No Farmer In The Dell -- My Dead Laptop and Customer Disservice

December 13, 2011

This is an update of an article that originally appeared in Forbes' "Intelligent Investing" on November 13, 2009. I warn you: It's not going from bad to better; it's going to get worse and worser.

In the early 1990s, I purchased Gateway computers for my fledgling law firm. Maybe I was partial to those cute boxes that looked like cow hides. Whatever the deciding factor, I filled my law firm with Gateway products and was a happy customer--you might even say a contented cow.

Sometime around 1995 or 1996, I needed to buy several new PCs and printers to accommodate my law firm's expansion. I told my in-house IT manager to call Gateway and place the order. A few days later, my IT guy knocked on my door and complained that he had been trying for several days to get through to Gateway but was left on hold. Curious, I immediately dialed Gateway's number and after 15 or so minutes on hold, I hung up. My IT manager suggested we call, which he said was just as good and equally priced.

You mean you want me to dump Gateway? Everything we have is from Gateway. We haven't had any problems with the computers. And don't forget those cute cow boxes and mousepads. The manager shrugged. Gateway was well-priced and the equipment had held up but maybe the inability to get a human being on the phone to place an order was a bad sign, he warned. That was a great point, and it got my attention.

Computer by computer, printer by printer, the years passed and soon all our Gateway equipment was replaced by Dell. Frankly, not only didn't we notice any inconvenience from the switch but Dell's service was superb. For the few problems that came up, we got someone on the phone at Dell and a solution was found, or they picked up the part and quickly replaced it. Moreover, every computer I bought for my personal use--all my home PCs, laptops, printers and routers--were purchased from Dell. I went from being a content Gateway cow to a happy farmer in the Dell family.

A couple of years ago I bought a Dell XPS M1530 laptop. In early October the trouble signs started to show--my laptop was wearing down. Frankly, I tend to buy a new laptop every three years, so I'm not complaining. My M1530 will be relegated to the role of second computer (a.k.a. the "backup"). However, I needed to move quickly before my current laptop crashed and burned. Better safe than sorry.

On or about Oct. 22, 2009, I telephoned Dell's customer service to find out what replacement laptop they would recommend. I made it clear that my M1530 was dying and that I needed a replacement within a couple of weeks at most. A very helpful rep went through all the permutations with me and I decided upon a Studio XPS 16. I was told that the laptop would be shipped within two weeks or so. On Oct. 22, Dell sent me an e-mail confirming my purchase. In fairness to Dell, the e-mail confirmation noted that the estimated delivery date was Nov. 18, 2009, but in fairness to me, I had made quite a point about needing something before my M1530 gave up the ghost.

On Nov. 5, I turned on my laptop and was notified that my battery was failing and needed to be replaced. A short while thereafter, the "$/4" key became stuck. It's difficult to practice law these days if the $ sign doesn't work. I mean, geez, I gotta be able to type dollar signs if I'm going to be a lawyer, right? Then, about an hour later, the "-/_" key stuck. OK, so dashes and underscores aren't the end of the world but you still need to use them. I went online and ordered a new battery and keyboard for the wheezing M1530. Thankfully, I had ordered that new XPS 16, and it would be in my hands in a few days.

On Nov. 6, I logged on to my Dell account and was a bit shocked to see that the status of my order was "in production." Still not shipped? Hmmm ... was something wrong? I wondered. There were several times I tried to speak to someone at Dell but the pre-recorded message stated that Dell was experiencing unusual (see, you need the underscore key) call volume and I could be on hold for at least 10 or more minutes (yet again I'm pushing and pulling up on the underscore key). It's that "or more" part that gets frightening. Not being able to hold on forever, and not being told how much longer I would be on hold, I slammed the phone down in frustration three times. I then used Dell's online e-mail message to request an explanation.

On Nov. 9, I got an e-mail from Dell titled: "Re: Dell Support Request: Stolen System (KMM103411923I57L0KM)."Stolen system? Now that got my attention. When I read the message from Dell Online Customer Care Representative Swati Bhanda, Rep ID 148506, I learned, among other things, that:

I understand that you are concerned about the delivery of your order number 922XXXXXX, as it is delayed. Also, I see that you are not satisfied with the level of service you have received from Dell. I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused to you. I assure you that we will look into this issue and will work on making improvements based on your feedback ...

