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The cost of poor customer service

The cost of poor customer service

Loyal customers can be tough to find. So why do some companies run them off with crappy customer service? Often because the employees who care have no authority to fix problems, and those with the authority don't care. Today, let's hear the story of reader Boyd, his Dell XPS420, and the data corruption problems he had when running a disk array. Then let's hear how two other small service companies do much better support.

Boyd wanted a high powered desktop with RAID 0 (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). RAID 0 isn't really redundant, but it combines two drives into a single volume, spreading data across both physical drives which the user sees as one big drive.

Since two disks acting as one drive isn't typical on a desktop, Boyd carefully checked the Dell Web site to be sure the PC he wanted supported the feature. It did and he bought one. The Dell XPS420, with an Intel Quad Core Processor, starts at $799 and goes up depending on amount and type of memory, hard disk size and other details.

As often happens with PCs, things didn't go well (read about my fight with an HP running Vista). Turns out the RAID controller chip on the Dell XPS420 has been reported wonky on community forums, which explains why Boyd couldn't fix it. After multiple conversations with Dell support, they shipped him a replacement XPS420.

If only they'd read the original paperwork and configured the box the way Boyd had specified the first time around, things might be better. Dell didn't. It did send a tech to swap components around, but the disks would never work without corrupting the data.

Boyd had just about resigned himself to not having the disks done the way he wanted when someone from Dell corporate called him on Oct. 7. He remembers that date clearly because it's not often a corporate executive calls a customer and chews him out, telling him, according to Boyd, he had no other recourse and all the issues were of his own doing.

Unfortunately, he was so taken aback he didn't get the name, and Dell PR hasn't been very helpful. Of course, if they check their own phone records and find the person who made the call, I'd love to talk to him. He can explain how Boyd has caused RAID problems for all the other XPS420 owners looking for help on Dell's support forums.

Let's see what can happen when you turn a longtime customer into an enemy. Boyd says, "I have purchased well over 100 Dell systems in the past few years and recommended hundreds more for others to buy. I have now switched all my clients and friends to Hewlett Packard. Just this year, I've purchased 24 Hewlett Packard systems for the four companies I have an interest in, and will change the other 75 units in these companies in the next 24 months. Just Saturday, I purchased a Hewlett Packard 17 inch laptop that would have been a Dell. Yesterday I got a phone call from a man that asked about a Dell XPS system and I advised him to purchase another brand. It turned out to be a $5,000-plus gaming system."

Oops, I'm guessing profits on a $5,000 gaming system are pretty good, but Dell didn't get that business, either.

Jennifer Didier, owner and president of Directions Training Center in the Chicago area, told me: "Only 4 percent of customers will complain if they receive inferior service. However, 91 percent just go away because they feel complaining will do no good."

Ouch. They don't complain, they just buy from a competitor.

Unfortunately for vendors, unhappy customers like Boyd tell their friends. Didier says: "One dissatisfied customer will tell 10 people of their dissatisfaction, who will in turn tell 20 other people. Happy customers with complaints resolved will tell between three and five people."

So how can you resolve a complaint, thereby switching your customer from venting to 10 people to cheerleading your magnificence to five? Didier has a "make it right" budget option available for employees.

"Each employee has a 'make it right' budget so when an issue does arise, they can take a client to lunch or have the monetary resources available without having to get management approval, which eliminates the wait time to resolve issues." Didier does training -- an emotional process full of employee-to-customer interaction -- where a misstatement can cause a real problem. Or, for Didier's employees, a problem can lead to a lunch to clear the air. Much cheaper in the short and long run.

Another way to stop unhappy customers from complaining is to build up good will above and beyond the norm. Kim Brand, CEO of Computer Experts in Indianapolis, told me about a recent customer problem that wasn't their problem at all, but they fixed it nonetheless.

"Last Friday one of our techs took a call from one of our good customers who happened to be traveling. He couldn't send e-mail. This is not too rare since many hotels offer free Internet, but don't mention that they block port 25. Our tech got the support guy on the phone from the provider that managed the wireless in the hotel and managed to get him to unblock port 25 for our client's MAC address. This was done in a series of calls, callbacks, remote desktop sessions and three-ways that left the customer very happy and very impressed."

Did Computer Experts make a sale that day? No, but they have a grateful customer who may never switch vendors, no matter what.

Before you ask, I didn't set out to pick on Dell. I've had my arguments about its rebate program in the past, but my Dell desktop and a Dell laptop I bought for my son six years ago are doing fine. When I drive past Dell headquarters in Round Rock on my way to Austin I wave. Maybe next time I'll think of Boyd and wave showing fewer fingers.


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