October 22, 2003

Dell outsourcing costing customers?

Author: Joe Barr

Dell, Inc. may or may not be saving a ton of money by outsourcing its tech support, but it is definitely losing loyal customers as a result of the move. And if the comments I recently saw on the Austin LUG mailing list are any indication, the flow of customers away from Dell is only going to increase. Yes. It's that bad.

Take the recent experience of Thomas Cameron, a computer consultant in Austin, Texas, where Michael Dell is said to have started the firm selling boxes out of the trunk of his car while attending the University of Texas. Cameron wrote on the mailing list:

I was a HUGE Dell fan from probably '91 or '92 until the last few weeks. I currently have an Inspiron 5100. I will *never* buy another Dell again. Let me make this clear: I would sooner eat worms than spend another penny on anything from Dell.

Why the change in attitude? All it took was a couple of phone calls to tech support after he had a problem with the RJ-45 connector on his four-month-old laptop.

Concerning the first call, Cameron said:

I called Dell support, spent 10 minutes getting through the menu and then on hold, and got someone in India who obviously had not done well in English class. It took over 5 minutes for her to just get my name entered correctly. Then -- and I am not kidding here, folks -- when she asked me what OS I was running, SHE ASKED ME TO SPELL WINDOWS!

Cameron hung up. His next call was also routed to India. He was told that since the damage was accidental, he would have to pay $269 in order to ship it back to them for "diagnostics." The technician also told him that if the motherboard had to be replaced, it would cost another $699. That didn't sit right with Cameron, especially since he could get a complete refurbished model for about that same price.

He decided to call again. This time he was connected with a tech-support person in the US. But the story doesn't get any better. He was told to return to the laptop for warranty repair, at zero cost to him. That he did. After four weeks, he got the laptop back. It was accompanied by a letter saying it had been returned unrepaired after having kept on "billing hold." They claimed they had made several unsuccessful attempts to contact him. Plus they wanted to charge him the $269 plus $699 after all.

Cameron said he had called Dell three times while they had the laptop and had been told each time that repairs were "in progress." He verified that they had his correct phone number each time. Nobody from Dell had tried to reach him, regardless of what the letter claimed.

Frustrated and angry, he tried tech support again. They passed him off to customer care. Customer care listened for a while, then passed him back to tech support. Finally he reached a tech in the U.S. who really listened to his tale of woe. Dell sent him a new motherboard overnight (at no charge), and he spent four hours of his own time replacing the old one. Finally, after four and a half weeks, and never mind that he had had to do the actual repair himself, he had a functional laptop again. He says he will never spend another penny at Dell, and neither will his clients if he can help it.

Cameron's experience was seconded by others on the list. Another regular on the list, Dzuy Nguyen added that the outsourcing has sharply degraded the quality of service he gets from Dell, citing his experience of a Dell machine with an obviously bad DVD drive.

He thought all it would take would be to let the tech hear the clunking and clattering noises from the DVD when he inserted a disc. But no, that wasn't enough. He spent an hour on the call, rebooting a number of times, running various tests, and being told once to remove and reinstall the drive himself.

He noted that what seemed like a full two-second delay between speaking at one end and being heard on the other did little to improve communications.

Jim Westbrook is a sysadmin responsible for a large number of Dell machines. He related a tale of two Dell desktop machines of fairly recent vintage which he has finally given up hope of ever getting repaired. They both needed to have power supplies replaced. The last thing he heard from Dell support (this after having been shipped the wrong power supply for each) was that the vendor who supplied them is no longer in business.

Cutting costs is good business -- up to a point. But it remains to be seen if customers will stick with Dell (or anyone else) when the service and quality they expect gets cut. Outsourced or not, short-term savings or not, horrible tech support is not going to prove beneficial to Dell in the long term.


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