The Gripe Line: Best Customer Support?

The leading candidates for Best Technical Support in InfoWorld's Product of the Year awards have changed a great deal in the last few years. The basic criteria remain the same, however: Where can readers turn to be sure they get the help they need? And this year the vote wasn't even close; by far, the most reader nominations were made for the Sybase newsgroups.

Our winner, then, is all of the Sybase newsgroups located at the forums.sybase.com news server, particularly the sybase.public.sqlanywhere.general and powersoft.public.sqlanywhere.general forums. Readers believe they got the best of both worlds on the Sybase newsgroups in that they can often get multiple answers to their questions from experienced users, "Team Sybase" volunteers, and Sybase employees.

"As a user of multiple Sybase products, I have found their publicly available newsgroups invaluable -- mainly because of the amount of sharing by both Sybase employees and the user community," one reader writes. "Often when I need support that involves an explanation or opinion, a news post gets the answer within hours. ... The advice is usually informative and honest, without some of the RTFM/RTFFAQ backlash often found in other Internet newsgroups.""Some newsgroups are better than others, but sybase.public.sqlanywhere.general stands head and shoulders above the rest," a database application programmer writes. "The signal-to-noise ratio is extremely high. More than 70 percent of the messages posted contain subject matter that is of interest to me, and I read the newsgroup regularly just to see what other programmers are discussing.

... The only time a question does go unanswered is when it is incomprehensible, and even then somebody will usually respond by asking for more details. This is a peer-support newsgroup, but several Sybase engineers monitor it regularly and provide answers to many of the grittier technical questions."Sybase newsgroup fans endorsed the approach Sybase takes: accepting posts only from those who register, but allowing everyone to read all the posts. Not only does it help prevent the spam that plagues so many public newsgroups, but readers believe it also helps form a sense of community among participants.

Jim Battey, InfoWorld senior associate editor and author of Infoworld.com's HotSites and HotSites Extra Web site reviews, graciously agreed to help me judge this year's nominations, and he concurred with readers that the Sybase newsgroups are a worthy winner.

"The newsgroups provide an excellent forum for users to seek and obtain technical support, share ideas, and communicate with other users and Sybase support employees," Battey says. "I was very impressed with the quality of the discussions and the variety of messages."Although the Sybase newsgroups were an easy winner, quite a few other contenders drummed up a significant showing. While it's hard to choose one from among them, I think an honorable mention has to go to jwflite@onelist.com. This is a list dedicated to helping blind computer users learn to use the Henter-Joyce Jaws For Windows screenreader, and according to many participants it goes beyond support as we know it.

This marks the first time the Best Technical Support award has gone to an Internet entity, but I'm sure it won't be the last. Sybase deserves credit for providing its customers with such an effective support tool, but the customers themselves deserve even more credit for providing such effective support to one another.

(Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com, or visit his forum at http://www.infoworld.com.)

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