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<Gateway to Hell>

    By Daniel Will-Harris
Stupid computers, part I of, oh, two or three

My friends in Canada and Europe tell me that service in the US is the best. And yet, I wonder. More and more I see less and less service, at least, less and less good service.

For a while I thought that web sites would mean better service, but several recent experiences have made me wonder. Amazon.com is great—it really is a model for what web service should be. They have what you want, they have reviews from readers, they suggest other books, and once you order once they make it easy to order again in a single click, or modify your order at any time.

But I keep running into sites and companies that act as if service is their gift to you, rather than their responsibility, and that they are doing their customers a favor, rather than the other way around.

Before I get into this story, I have to make it clear that this was just my experience. Everything here is as it happened, but other people may not experience these same problems. OK?

>The 4th level of hell - phone menus

I bought a new computer, which should be exciting, but it's turned out to be a terrible experience. Yes, even me, with all my computer know-how, still has to suffer through this stuff.

The machine itself arrived with problems, but worse than that was the service along the way. The company's web site gave me three different prices for the same product but the least expensive quote never did have an order button!

So I called a real, live "sales associate," who made me e-mail the quote the site gave me, then told me the site was giving me the wrong price, then said they'd give me that price anyway. After forty-five minutes on the phone with this guy (why not 5 minutes?), I was going to be the proud owner of a new computer with more memory and disk space than the space shuttle. Yeaaa! (or so I thought at the time).

I get the order number and I try to track it on their web site, which is supposed to tell you precisely when it will arrive, and then take you to the UPS site to show you the tracking info once it’s been shipped. It said it didn’t know my order number or phone number. I called a real live person who read the screen and said, “Well, they’ve just changed the system and I don’t know what this code means.” What kind of brain-dead order system doesn’t just say what’s going on in plain English? What, were they saving pixels by not just coming out and saying, “It’s already shipped?” It took me three days, countless calls and waiting on hold, and I only learned the status when it unexpectedly arrived at my door.

So the computer arrived—with no receipt, no invoice, no paperwork. Now, I need a receipt for my records, and to get one, I called five people, got busy signals, got hung up on, got told that I just had to call them back and waste my time because they didn’t send me a paper receipt! This took me three days. I finally reached someone who said they weren't supposed to do it, but they'd just learned how, so they would.

>Just try to return it...

Then I discovered that the CD-ROM drive wasn't working correctly. I called the sales associate but he told me he couldn't do anything, and to call customer support. I called them and they were always busy, from first thing in the morning to the very end of their work day. And worse, you didn't just get a busy signal that you could use automatic redial on, you got horrible hold music, then a message saying they were too busy, and please call back.

Partly because I couldn’t get the CD problem resolved, I decided to call it quits and return the thing before matters got even worse. Little did I know this was only the tip of the iceberg. Can you say “Titanic,” . . . I knew you could.

For starters, are you getting as tired of automated phone answering systems as I am? The option I want always turns out to be 5 or 7, so I have to listen to all the others before I get to where I want. Well, with this phone system I discovered a new problem I hadn’t encountered before. There was literally no phone menu option for returning a desktop computer. Laptops, yes. The gigantic TV-computers, yes. Desktops, which I can only imagine they sell more of than anything else, were apparently lumped under "all others." When I got tired of the endless busy signal that greeted me under "all others," I called laptops. There I waited an hour, only to find out that they could only give RMA's on laptops, not desktops. Huh? Aren't they both computers from the same company? Why the runaround?

How hard would it have been for them to have taken a message and called me back, rather than forcing me to wait on hold for what felt like an eternity?

>A little fright music

And the hold music! Now, a week later, I'm just starting to forget. They had some breathy woman DJ, which was fine, but they made it seem live when it was really canned, and not just canned but short, so you had to suffer through the same Stevie Nicks song over and over and over. And you couldn't turn it down, lest you miss someone, should they actually ever answer the phone.

It took five days on the phone, and at least eight hours on hold to get through to someone to get a return authorization number. Their tech support was fine, but they couldn't do this for me. Everyone was nice on the phone, but said I had to talk to someone else. And the lovely phone menu had no option for returning a desktop machine, or talking to a real live operator. Maybe that's a clever way to avoid anyone ever returning a machine, but it just made me furious.