I sent back a very lawyerly response (which, OK, some might say was an incredibly pissy and annoyed missive). In that reply, I expressed chagrin at learning for the first time from Mr. Bhanda that my order was "delayed." I also complained about my inability to get a human being on Dell's order status line and wondered if the delays in answering calls were not so much caused by unusual customer demand as by unacceptably low levels of staffing. I also pointed out that customer service was apparently so overwhelmed that someone had erroneously input my query as that of a "Stolen System." How could my system be stolen if Dell hadn't even delivered it and was confirming that production was delayed? Ever the brilliant cross-examiner!

Then I took the big shot. That threat we all love to make. I warned that I was considering canceling my order if Dell could not commit to a firm delivery date. I threatened to buy an Apple! I also asked Dell to offer me some price reduction for my inconvenience.

On Nov. 10, I received an e-mail from Dell Online Customer Care Representative Gagan Sharma, Rep ID 129653. The message was still titled: "Dell Support Request: Stolen System (KMM103480489I57L0KM)."Oh my, I fretted. My new laptop is still stolen. Mr. Sharma's e-mail advised me, in part:

I understand that you are concerned about the delivery of your order number 922XXXXXX, as it is delayed. Orders can be canceled for a variety of reasons. I see your order was canceled on 11-09-09; however you were not charged. I am unable to determine the reason for the cancellation ...

With a fully flushed face, I pounded away at the numbers on my phone and called Dell's 800 number. I got someone on the phone. Damn right I'm "concerned" about the delivery of my laptop. I need a new computer, and soon. By the way, don't blame me--you folks have admitted that this is now officially a "delayed" order. And what's this crap about my order being canceled "for a variety of reasons?" I didn't cancel the order! I'm trying to find out where the hell it is. Oh, by the way, do you think I'm going to thank you for not charging me for an order that you canceled? And what's with this crap about you being unable to determine why you canceled my order?

In response to that barrage, "Nigel" (that's the name the Dell operator gave me) finally filled me in on what no one had yet to tell me. A wi-fi component in the Studio XPS 16 was defective and had resulted in massive returns. In response, Dell apparently stopped production of the model and was replacing the defective component. Well, so much for being unable to determine the reason for cancellation.

Then things got even more absurd. Nigel confirmed that Dell had not merely delayed the production of my laptop but had canceled my order. Of course, this is the same un-built and unshipped laptop that Dell thinks was stolen. Nigel then added that Dell had also re-entered a new order for the Studio XPS 16 laptop. A new order for what, I impatiently asked? For the XPS 16 with the new wi-fi, Nigel answered. And when will that be shipped? I asked. Unfortunately, Nigel could not give me a firm shipment date. Nigel then transferred me to another department. Trust me, at this point I was in no mood for the "please hold while I connect you to ..."

My transferred call was picked up by a phone rep who had no idea why I was put through nd made me go through the entire story yet again. Apparently, I needed to cancel the replacement order for the original order that Dell told me they had canceled but had also re-entered for shipment whenever the new part came in and whenever they got around to building and shipping my laptop. Of course, there was no mention of a rebate or discount to me for this aggravation. Following this conversation with the phone rep from the unidentified department, Dell sent me yet another e-mail, which now confirmed that all my orders were canceled.

I know you've had similar experiences. You fall in love with a smaller firm that seems to abandon you when it gets bigger. You make a phone call to purchase or return or exchange or explain something, and you can't even get a human being to give you something approaching an intelligent answer. At some point, organizations may become too big and are victims of their own success.

Too many layers of managers. Too many delays in problem solving. Too many foolish cost-cutting measures that result in the alienation of customers and employees. We welcome these behemoth companies into our lives because they start off with superb service and prices, but then, when we weren't looking, they morph into something we detest. Worse, these giants often become cancers that destroy smaller competitors and limit consumer choice.

For me, this incident isn't so much a lesson as a reminder that bigger isn't always better. It is this type of interaction that forces me to pause when I read of the government trying to get into health insurance or attempting to reform Wall Street. 

It is the same pause that years ago led me to warn that financial supermarkets were doomed follies. It is the same pause that gives me the courage to question whether overblown bureaucracies such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or the Securities and Exchange Commission can ever function effectively.

