Friday, April 10, 2009

Two experiences with customer service, a world apart

Since we've gotten two new gizmos here over the past month (dell mini + kindle2), I've had a few chances to enjoy giant-corporate phone support. At times past I've felt like all companies end up being equally frustrating, but my recent experiences leave me feeling otherwise. Here's a look at two very different experiences -- Amazon and Dell.


I had various issues with my dell laptop's ubuntu installation out of the box. First, the weekend I got it, the Dell software repositories were down for a few hours, so no kind of update or installation would work at all (I had no way of knowing at the time that this was a temporary problem). Next, a number of things weren't working too well -- the machine had crashed several times (more than any linux machine I've ever used before), ssh was not working (so I couldn't copy all my working files from my other machine over our network), and I had found a reproducible bug that crashed the dell launcher every time I changed the background. Finally, I had questions about whether and how to update the machine from 8.04 (what it came with) to 8.10 (what is current); the standard ubuntu procedures didn't seem to be supported, but it seemed like it would be worth trying an update to see if it fixed some of the issues I was experiencing.

I went to Dell's website to see what I could see. I found a phone number and a chat support link. I called the phone line and opened up the chat support, figuring I'd learn which was faster. The chat took about 10 minutes to connect me with a service representative. I had to type in the service code from the back of the computer, etc., before I could describe my problem to them. When they learned the issue I had was with their ubuntu set up, they informed me I had to call a phone number (a different number than the one listed in my docs on the machine and on the website). At this point, I hung up the phone (I was on hold all this time) and called the new phone number. I was on hold on the order of 45 minutes before being connected to a service representative, to whom I had to read various serial numbers off of my laptop etc. When she learned that I needed support with their ubuntu installation, she told me I needed to talk to their ubuntu experts who were only available from 10-5 (it was 9:50 at this time -- I'd been trying to get support for over an hour at this point).

At 10, I did try calling the number I'd been given again, but when I heard tones and a computerized voice saying "you're being forwarded", I got suspicious I'd been moved out of the ubuntu support area anyway, and gave up entirely.


Katharine's new kindle developed a dead pixel (or rather, a dead line -- a whole one-pixel-wide vertical line of white) some time a few weeks ago. When you're reading, you barely notice it, but it's the kind of thing that's worth getting repaired while it's under warranty.

Today I decided to get around to calling support. I googled "amazon kindle support" and the first web page I found informed me that I could call, or I could sign in with my amazon account and have them call me, in which case they'd have all of my information ready. That sounded better to me, so I signed in under Katharine's account (to which the kindle is registered). I chose "hardware defect" from a dropdown menu of potential problems, chose "now" from a menu of times at which I'd liked to be called, entered my phone number, and clicked "Call me".

A window popped up telling me the phone was ringing and sure enough my phone rang. A computer voice told me I'd be waiting for 1 minute. In a few seconds I got a human. He confirmed that I really was Katharine by asking for my name and address (okay, I'm not Katharine, but I know enough to fake it). He talked me through how to hard reboot the kindle. I was pretty sure this wouldn't do anything, and sure enough it didn't. He confirmed that this sounded like a hardware issue and said a replacement kindle would be in the mail today and would most likely arrive by Monday. He said an email would go out to Katharine with tracking information, information on sending the defective kindle back, and directions on registering the new kindle to her account.

The whole process was done in just under 9 minutes (my phone has a timer, so I know).


In both cases, I was calling tech support for a new product (Dell has just released the Mini-12 with ubuntu, within the past few months; the Kindle2 is under a month old), so in both cases the support training etc. must be relatively fresh. But the design, polish, and programming behind these two systems was worlds apart.

In Dell's case, they seemed determined to disappoint at every step. Their advertised 24/7 support does not apply for software issues. Add to that a slew of technical problems in their ubuntu setup and you have a lot of frustrated ubuntu users. But when you try to access them through their phone and chat support, you get bounced around on the phone with no indication of where you are, how long you'll be there, or how close you are to getting help.

Amazon doesn't offer 24/7 support either, but when you go to their website, it's very clear what they do offer (the hours are right there). They also make it easy for you to save them time and money by having them call you after you've logged in, which gives them all of your account information and so on and prevents you from having to read awkward serial numbers in on the phone. The minute I got on the phone, Amazon gave me an estimate of how long I'd be waiting, so I knew whether I should settle into some other task while on hold or not. When I got a hold of a representative, the representative already knew everything about me, so all I had to do was confirm my address (I didn't need to spell anything out since he surely had the info in front of him on a computer screen).

Dell obviously understands that phone support is frustrating -- they've added chat support which is surely cheaper for them to implement and less annoying for many customers. But they haven't linked any of this to your account information (which would bypass all of the serial code reading), and they haven't linked their website directly to their phone system.

I realize Amazon had a lot of advantages in this comparison -- a hardware problem is easier to diagnose and support than a software problem; they also obviously had more call center people on hand when I called. That said, a lot of this is simply a question of design. Even with the same resources, I'd imagine if Amazon had designed Dell's system, my experience would have gone something like this:

1. I go the Dell website, log in under my account, and then say I need support.
2. I answer a few quick questions (drop-down menus) that determine that I have a software problem and I have the Dell-supplied Ubuntu 8.04 operating system.
3. I come to a screen that tells me that Ubuntu support is available from 10-5. I can either call a phone number listed there, or enter my phone number to have Dell call me at a specified time between 10 and 5. I click "call me at 10"
4. At 10:00 I get a call with an estimated wait time. Presumably even with the same staff, my wait time will be substantially less now that my call has been directed correctly, since their phone support people aren't being tied up redirecting misdirected customers, having people read out serial numbers, and so on.

Surprisingly, the redesign would actually improve my experience by replacing two human-to-human interactions that I had with computer interactions: first, instead of chatting with a person, I could have used a dropdown menu to tell them the nature of my problem; second, instead of waiting on hold to find out when software phone support was open, the web page could have told me. I know humans are normally nicer to talk to than computers, but when all you want is to give some basic information, a well designed form is much better than a human you have to wait to talk to.

A final note: I have no idea how good the Dell techs are at troubleshooting and supporting you over the phone, because I never got to one. Now that I know it takes upwards of an hour to contact them, I'm highly unlikely to call their support again.

Luckily, google has a plethora of information about all things linux, so I was able to learn a few key things that Dell support likely wouldn't have known anyway, such as how to fix ssh on their install (which is broken by a broken wireless setup by default), how to activate ubuntu repositories properly for the low power intel architecture dell shipped with, and why upgrading to 8.10 won't work yet (even though a Dell salesperson told me she was pretty sure it would).

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