Techno-butlers are just a click away

Can't mount your external drive? iPod refusing to sync? Forget phone helplines. Once the preserve of the wealthy, techno-butlers are just a click away. Rhodri Marsden reports

You wouldn't try to repair your own washing machine, so why battle with the intricacies of a computer system? Until recently, arranging a home visit by a technical troubleshooter was something only the wealthy would consider. The rest of us had to submit ourselves to the frustrations of telephone helplines. But now, a new breed of tech experts, who are aligning themselves with tradesmen, will pop round for a similar call-out charge.

Digital Plumbers, a London-based company, promises prompt arrival for a fixed fee and strictly no geek-speak - and the service is proving popular. "Part of our business is still high-end, doing work for the likes of Mick Jagger or refitting apartments in Kensington," says the company's founder Steve Moore, who's wandering around my flat, monitoring the strength of my erratic wireless signal on his laptop. "But we've done work for housing associations to keep our souls clean, and recently we decided that we needed to cater a bit more for normal people."

Steve's team of support engineers whizz round London in a fleet of Digital Plumber vans. One of the geek squad, Richard Wolfe, is tackling a stubborn external hard drive that refuses to mount on my desktop on start-up.

After patiently guiding me through the steps he's taking to sort it out, he talks about the kind of issues he comes up against. "Recently, it's wireless networks," he says. "People have bought the equipment over Christmas, got it home, plugged it in, and can't figure out why it doesn't work. Or they're using no encryption and haven't understood that they might be sending their credit-card details over the network for the whole world to see."

While Digital Plumbers is happy to get deep into the code that makes computers run, it's the more prosaic problems of the non-computer-savvy that make up most of its work: installing software, or cleaning up systems so that they run better. It's clear that, as powerful computers find their way into more homes, a great deal of knowledge is presupposed.

"That manual," says Steve, pointing to a computer support book on my shelf. "You may as well stand your wireless modem on it to get a better signal. And built-in help facilities are pretty poor on both PCs and Macs. There's loads of stuff hidden from users of both platforms," he continues, "and you shouldn't have to be interested in it to make them work to your advantage. Our job is just to get people's lives back on track."

Almost every new computer product, hardware or software, entitles you to a period of free phone-based technical support - but there are frustrations at both ends of the telephone line. Online forums are awash with customers complaining about the cost of the call, or poor advice given slowly, rudely or incomprehensibly.

Even when those manning the phones are sympathetic, they are often working in situations where their patience is tested to the limit. "The main problem is not being able to see what's going on at the other end," says Dave Sheldon, a former support technician, "and people are generally terrible at describing things. They deny all knowledge of menus, text and graphics being on their screen - it's almost as if they're looking through them."

But, while telephone support is flawed, it's here to stay because it's cheap. Even the growth of remote access - where a technician takes control of your computer and repairs it via a broadband connection - may not address the root of the problem, Steve believes. "All people want is to understand," he says, showing me capabilities of my e-mail program that I never knew existed. "And they want someone to look them in the eye, make them a promise, and not let them down."

It remains true that people prefer assistance with a human face. The Digital Plumbers have increasingly found themselves employed to deal with personal issues that traditional support methods are poor at addressing; perhaps getting certain internet content filtered from children's PCs, or setting up automated, idiot-proof back-ups for important files.

"And it helps if you're pleasant and disarming," Steve says. When Digital Plumbers recruited technicians, its advert read: "Lovable geeks required." Richard's job interview consisted of getting him to explain the intricacies of an iPod to the Digital Plumbers' office manager. "The mistake the bigger companies make," Steve says, "is that they think the support process is about dealing with computers. It's not; it's about dealing with people. NHS Direct is a perfect example of how to do phone support properly; a qualified nurse who calms you down and asks questions that are relevant to you."

Computer hardware and software will become more intuitive, but the demand for help-desk services is still forecast to grow. "As the capabilities of the machines expand, different kinds of hand-holding will be needed," Steve says. And he warns parents not to rely on their tech-savvy children, because they won't be at home for ever.

After a 90-minute lesson, during which I realise how far within my computer's capabilities I'm working, Steve and Richard pack up to leave. Fingers crossed that, as this new breed of plumber becomes busier, the personal touch won't be lost and we never hear one saying: "Your level two cache is shafted, mate, you'll need a whole new motherboard." If that happens, you'll know it's probably time to get back on the telephone.

Who you gonna call?

* Digital Plumbers www.digitalplumbers.com; 0870 850 1337
Support: Mac and PC
Area served: Within the M25 (expanding to Leeds and Dublin by June).
Charge: £95 for the first hour, £70 for subsequent hours.
Benefits: Special offers for new computer-users, and for digital camera and wireless network packages, among other benefits.

* Lifestyle IT www.lifestyleit.com; 020-8423 2244
Area served: Home Counties
Support: Mac and PC
Charge: £120 per hour; membership of the firm's Total Support scheme (from £400 per year) reduces this to £90 per hour and gives additional benefits.
Benefits: Broadband internet specialists who work to a corporate standard.

* Geeks on Wheels www.geeks-on-wheels.com; 0800 107 4110/4111
Area served: London and Sussex
Support: PC
Charge: £75 for the first hour, £37.50 per subsequent 30 minutes (20 per cent discount on these prices for customers in Sussex).
Benefits: No fix, no fee; 10 per cent discounts for pensioners, students and nurses; special packages for new computer-users.

* Mac Daddy www.mac-daddy.co.uk; 020-7431 2408
Area served: London
Support: Mac
Charge: For Tube zones 1 and 2, it's £75 for the first hour, increasing to £90 for zones 3 and 4 and £95 for zones 5 and 6. All subsequent hours at £45.
Benefits: This is a specialist service for Mac computers provided by Apple-certified engineers. Support is available outside working hours for an extra £30 per hour.

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