I even got so desperate I emailed the head of Investor Relations, explaining my problem and asking them to refer me to someone who could actually deal with my situation. Never heard back from them, nor from anyone they could have forwarded my message to. If this is any indication about what their attitude is towards their customers, is this kind of service meant to inspire people to invest in their stock?

The solution to this whole problem was, of course, my wife (who prefers to remain somewhat anonymous, the reason for which may become clear after you read the rest of this) . After days of hearing me ranting, she decided she could resolve the crisis. After two days of her own phone-hell, she called the corporate office and talked to a very nice receptionist who told her she would connect her to a special customer service person, and if they weren’t available, she could leave a message on their voicemail. Well, they weren’t available, and there voice mailbox was full.

That was the final straw for her, so she called the corporate offices back to complain and apparently scared the receptionist so much (I heard her, she was completely calm, just persistent), that the frightened receptionist connected her to a security guard! What did they think, she was in their parking lot on a cell phone, getting ready to storm the offices brandishing something blunt?

And it made me wonder, just how many people were calling like this, and didn't this give them a clue that something was wrong?

Well, amazingly, this security guard was the one person who actually made sure that our problem was sent to someone who could fix it! It's funny now, but it wasn't while days were going by, listening to what may very well be the worst hold music on the planet.

As I said previously, every person I was able to get through to and actually speak with was very nice and as helpful as they could be; unfortunately, the majority of them couldn’t do much to help me. This is merely my personal experience and may not be indicative of the overall level or service, support and product quality of this computer maker. I make this statement because it's true, and because it should make the lawyers happy. I have no axe to grind, I’m sure this kind of thing happens to everyone at one time or another, with everything from computers to toasters. I know it’s not an isolated incident. But it’s still a big problem.

>My mistakes

Well, I do blame myself for part of this. I should have smelled trouble along the way. Each time something went wrong I thought, "Well, that's understandable," and I just kept giving them another chance, and another, and another, until I was unable to give them a chance, because I couldn't get through to them to do so.

At the first sign of trouble I should have bailed. It wouldn't have been quitting, it would have been awareness and self-protection. They did not deserve my loyalty, because they did not earn it.

Four days after my wife got some results I finally heard from the supervisor of the sales associate who had been on vacation but hadn't changed his email message to reflect that. He told me the sales associate should have been able to do something. Like this helped.

And then I got a call from someone in the Executive Response team (a group so elite that apparently it has no e-mail address, or at least not one I could get or even the supervisor could e-mail). He left a message for me. Wow, what an improvement. His message said I had to leave my customer number when I called back. Remember, this is what they didn’t include in the box. In my next message to him I told him this. Although he had my name and phone number, he never called back. Some hot Response Team, huh?

And it never ends. I finally did get RMA numbers and return stickers for UPS, but the stickers said System/Printer even though I didn’t buy a printer for them, but didn’t have one for the speakers, and then the day I send it off, UPS delivers a second set of stickers with different RMA numbers, but still the wrong item names! I’m just praying that these things will get back to the right place, and that someday this century (I can honestly say that!) I will get a refund on my credit card!

>Lessons learned

If you get the runaround trying to order a computer from a site, or it takes a long time on the phone--think twice before going through with it. The sanity you save may be your own.

And if you run a web site for your own business, remember that your site can quickly become as important, if not more important, than your storefront (if you have one). Your web site isn't just some pages, it represents you and your company or organization, so if it doesn't work well or looks bad, then so do you.

Finally, the web isn't about technology, it's about people (not unlike Soylent Green, but without the unpleasantness or Charlton Heston's bad acting--no, don't write to tell me you love him and he's a great actor, if you think so, fine, I just think he makes apes look expressive).

So even if you do have a site, you must also have a way for the people who visit your site to contact the people behind your site. Not just the webmaster, but also people in sales, support, or whatever other departments you have. If you don’t want to include a phone number, that’s fine, but make sure to include an email address—and make sure to actually answer your mail, or within 24 hours at least send a response acknowledging their mail and saying that you will be answering it. Try to remember to treat customers the way you’d like to be treated. That just makes good business sense, doesn’t it?

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved