Microsoft is a new addition to our Tech Support Showdown for 2015. Although not historically known for making PCs, the company that Gates built now offers four 2-in-1 laptop/tablets. That prompted us to wonder what sort of technical support consumers can expect from the company.
I started with a Surface 3 and a small selection of questions. To put Microsoft's tech savvy to the test, I scoured the company's website for answers, directly asked for help on Twitter and Facebook, and made a few old-fashioned phone calls to tech support. Specifically, I wanted to know, "How do I get Cortana up and running?" and "How do I reverse the scrolling direction of my touchpad?" (We asked these types of questions of all of the PC companies in our Tech Support Showdown.) Then, I got Surface-specific by asking, "How do I pair my Surface Pen to a Surface 3?"
Web and Social Support
I started off by looking for answers to each question based on materials available on Microsoft's website — and boy, there was a wealth of resources to go through! Microsoft has FAQs, forums, instructional guides and more, which answered many questions before I needed to reach out for additional help.
The heart of Microsoft's support system is its online support portal, which you can reach simply by going to Microsoft.com and selecting your specific product from the drop-down menu on the top and then clicking Support. If you scroll down a little more, you can click the Answer Desk link to be connected to a live agent. After logging in with your Microsoft account (which is required), you can select a device, describe your problem and then choose between live chat online or a phone call.
For this round, I tasked Microsoft's online chat support with helping me reverse the direction of two-finger scrolling on the touchpad. I was connected immediately to an agent named Nino, who was friendly and direct in dealing with my problem. There was a long, 8-minute wait while he attempted to find the answer to my problem, but when he came back, he gave me quick and precise directions on how to fix my issue by directing me to go to the Settings menu and then open the Mouse and Touch options under the Devices section.
For social media, Microsoft has two accounts for Surface owners to choose from: @MicrosoftHelps and @SurfaceSupport. I started off by asking @MicrosoftHelps about turning on the Windows 10 "Hey Cortana" voice recognition. After an hour, a representative responded, but unfortunately, the link provided was incorrect and pointed to instructional videos about Windows 8.1 (which doesn't even have Cortana). After I pointed out the error, the rep came back with an appropriate response, but the @ForDummies Twitter account beat the rep to it.
The @SurfaceSupport team was a little better, responding in 15 minutes to my question about pairing the Surface Pen to the tablet with a link to the Surface Pen support page, which contained the correct answer.
Finally came Facebook. Microsoft doesn't have a dedicated page for technical support like it does on Twitter, I eventually got help. I got no answer when I posted a question about support on Microsoft's Facebook timeline. However, when I posed a question to the Surface page via Messenger, I got a response in just 30 minutes. The representative quickly and accurately answered my question about pairing and provided a helpful link.
For those looking for traditional phone support, a quick perusal of Microsoft's page may make it seem like you are out of luck. There's seemingly no way to start a conversation over the phone without going through the Answer Desk, but I'm happy to say that there is a way, which we found by asking our press contact. Dialing 800-936-3500 puts you in touch with Microsoft Sales and Partners Information, which, after a few automated responses, can connect you with both sales and technical support. We suspect Microsoft is much more comfortable saying, "Don't call us; we'll call you."
Microsoft's official Answer Desk allows you to request that a tech support representative call you. So, at 1:06 p.m. ET, after selecting my device and asking for help turning on Hey Cortana, I left a phone number and waited. It said the average wait time was 4 minutes, and at 4 minutes, on the dot, I got a call back from Microsoft. The problem was that the automated, robotic voice had me wait on hold for another 15 minutes before connecting me to Mike, a live support agent. Even worse, Mike wasn't prepared to answer my question. I had to wait on the line for another 6 or 7 minutes while he researched the problem. All told, the call lasted 26 minutes, although only 4 or 5 of that was actually spent talking to someone.
My first call through the hard-to-find phone number — seeking an answer on how to turn on Cortana voice recognition — went so quickly that I didn't even have time to ask for the agent's name. I called at 4:23 p.m. ET and spent about 2 minutes wading the automated phone maze before being connected to a male-sounding support representative, despite warnings saying Microsoft was suffering from higher-than-average call volume. The agent immediately knew what I was looking for, and it took him less than 1 minute to guide me to Cortana's Settings panel in Windows 10 to turn on the Hey Cortana feature. The whole process took a grand total of 4 minutes.
My second call, at 6:28 p.m. ET, took place outside of regular business hours. I wanted to find out how to reverse the scrolling direction on the trackpad. This time, the high call volume warning was right, because after going through the phone tree again, I sat on hold for 10 minutes before being connect to Richard, who was located somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Instead of providing me with verbal directions, Richard asked to portal into my computer and take control himself. He quickly changed my settings. However, before signing off, he started the Automatic Update process on my Surface 3 without asking for my permission. He stayed on the line while the update ran. This added an extra 9 minutes to an 18-minute call. It was not a bad thing to run the update, but it was not totally necessary, and he certainly didn't need to keep me on the phone for the whole update process.
My third call took place a 9:18 a.m. ET, when I looked for help with pairing my Surface Pen to the tablet. After a couple of minutes on hold, I was connected to Shane, who quickly dispatched my troubles with some simple but accurate verbal directions for a total call time of 5 minutes.
It's clear that Microsoft would prefer customers to go through its online portal, and it's not hard to see why. It gives the company a chance to provide answers to FAQs, as well as guides to help you avoid having to wait on hold to talk to a rep. When I did contact tech support, answers were usually pretty accurate. When they weren't — as was the case over Twitter — the representative came back to correct the mistakes. But please — if I leave a number, don't call back until you have an answer prepared. This is something Apple has figured out. However, I like the idea of leaving a question and getting a response sometime later.
Microsoft doesn't have to support nearly as many products as, say, HP or Dell, but overall, I was pretty impressed with the service.