And on the 366th day, the Lord said: Bugger, me hard drive just failed

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And on the 366th day, the Lord said: Bugger, me hard drive just failed

We’ve all heard the anecdotes about somebody buying a computer with a one year warranty, and it then kicking the bucket on the exact 366th day they own it. This is why I’ve always thought of myself as rather smart about buying computers and components, always forking out for an extended warranty – usually around three years worth for a computer or notebook.

This support, the thinking goes, entitles me to extended technical support and replacement parts over the expected average useful lifetime of any machine I buy (yes, they could go for a lot longer than three years, but this is in my case.) It means that, in theory, I should never have to roll out of bed, turn on my computer, watch the hard drive keel over and look at the calendar to find that I’m SOL by about a week.

For this reason I’ve always been a fan of technical support, especially after viewing it from a business point of view. If a moderately sized business or government department rings up the technical support of any of the major players and says “We need a new hard drive,” or perhaps “We need two hundred new hard drives,” then you can expect next day delivery at the latest. Ass kissing inclusive in the deal. However I recently had a consumer-level encounter with Dell’s tech support that may change my opinion forever.

In early April the hard drive on my Dimension XPS 300, with a lovely extended warranty on the lovely expensive invoice, started to get a tad erratic. The SMART tool popped up telling me that the drive was about ready to keel over, so I rang Dell tech support. No problem, thinks I, they’ll just make me run a few tests to confirm it and then give me a replacement drive.

Therein began the adventure. I can live with the automated crap these lines usually sprout out in small doses, and got through to a tech support agent fairly quickly. Service tag, name, number and email address go out. This is my problem I tell the chap. Run these diagnostics the chap tells me. I run them. They fail and throw out specific error codes.

“Ok,” my Dell support agent tells me, “Let’s try and reformat the drive, stick a new copy of Windows XP on it and just make sure to be sure.” Fine, I think, not a problem. The HDD is wiped clean, a pristine copy of XP goes on and we run the diagnostics again. Same problems crop up and the same two-hour tests fail. It has only taken half a day, but I’m Joe Consumer, not major-government-department, so I’ll put up with it.

Then comes the spanner in the works. The following conversation never actually happened mind you, it’s a grossly fictional account dredged from my imagination which takes the spirit of the conversation I had with my still ever so helpful Dell helper.

“Right, well now we’ve confirmed that the errors are there, could you just hang on to the drive until it actually fails?” What? You mean, can I hang on to it, rebuild it and then wait for it to actually fail? “Umm, yes.” Even with two lengthy tests and a continuing smart error popping up? “Aha.” You want me to take the time to rebuild it, only so as I can have it wiped and do it all again in a week or two, when the drive actually fails? “That’s about the size of it, yes.” Right. Ok.

They’re having a laugh… at my expense, what’s more

Bugger that. It was late and nearing the weekend, so I left it and called back Dell support the next week. This time the automated and rather quite upbeat message quite annoyed me. The music was horrible. What is it with this music? You either have to listen to it, fading in and out so you can’t even do that properly, or ignore it and continue whatever work you’re doing with the chance of missing someone who comes onto the line? Hrmph. Anyways, this time I got through to a completely different call centre. This one was in India.

All the jokes about being able to understand the people on the other end aside, I gave this chap the case reference number for my woes. “I can’t use that,” he tells me. What? Can’t you just call it up from your database? “We don’t use the same database. I have to open a new case number.” Great, so now I have two case numbers for the one problem, spread across two continents no less, and this chap is going through steps 1 to 5 without being able to deviate from them; even though I can even read off the error codes he’ll want me to find when I run the same tests I ran (twice…) the week before.

Brilliant, just brilliant. It sure is feeling like it’s worth the $288 I paid for the three year upgrade to my warranty. This guy in India is supposed to call me back the next day at 10 am. No such luck of course, and so I go on the war path, only to be stopped by the “Please press 1 for headache…” message on the other end.

I do eventually, after going through two people and countless menus, get back to the tech support centre I originally started with, who were blessed enough to have my case number still in their database. The person I got onto even knows the first guy I spoke to who ran me through the original tests. Great. Perfect. “Can you run the tests again?” I’m asked, quite politely.

