Click Here to read Thanks For Nothing, Dell, the saga that started it all.
There are lessons to be learned in life from everything we do, from everything that happens to us. Often, the lessons are subtle and it takes much introspection to figure it out. Other times, though, the lesson is glaringly obvious.
There was nothing subtle about the lesson I learned as a result of my recent experience with Dell Computer Corporation.
A Quick Recap
In December, 2000, I purchased a new, top of the line computer from Dell. I paid extra for a 3-year, next-day, on-site service contract because my business depends on my computer. On February 5, 2001, it crashed. First, Dell telephone techs mis-diagnosed the problem as the motherboard, even though they had the information needed to get it right. Then I discovered next-day really means "next-day after the local service technician who is going to fix the machine gets the part." It took them over two weeks to get the part to the service tech and the technician to me. And it was not even the right part. The service tech (not a Dell employee) took five minutes to diagnose and verify the real problem -- the hard drive.
There was another delay while the new hard drive was shipped, but it arrived, was installed, and then I got to enjoy reloading the operating system, all the drivers and other software.
My next-day service took 18 days. During that time, I got so many different stories from Dell employees, some of them contradictory, that I began to wonder when someone would pop their head in my door and tell me I was on Candid Camera.
On the sixth day of the saga I had decided to write an account of my experience. The editor of Backwoods Home Magazine (I maintain their excellent website) thought it would be interesting to their readers and it was posted on the web site. Eventually, I was contacted by a mid-level customer service representative (CSR) who, predictably, apologized profusely on behalf of Dell and offered to make up for my troubles by exchanging my old machine for a new, upgraded one. At my request, Dell also let me keep the old machine for very short money. I never wanted to be caught without a working computer again.
All that was well and good, but more important to me was the way I had been treated, how I had been misled about the service contract, how really bad some of the phone technicians were, and how a company like Dell, who had a reputation for excellent service, could not only drop the ball, but take so long to pick it up again.
The CSR told me my column had been brought up in at least one meeting, and I suspected their sudden largess was less an act of contrition on their part and more a response to the really bad publicity being generated by my column. While the BHM web site is not the New York Times, it does draw about 80,000 visitors a month and that is a lot of potential Dell customers. I could not help but wonder whether I would have been offered the same deal if I had not had such a public forum on which to publish my account of the situation.
I decided to find out.
While we were working out the details of their sending the new machine and my purchase of the old one, I told the CSR I felt an obligation to my readers to write a final, wrap-up column and that I wanted to send him a list of questions which he, or Dell, could answer to clarify certain issues brought up by my experience. I felt it only fair to give them time to think about their responses.
I emailed the questions on March 25 and as of this writing, more than a month later, I've not heard back from them. Given the questions I asked, I suspect Dell thought saying nothing would be better, publicity-wise, than answering them.
As such, I'm going to provide my own answers, based on my experience with the company.
Qs & As
Q1. Is it Dell's current official position that "next-day, on-site service" means "the next day after we ship the part to the service person?"
1a. If yes to (1), then is it Dell's position that, should a part not be available for six months, the customer will have to wait six months for their "next day" service?
1b. If no to (1), please detail Dell's official position.
A1. Yes to the question and to the 1a follow-up. While the percentage of people who experience service delays may be less than those who do not, it seems clear Dell does not plan to adjust their business model to prevent future occurrences of the problems I experienced.
Q2. Has or will Dell's position on the above changed because of this and similar incidents?
A2. Clearly no. At Dell it will be business as usual.
Q3. Doesn't the active marketing of a next-day, on-site service contract obligate Dell to maintain sufficient inventory of all parts necessary to enable Dell to provide the agreed service?
A3. Evidently Dell believes it does not. Their business model calls for low inventory of parts and if they run out, too bad, the customer will have to wait, regardless of the service contract.
Q4. Will Dell start to prominently display, on their web pages and in their ads where they mention or offer "next-day" service, the conditions that apply to the service? (Eg. Service is subject to parts being available. Service could take longer, even weeks, etc.)
4a. If yes to (4), when will these notices be added?>
4b. If no to (4), why not?
A4. As of this writing, their order page does not make clear the fact that service could take far longer than the advertised "next-day." If you click on the "Learn More" link for the warranty, it does state "Service is subject to parts availability and customer's contract with third party. Other conditions apply."
That still does not make clear you could end up waiting weeks, or longer.
Q5. How does Dell plan to address the problem of their support staff not providing consistent or accurate information?
A5. From their lack of response, I have to believe they do not plan to change anything.
Q6. Does Dell plan any change to their service procedures?
6a. If yes to (6), please detail the change(s) and provide a time frame for implementation.
6b. If no to (6), why not?
A6. It would appear not.
Q7. What will happen next year if my Dell branded machine crashes and there is no part available to fix it?
A7. I guess I'll have to take an unscheduled vacation again.
Q8. What will happen next week if the Dell branded machine of one of our readers, who does not have the public forum I have, crashes and there is no part to fix it?
A8. It would appear you'll be doing some waiting, as I did. But you probably won't be getting a call from a CSR offering you an upgraded machine or any other compensation.
So, what lesson can be learned from this experience? Should you consider Dell as an option next time you are in the market for a computer?
It depends on how lucky you feel.
Dell makes generally good machines. They are easy to set up and pretty easy to modify, should you want to add on in the future. However, a computer experience involves more than just the hardware. Three other things to consider are -- will your software run on it, will your printer and other peripherals run on it, and if something goes wrong can you depend on the company to solve your problem quickly and efficiently?
Lots of things can affect the way software and peripherals run on a computer. While the operating system is a factor, other components, such as the video card, can also affect performance. If something does not work correctly, you may have to upgrade or replace it. But that is true no matter what system you buy.
For me, the most important issue was service. I chose a Dell machine because I'd heard and read so much about their excellent technical assistance and service. At best, Dell service was spotty. Some of their telephone techs really knew their stuff. Others were obviously reading from a script and seemed to have little understanding of what they were saying. Still others spoke English with such a heavy accent it was difficult to understand them. And when push came to shove, and their "next-day, on-site" service contract was put to the test, they failed miserably.
It seems to me the real problems are less-than-qualified phone techs and having to deal with a different person every time something happens, or even if you just have a question. If prompt knowledgeable service is as important to you as it is to me, think twice about ordering from a company where you will be just a faceless problem on the other end of the phone.
I'll live with this Dell for the next few years. But my next computer will come from a local shop, where I can stand face-to-face with the owner or manager, where my phone calls are more likely to be answered by the person who built or is going to service my machine. Will I pay a bit more? Maybe. Maybe not. But if I do, it will be well worth it for the peace of mind.
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