28 June 2009

How Dell lost my business

The summer between my first and second years of my masters program, I bought a laptop. I justified this purchase by saying that I needed more computing power/storage/capability/flexibility/portability than a desktop to complete my masters and doctorate. I bought a Dell. I really didn't look at any other computer manufacturers. I had a Dell desktop which had performed well over the years, Dell as the leader in sales of personal computers at the time, and they had (for that time) the best deals on computers. Of course, that was 5 years ago. My how the playing field has changed.

The NYT reports this morning that Acer, the little Taiwanese company that could, is poised to take over second place in the sales of personal computers from Dell. That doesn't surprise me one bit.

At the time I bought my laptop, I purchased the smallest screen (12 inches, more portable), the fastest processor, the largest availability of memory, and the top of the line "glossy" screen. I also bought the most comprehensive, most convenient, most expensive service contract package they had available. The in-home, bumper-to-bumper warrantee, guaranteed for 4 years with a special number that ensured that I was given priority service. It was my understanding that the special number would ensure that I was always connected with American technicians. I was happy with every facet of the purchase. And for the first two years, everything was the bees knees. When I had my first problem with my computer, I called up Dell for warantee service and encountered my first problem with the company: the dreaded call center in India.

What happened to the priority American service I paid for? Turns out, I was given an 800 number to call, where I waited in line to be connected to Dell India just like everyone else. There was no "special number". When you are connected to Dell India and they realize you paid for the "special number" they either asked me to hang up and dial a different number (where I then waited in line behind every other caller again) or they transfer me to the proper department. More often, they transfered me to the wrong department, who transferred me back and the whole process began again. The $300+ I paid for the special treatment was a complete waste and actually cost me more time than if I had never paid it.

Strike one.

Service early in my contract period was competent, relatively speedy, and effective. They always had to send a technician from St. Louis, and since technicians are Dell contract employees, they get paid on the number of calls they complete in a day. Spending a half-day driving from St. Louis to southern Illinois wasn't these technicians idea of maximizing their earning power. And to make matters worse, they often required two trips to complete the repair. One trip to identify the problem and another to make the required repair. I actually had one technician suggest that I meet him half way. I suppose we were supposed to do the work at a rest stop or something.

I felt for them, but I paid a lot of money for top-of-the-line service. I refused.

But the next time I needed a repair, approximtely mid-way through year 3 of my 4 year warantee, something at Dell had changed. When I called Dell India, I was told I would have to work with them to identify the problem myself. This required that I take apart my own computer while they ran through a laundry list of potential problems. When I explained that A) I had paid EXTRA money for special service with American technicians, and B) my warantee specifically said that Dell technicians would do the diagnostic work, they claimed that things at Dell had changed and my service contract was no longer valid.

Whoa. Strike two.

Anyone who has dealt with Dell recently knows the futility of trying to talk to an American and of trying to move your way up the ladder with anyone in Dell India. I admit it. To save myself any MORE aggravation, I took my own computer apart and went with the flow. There was no more "special number" department for me to be connected to.

Strike three to infinity.

Actually, when the technician arrived that time, he basically installed new parts in most of my computer. It was a pretty good deal. My computer has held up as well as can be expected. I had to replace the battery (not covered under warantee). I bought an off-brand and I suspect that many of my current problems are from inadequate battery power. I basically have a portable plug-in computer at this point.

They say you get what you pay for. But in the case of Dell, you don't even get that. Dell did not honor the terms of the very expensive service contract that I bought. For this reason (and the fact that I detest dealing with Dell India), they lost my business. Forever. No amount of cheap computing power will ever sway me their way again.

Dell also changed the way I look at personal computers. The fact that I paid so much money for competent, efficient, quick, high-quality repair service gives an inkling of how important this is to me. The fact that I got nothing of the sort caused me to look at the service reputations of all the leading competitors to Dell. None faired much better than Dell. (Of course, I realize that Mac doesn't seem to have these service issues, but I'm locked into the PC route for now given that all my ancillary software is PC-based. And I have issues with Apple as well, just not as great.)

My decision was to treat a personal computer as a disposable item. Much like an iPod. I decided to buy the cheapest suitable computer and when it breaks, I'll just get a new one. They are now selling computers comparable with my current notebook at prices less than the price I paid for my premium service contract with Dell.

Dell, you want to know why you are losing customers to Acer?

I just told you.

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