Some thinking is done on the other end, whilst I listen to some more holding music. Eventually, after running about six hours of tests, five calls over four days; across three tech support agents and two continents they relent and give me one new hard drive. They even offered to send out an engineer to install it, but it would take up even more of my time I suspect than simply sticking the new drive in at a time that suits me. I won’t tell you what I’m worth on an hourly basis, but between the time and the perseverance I had to put in to get a HDD that I technically already paid extra for in the cost of a warranty, well it cost me a bit more than the original asking price.

This is sadly not an uncommon occurrence, and technical support in the IT industry, and beyond of course, is a bit like a running joke. If ever anything breaks down on you, no matter how much extra you’ve paid for the tech support and insurance of a warranty, you’ve still got hours and hours of frustration and battling to go.

The kisser in this case was asking me to hang onto the ailing hard drive, but the straw that really broke the camels back was then being routed to a separate tech support centre, having to jump through the time consuming hoops again and then, to top it all off, getting no call back one way or the other. I don’t care if the tech support agents are in India or if they’re in England, that’s irrelevant to the level of service.

When one calls tech support and can produce a problem they should fall over themselves to fix it quickly. If I’m showing that a component is about to fail then I shouldn’t have to wait for it to actually fail, especially after wiping the machine in my efforts to ensure the problem can be reproduced, before I can get a replacement. We pay money, they provide service. In theory…

Dell, HP, Gateway… name a manufacturer big and small and in many cases you’ll hear horror stories about tech support. Why is this? It’s not like we’re getting the service complimentary with our machines. Companies need to buck up their tech support for consumers and stop shagging us around. “It’s an isolated incident…” – “We’re working on it…” – “We constantly strive to improve…” are the usual responses one sees on the likes of the BBC’s Watchdog to these things. Lot of those isolated incidents going on these days, wouldn’t you say?

Perhaps instead of wasting breath making excuses we can put a few more PR and marketing people into the tech support end of the pool, might help alleviate congestion in the system.

Dell Response

We put this article to Dell after writing but before publication. Here is their response in full:

Dear Aaron,

many thanks for giving Dell the opportunity to respond to the article that you are writing on technical support. On behalf of Dell, may I sincerely apologize for your less than perfect customer experience. For the benefit of your readers, it’s worth making the following points: Providing a world-class customer experience continues to be one of our company strategic initiatives and a way by which we measure our performance as an organisation. Quality, expert post-sales technical support is of key importance to our customers. Over 80% of Dell technical support queries are resolved satisfactorily first-time, over the phone or Internet, resulting in a quick and efficient service for our customers.

The remaining issues tend to be more complex, requiring further technical diagnosis, more detailed software support or the replacement of parts through our service package offerings. Dimension and Inspiron XPS products are supported by dedicated, high-end teams, based in Ireland or the UK. On at least one occasion, you contacted the general technical support number, which meant you were routed to our Dell International Services center in India. This was not a major contributory factor to your issue resolution as the calls were subsequently transferred to the appropriate team or you were given the correct number but it did cause some delay and some frustration on your part as you felt that your query was being passed through two continents and described it “as the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

As you say, it’s irrelevant where the service comes from as long as it’s efficient, but it’s fair to point out that your account of dealing with two separate centers would not be part of the service typically experienced by other Dell customers. In your case, following telephone-based diagnostic testing, the hard drive was still reporting errors though it had not physically failed. We fully accept that our technician made an error of judgement and should have, at that point, booked a replacement hard drive to be installed onsite at your premises. This led to an unacceptable delay in replacing the part. Likewise, your call should not have generated multiple case numbers. Rest assured that your feedback will feature in future coaching sessions with the relevant team members.

Dell takes pride in providing a quality customer experience. Ownership of the issue and clear communication is a fundamental part of our training programme for all employees. The customer surveys we conduct tell us that the overwhelming majority of our customers are very happy with our service. We recently won Best After-Sales Customer Service in the ComputerActive 2005 Readers’ Honour List and the UK Best Service & Support Award, Notebooks – What Laptop Annual Awards(UK). Obviously, this does not mean that our service and support are “perfect” in every single customer case and that we always get it right. We are continually focused on improving our offerings so that we can provide an even better service to our customers. We listen to customers and deliver what they value. Thank you for your feedback.

Sincerely,

Aamir Paul
Director of Customer Services
UK and Ireland