Ah, just what I needed--another e-mail from Dell, which just came in as I typed the last paragraph. In what world and in what language does this remotely pass for logic?

Thank you for your recent purchase of a new Dell. While preparing your order to be built, a back-end issue was identified that would have delayed its completion and shipping to you. To resolve this issue, we were required to cancel your original order and replaced it with a new unique order in order for it to build and ship without further delay.

If you have any issues with your new order, please contact the Order Modification Department at 1-800-247-2076, option 2.

UPDATE

So, here we are, 2011, two years after my failed Dell XPS 16 purchase. Sometime in November, my current laptop starts to give up the ghost. I've seen the signs before and I know it's simply waiting to ambush me: I'll be in the middle of some 200 page legal document that must be sent tomorrow and, whammo, the computer will freeze, all my text will be lost, and when I try to re-boot nothing will happen. At that point, I'll go to the neighborhood computer whiz who fixes all my computer problems and he will look at the departed laptop, shake his head, tell me to buy a new one because the hard drive is fried, and, well, I'm sure you've been there. These things last about three years and then explode.

Hoping to head off another last-minute disaster, I spent hours online checking out laptop reviews, watching posted videos, and visiting retail outlets to try my choices out. Didn't like this brand. Didn't like that brand. Sort of liked this feature. Didn't like the weight on this or the tacky keyboard on that. I was thinking about a HP, until I heard rumors that they were going out of the computer business, or weren't, or might, or, oh well, not taking that chance.

In the end, it came down to my desire for a 17" screen and either an ASUS or an Apple -- and, yeah, I know I'm nuts, but also a Dell XPS.

No sooner did I finish reading Steve Jobs' biography then I opted for the Apple. I own an iPhone and I love it but, whoa, taking on a whole new operating system and environment for my everyday laptop? I was really scared about that, plus Apple equipment seems a tad over priced (or I'm a tad cheap). Of course, I wasn't sure that I was quite ready to turn my back on over a decade of PC left click-right click and the whole Microsoft menu.

Still, the ASUS looked pretty good and I liked what I was playing with at Best Buy. Of course, I got a bit scared when I read growing consumer complaints about product failures and glitches, and the not so supportive customer support. Like you, I too wondered : Were some of those complaints planted by competitors? Then there was the other issue. Try as I might, hoping to lock eyes, willing to wave my arms like a frenetic human windwill, I just couldn't flag down a Best Buy salesperson. Some were busy checking their personal emails, some were busy chatting with each other, and some were apparently prepared to spend hours with one customer. So much for the old bricks versus clicks. I was headed back online.

Then, in retrospect, I did something stupid. I did one more configuration at Dell.com and telephoned their order line -- actually got a nice young salesperson on the phone. I gave him my wish list: 17" screen, 8GB, 9 cell battery, Intel i7. He quoted me a price (which I too had gotten from going online previously). I then regaled him with my 2009 tale of XPS woe and insisted upon some unhappy customer discount. I got it.

For whatever reason, maybe a combination of cheap and stupid, I called back and bought a spanking new Dell XPS 17. Of course, I had a pointed conversation about how I wanted an assurance that they had the parts, that they would ship the unit within a couple of weeks. To the extent that a company can promise, Dell did.

Lo and behold, the unit was timely shipped and Sunday, around 5 PM, I opened the box. The first three pages of the set-up manual call for plugging one end of a plug into the power converter. Did it. Then to plug the three prongs into the outlet and the other end into the computer. Done.

Now, with bright-eyed anticipation, I got to the third step: Push the "POWER" button on. Did it.

Alas, I shoulda know better! Idiot!!

Five little Adminstrator screens popped up and reduced to the bottom of my bright, new 17 inch laptop screen, above the gaily lit keyboard -- all so festive. To top it off, a bright, flashing red screen filled the middle of my brand new laptop: FAILED . . . FAILED . . . FAILED . . . FAILED.

That didn't seem like a good start.

I called Dell's special, super-duper premium customer service number for help. I got a Rajiv who spent some 40 minutes having me re-boot, hit F12, re-boot, hit F8, re-boot, try this, re-boot try that. Finally, poor old Rajiv threw in the towel and put me on hold to have someone arrange to schedule an in-home visit.

