Every day Sinclair receives up to 50 pleas for help. And incredibly they are all dealt with by one woman, Ruth Bramley. Here we look at how she manages to cope.
WITH 250,000 ZX-81 sales under the belt of Sinclair Research, the technical advice department is inundated with enquiries every day, covering an ever-wider range of points.
Many people might think that Sinclair employs an entire team of experts to deal with the mounds of technical queries pouring in daily but, in reality, one person copes with them single-handed.
Ruth Bramley: up to 50 letters a day.
Now housed in the recently acquired, plush offices of Sinclair Research in Cambridge, Ruth Bramley, with some help from her secretary, deals every day with the sometimes daunting task of replying to technical enquiries about the ZX-80 and ZX-81.
On the surface that part of the Sinclair operation appears a simple one. If you write to the Cambridge headquarters or telephone with a technical enquiry, nine times out of 10 you will be given a prompt, helpful answer.
Behind the scenes, however, it resembles organised chaos. As the only technical adviser for Sinclair, Miss Bramley has to deal with all the letters and telephone calls on the subject. On an average day she handles between 30 and 50 letters and calls.
About a year ago she was receiving something in the region of 20 to 30 letters and calls a week, which shows how much ZX-81 sales have increased in that time.
People of every age like to know about the ZX-81, ranging from schoolchildren who have just started using the machine to middle-aged people verging on retirement who do not want to let their brains go stale, through to the elderly who find tackling some such new concept an interesting challenge.
"If children write or telephone me, I will take extra trouble to sort out their problems because, after all, they are the adults of tomorrow who will be using this technology all the more", she says.
With such a wide range of people wanting information, it is inevitable that they will make a variety of requests and need many different problems solving.
"The biggest query is undoubtedly from people asking about cassette loading and almost always it is because people are using a recorder which is not compatible", she adds.
To cope with the demand generated by that query, a standard letter has been devised which tells the user how to set the correct signal level, the correct type of jack-plug to use, how to avoid noise from mains being recorded on to the tape, and how to align the tape properly against the playback head.
With the letter is also sent a list of cassette recorders which have proved to be compatible with the ZX-81 and which produce the best results.
The process of answering written enquiries is time-consuming. It starts at the Cambridge King's Parade HQ where the letters arrive. Once opened, a small team of people sort them into various categories. Many require a standard brochure about the computer containing details about both the hardware and applications software available and how to order goods.
Anything of a remotely technical nature goes straight to Miss Bramley. Others are sent to her equivalent in the sales, engineering, production and complaints departments.
"I like to have the letters in and out the same day, otherwise I accumulate an enormous backlog", she explains.
Most of the letters are helping people with programming problems. With programming forming part of her mathematics degree course, together with a spell with a software house, she is unlikely to experience great difficulty.
"Many of the programming enquiries are from people, often children, wanting to know how to deal with data read and store. There are two standard letters we send dealing with cassette loading difficulties, problems experienced with the 16K RAM pack, and hints on how to save and load with the ZX-81.
"If there is anything really specific which requires a separate answer, I will see what needs to be done and send a reply", she says.
If she receives a number of queries about one subject, she considers compiling a new standard letter to solve the problem.
The only queries in her sphere which she sometimes finds difficult to handle are those connected with engineering. Yet there is no problem there, because she can go to the engineers at any time.
Questions she deals with alone include modification of the ZX-81 and enquiries about the circuit in the machine.
Her secretary deals with the general administration of the small technical enquiries department but the two share an office with five girls comprising the sales and administrative department.
If she is particularly inundated with paperwork and is unable to answer a telephone enquiry, the other girls are capable of dealing with basic technical questions, like saving and loading.
The method of handling enquiries by telephone is just as efficient as dealing with the mounds of mail. Since December she has set up a logging system recording every telephone enquiry with which she deals. For each call she answers she notes the date on which it occurred, the time of day, the caller, and the points the caller makes - in her own code.
Frequently callers telephone again and her log enables her to find quickly and easily what the previous enquiry was about.
At the moment there are no plans to employ another technical expert to lessen the workload but if interest in the ZX-81 continues to grow as much this year as it did last year, it will not be long before the technical advice department expands to keep customers satisfied.