as essential as a good plumber or mechanic.