'Geek Squad' Aids Tech-Challenged

Iran's Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee speaks after a vote sanctioning his country during a session of the United Nations Security Council, Wednesday, June 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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The first time Bruce Dougherty tried to get his home wireless network up and running, it was a bust. The former marketing executive had to enlist his son's help, and still there were problems.

So who did he turn to when he wanted a network upgrade?

"That's my geek, Johnny," Dougherty said happily outside his local Best Buy store, gesturing toward a young man in a snappy black-and-white Volkswagen Beetle emblazoned with a "Geek Squad" logo.

Best Buy's Geek Squad employs white-shirted men and women with snap-on ties whose mission, for a fee, is to convert consumer wrath about complicated gadgets into warm and fuzzy feelings.

Like Dougherty, many consumers are warming this holiday season to expanded tech house call services offered by Best Buy Co. Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc., CompUSA Inc., and Dell Inc.

The retailers' traveling alpha geeks help customers with everything from home theater installations to virus removals to setting up gaming consoles. They even program remote controls.

"It's less of a do-it-yourself and more of a do-it-for-me marketplace now," said Sean Skelley, a senior vice president of services at Best Buy. His company, the nation's largest electronics retailer, acquired Geek Squad in 2002 and turned the 60-employee company into a 6,200-strong 24-hour service.

Since August, it's had a Geek Squad precinct in each of its 650 stores. Now it's selling house-call gift cards, including a $129 card specifically for setting up digital camera equipment and software.

Problem-solving missions include any electronics — not just Best Buy purchases.

Dell recently expanded its at-home services to include nights and weekends, and last month, strengthened its lineup to include not just basic computer setups and wireless networking, but also the installation of PC accessories, Internet connections and e-mail accounts as well as moving files from an old computer to a new one.

The direct-to-consumer tech titan now also sells and installs plasma TVs.

Circuit City, which has been offering at-home installations for wireless networking and home entertainment systems for about two years, last month expanded services into more PC-related problems.

Its new "IQ Crew" is being tested in three cities to help customers — either in-store or at their homes — to fix a computer, remove viruses or do software or hardware upgrades.

Electronics retailers say customers have asked for such assistance for years, especially as often vexing digital devices have gone mainstream.

In the past, Dell's customer service representatives would sometimes refer callers to Microsoft Corp., antivirus companies, Internet service providers or other manufacturers because the technical problems weren't covered under Dell's service warranties.

"Now we say, we can do it, but for a fee," said Jennifer Jones Davis, a Dell spokeswoman.

At Best Buy, natural-born technicians on the staff felt handcuffed about providing certain services that they didn't have the tools or job descriptions to handle. Now, the Geek Squad includes "counter intelligence agents" or CIAs, and "double agents" who both work the store counter and do house calls.

"Technology is going to keep changing, and our service is built around fixing anything and everything," said Robert Stephens, the Geek Squad's founder and chief inspector.

Prices for house calls start at about $100, depending on the task. Circuit City and Best Buy provide 30-day warranties, and Dell promises return house calls if the technicians somehow don't properly complete the job the first time.

But caveats abound — consumers should read the fine print, which often includes extra fees for additional services, some time caps, and warranty exemptions for such things as user error.

Last week, Mark Reardon, a double agent with Best Buy's Geek Squad in the San Francisco Bay Area, was dispatched to the home of a 12-year-old who wanted to be set up to play online before the highly anticipated release of the Halo 2 video game.

Reardon worked until 9 p.m. to wirelessly network three PCs and hook up the Xbox, and by midnight, the boy was standing in line with hundreds of others to purchase the game.

For a flat-rate of $159, Reardon handled another assignment: configuring a wireless router at the Brentwood home of Tom Guercio.

"I considered it a reasonable amount to pay, and it's a learning experience," said the 51-year-old former sheriff's deupty as Reardon tapped away at a desktop keyboard in his den, next to Guercio's prized fishing pictures and reels.

Reardon, who not only wore the white shirt and clip-on tie but also the requisite black pants, white socks and black lace-up dress shoes — patiently explained what he was doing as Guercio watched intently and fired off questions.

"You going to show me how to encrypt?"

"If you want," Reardon said.

"How come MSN won't let me come up on the laptop without paying another $10?"

Reardon showed Guercio what he had been doing wrong.

"Will my wife be able to use the laptop at the airport?"

Reardon explained how.

Reardon spent almost two hours at the home, not only setting up the router but discovering a nasty adware infection. Guercio couldn't be more pleased.

"I'm glad I didn't set this up; there's a lot more to this than I would have thought," he said.

Electronics retailers are happy, too.

Best Buy expects $650 million in revenue this year from repair, installations and delivery services — of which computer-related services are a significant component, Skelley said.

And the retailer expects double-digit growth from Geek Squad services in the coming year.

The deep-pocketed retailers are tapping a multibillion dollar computer-services industry that analysts say has been largely underserved and fragmented, with small, locally based businesses.

Demand will only grow, said Colin McGranahan, an analyst at Bernstein & Co. Inc. "With the complexity of inter-networked devices, from audio players to TVs and computers," he said, "things are getting more involved than what most consumers are comfortable with."

Best Buy hopes that means more calls for its men and women in geeky black-and-white. But don't expect them to wear pocket protectors.

"We are the auto mechanics of this generation," Stephens said. "We're a little bit Dragnet and Ghostbuster, but this is not revenge of the nerds."

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.