Despite the fact that PCs are sold as if they were like any other consumer durable, there has long been a disparity between the level of after-sales service you get from a PC supplier and that from most other retailers.

A no-quibble money-back returns policy is often taken for granted in general retail, over and above the 'fit for purpose' concept of consumer protection law. Try finding a mail-order PC supplier who will agree to a refund without lengthy debate with a customer services supervisor first.

A special case?

Having bought an onsite warranty for a washing machine, you can reasonably expect that if it breaks down during the warranty period, a technician will come to your home and repair it.

But if your PC breaks down, expect to spend hours on the phone with a technical support operator who talks you through half a dozen possible solutions before telling you that the machine must be returned to the manufacturer. Objecting on the grounds that you have an on-site warranty is fruitless: the technical support operator tells you it's a motherboard problem which can't be fixed in the field. Kiss your PC goodbye for a week or two.

What is it about the gravity on planet PC which distorts the normally accepted rules of consumer protection laws? Are PC suppliers shysters or do they have a special case?

All things to all customers

The problem stems from the way in which PCs are sold — as if they were like any other consumer durable. But a washing machine, hifi, tv or mobile phone is relatively simple compared to a PC.

Consumer electronics devices tend to be fit for one purpose: a toaster toasts; a mobile phone makes and receives calls; a hifi plays music. But the PC is a multipurpose device. It can be a tv, a hifi, or — given the amount of cooling required in a modern PC — could make passable toast.

PCs are advertised as if they will change your life, bringing you new dimensions in communication, business efficiency, entertainment and personal productivity. It's all true, but only provided you have the technical proficiency to wield the PC like a craftsman wields his tools.

Not quite riding a bike

The reality is more likely to be hours of frustration shouting at a screen displaying indecipherable error messages while listening to the supplier's helpline hold music.

Eventually, after much reading, browsing, trial and error, listening to 'experts' and practising zen-like patience, some of the fog lifts and the PC will begin to do what it has taught you to tell it to do. Only then do the possibilities promised by the ads seem vaguely achievable. And after weeks of fruitless chagrin, being able to print a one-page letter seems like the pinnacle of business efficiency.

But if first time buyers were warned of this risk, there wouldn't be so many PC suppliers.

What is the solution?

One route is to use the power of the PC to make it more simple to operate, to dumb it down, to limit its multitudinous possibilities and put a cap on what PC makers whimsically call 'user configurability'.

But every other year Bill Gates promises us a better Windows that will enrich our lives and make the PC an indespensible lifestyle companion that fulfils our every command. But every year the complexities multiply and the crashes get messier.

Another solution is to raise the level of knowledge among customers.

PC suppliers are fond of saying that you can't buy a car without learning to drive.

"We've supplied you with the hardware and that's our role, but it's yours to get the best value for money from it," said James Sanders, services director at Tiny, Britain's biggest indigenous PC maker.

In other words, you don't buy a car and then moan to the car dealer that you can't drive it. Cute analogy. But it doesn't absolve PC suppliers from their responsibility.

A big problem needs a Tiny solution

To be fair to Sanders, he's very aware of the dilemma, having come to Tiny in March this year from customer services in various retail and consumer environments.

Hence last week Tiny launched its 10-point customer charter, aimed at resolving the dichotomy between conventional consumer retail and the special case that exists in the PC business.

Admittedly much of the charter is aimed at managing customers' expectations, a euphemism for feeding customers the truth about the pitfalls of owning a PC in a palatable way. "We can show what we can do for a customer, but we also need to make it very clear what we can't do and why," said Sanders.

So, for example, there's a 12-month return-to-base warranty as standard, or you can purchase one-, three- and five-year on-site cover. You can pay to have your PC unpacked and set up — including internet access — by a technician when it is delivered.

Owning up

But the charter also contains elements designed to alleviate some of the most frustrating experiences which occur when a PC purchase goes bad. For example, if the same hardware fault occurs three times within a year of purchase, the whole PC is replaced automatically. And the warranty covers all the peripherals — monitor, printer, scanner, digital camera — not just the system box as it does with other PC manufacturers. After all, if you bought the stuff from Tiny, your contract is with Tiny.

Ever since PCs were sold to unsuspecting consumers en masse — ie for about the last seven years — the PC industry has been in denial that it has been creating its own problems in after-sales support. Therapists say that recognising a personality problem is half-way towards solving it.

If that applies to the PC business, we've got a long way to go before consumers are truly and routinely satisfied.