Okay, up to that point I was upset, angry, and livid, but not at Rajiv. That was, up to the point that he left me listening to atrocious taped music and then disconnected me. And then he never called back.

Now, in full fury, I re-dialed the not-so-special customer number and someone whose name sounded like "Gurdjief" told me that I may have gotten a virus on my new laptop from surfing on websites. In not so calm tones, I may have asked him how the hell I would have gotten on the Internet if I couldn't even turn on the computer? He quickly retreated and volunteered that maybe my hard drive was damaged or the software was corrupted. Gurdjief then sent me someone who I think was Abhishake.

To his credit, Abhishake seemed to have been a Dell veteran. He understood that, at this point, I had been on with four different Dell folks in one wrong and three right departments for nearly three hours. He asked me to send him a screenshot of the FAILED message. Politely, ever so politely, I informed him that I couldn't do that because, one, my new laptop wasn't working and that meant I couldn't use "Screenshot," and even if I could, I couldn't connect to the Internet and send him an email because I wasn't able to set up my mail program or Internet browser. Abhishake and I came up with the clever solution of taking a photo of the screen with my WORKING iPhone and then sending that image to his Dell Address through my WORKING iPhone.

Thereafter, Abhishake simply arranged to have a new hard drive shipped to my home, by Tuesday, the latest, he promised; and, to have a technician visit my home to install the hard drive, by Wednesday, the latest, again, he promised. I mean, geez, it's Sunday evening, what the hell am I supposed to do at that point?

Monday morning I'm back on my old laptop, still using the old wireless G router. The new N router sits in the bag, along with the new 1T portable drive, atop the new WiFi printer -- none of which I'm going to install until the damn Dell laptop is fixed.

I go to log on to Dell's online customer interface and it goes from bad to worse. My recent order is not on the system. When I log in the customer number, the order number, and the service tag, the system says that the order doesn't exist -- despite the fact that the damn computer is sitting on the floor next to me and I have the shipping invoice. I then phone Dell, once again, and I got another guy named Rajiv, once again.

Rajiv the Second tries to placate me and keeps me on the line as he calls Worldwide Tech Services, to prove to me that the hard drive has been sent to the company and to make a firm Wednesday appointment for my at-home visit. We hold for a bit and finally get a operator at Worldwide, who drily informs Rajiv that they don't have my hard drive, sort of suggests that Dell isn't always so swift when it comes to sending out various parts, and refuses to schedule my appointment until the part is in their possession.

To make a very long story a bit shorter, it's about 2 p.m., on Monday. No one from Dell has confirmed that their tech persons will be arriving at my palatial estate on Wednesday to install a new hard drive in my NOT WORKING XPS laptop. Of course, for all we know, there's nothing wrong with the hard drive presently in the machine and once the new one is swapped in, the damn thing may still not work. Then again, miracles never cease: maybe my XPS 17 will come to life, for how long, who knows.

I know that computers are filled with lots of high-tech and not-so-high-tech parts. I know that Dell doesn't intentionally build a computer with faulty components or has a secret business plan to ship defective merchandise. I also know that they would much prefer to have me a happy customer rather than the irate one that they have created.

So, you know what, I got most of my health and hair, I'm still employed despite the Great Recession, and I'm gonna take a deep breath here and go with the flow -- until Wednesday. By then, the damn XPS 17 sure as hell better turn on and work -- hum along on all 8 gigs and 1T and 9 cells. If not, I'm going to fling the thing against the wall, jump up and down on it a few times, and carefully put it back in its original shipping box and return it for a FULL refund to Dell. Then, after all of this, I will probably just go to the local Apple store and pray that I can move years of files from my PC-based drive onto whatever the hell it is that Stever Jobs created. If it doesn't work, you know what, I'm getting tired of practicing law anyway and if I have to answer email from my iPhone, so be it.

Stay tuned -- assuming that you can boot up. If my Street Sweeper column disappears for a few days or weeks, be patient; Rajiv, Gurdjief, and Abhishake are probably all trying to get the lady at Worldwide Tech Services to locate my missing hard drive and to get some guy name Murray or Waldo over to my apartment for the installation.