Compaq Computers and Actual Customer Service, Never the Twain Shall Meet

Here is a little story that may save you or your friends the pain of making the same sad mistakes that I have, mistakes that cost me about two thousand dollars, massive frustration and many hours out of my life and the death of what little idealism I still retained concerning Corporate America.

This incident could be about any corporation’s poor customer service policies or any corporation’s poor product design. There are few corporations of any size these days who really care about individual customers nor about offering any form of actual satisfaction when their products are found to be defective. This is a story about just one such corporation, Compaq Computer Corp., and their successful attempts to follow policy at all costs rather than to offer any relief to those customers whose purchases are found to be deficient in so many ways.

A wee bit of background. In Feb. of this year, I decided that I truly needed a laptop computer. The last one I had owned had served me faithfully for over three years and hundreds of articles and a combined total of probably months researching various subjects on-line over the Internet. One day in November of 1998, when I tried to start this old, Brand X system (Keystone, for those who have ever heard of it) it became very obvious very quickly that this laptop was off to digital heaven.

Early this year, I decided I was tired of trying to use an old 486 with WFW 3.11 to conduct the business of writing my articles and doing the research that demanded and began investigating the various brands and configurations of new laptops. I found that one system, from Compaq, while not being considered the most reliable system but being at least above average, was readily available from a nearby store, one I have often done business with. This laptop, the Compaq Presario 1277 to be exact, came with a number of programs that I desired already loaded so I figured that this system would be all I would need to continue writing and researching my articles as well as keeping track of my finances and maintaining my web site and the like.

Two days after I set the laptop up, expanded the compressed programs that I wanted to run and began working on designing a new look and feel for Another Perspective’s web presence, a strange thing happened. As I was working, the computer suddenly shut itself down and began the process of rebooting. I was amazed at this rather odd problem and began to retrace what I had been doing so that I might uncover what might have caused such a thing to happen. As I was, at the time, working in a web editor and using some graphics disks searching for suitable icons for the site, I figured that the fault probably lay with that graphics program or web editor and decided to finish the page as it was getting late and the system did come back on.

Over the next three or four days, I found that the laptop was rebooting itself at truly random times. It would do this while any of its programs were running and while I was both inputting data and while the system sat idling. There was no rhyme nor reason nor identifiable cause for this constant rebooting.

Within a month of the purchase of this system, I was on the phone to their tech support people. These folks were both patient and professional as they led me through dozens of changes to both the look and feel of the computer and its operating system, Windows 98 SE, and to the underlying configuration and files. All told, I think I spent nearly two hours waiting for or speaking to these folks over the course of five separate phone calls. No matter what was recommended, though, the system continued its random rebootings. I was even sent two discs that completely erased every single file and directory on the hard drive, reformatted it and then proceeded to reload the original suite of programs back into their original configuration at the time I purchased it.

After the three or four hours, or more, that it took to reconfigure the system to my preferences and to reload the hundreds of files that I had placed on a backup system, the rebooting happened twice within the span of the next hour.

Obviously, this wasn’t a software or a configuration problem. Instead, it was a hardware problem or, just as likely, shoddy components or workmanship. In any event, and in as much as I once lived in a time when customer service was a philosophy and not just a sign painted on a door, I decided that the unit should be replaced with one that actually functioned correctly.

I relayed this request the next time I spoke to Compaq’s tech support. I was told that the only option I was offered was to take it miles away to their nearest “service” center and to leave it there and they would try to fix the problem. Well, as anyone who has ever had to leave a piece of equipment somewhere for warranty repair knows, the time it takes to repair something can be anywhere from days to weeks to months and, in the case of a random and intermittent problem such as this, the repair would be determined by how long it took for the system to fail and for these repairmen to be able to dig deep enough to discover and repair the problem. Again, as many of you have experienced, when a problem is intermittent or random, the unit often is returned “good as new” which only means that the repairmen couldn’t find the problem so they just sent it back.

As I tried to explain to Compaq’s tech people over the phone, I need to have this laptop and to be forced to send it away for some unknown period of time wasn’t an option I could happily accept. I needed the system for many day to day purposes. I explained that I could very easily lose money from not being available to the editors who I was in the process of negotiating contracts with. I again requested that this system, which they must agree was defective from the beginning, be replaced with a new and reliable unit and that I would then immediately send this defective computer back.

I was informed that Compaq offers replacements for defective equipment only to those who purchase their “business” models, everyone else must take or send their systems to their “service” centers. Where is this little difference mentioned by Compaq? Not on the box or in the manual. Not at the store in their display areas. Maybe in their warranty cards? Can you figure out what those damn things are saying with their legalese and double talk? Neither can I. Sadly, I assumed that I would be treated with the same respect that they apparently reserve only for those willing and able to spend the additional thousands of dollars to buy basically the same system but one that is somehow differentiated as a “business computer”.

What I learned from this experience with Compaq surprised even me. First, you will never be allowed to speak to or exchange e-mail with anyone above the level of mere tech support (even one with the inflated title of “Customer Care Manager”). There are no e-mail address for these upper management folks and the techs with whom you are forced to deal simply refuse to offer any. Also, you cannot write to them via snail mail or call them directly because their physical address and phone numbers are never included in any of the operating manuals or other documentation that arrives with the laptop. There are no phone numbers, no addresses, no e-mail contacts whatsoever. The best that Compaq offers is a message from the lowly tech support person who claims to have shared my concerns with management and who also refused to do anything that might pass for customer service. To quote the message verbatum,

Dear John,
There are not any layers above me that can offer another solution.
I am a Customer Care Manager and this is the way this situation is handled.
This message has been reviewed by my managers and they have told me I handled it properly.

Thank you for choosing Compaq.

(The last statement has been nominated as a candidate for the “Never Again” award.)

So, what has Compaq Computer Corp. taught us about their corporate philosophy? They have taught us that customer service for individual consumers is simply one of “Take it or leave it. We sold you a shoddy and defective product, so what?!? We don’t advertise the fact that you are responsible for getting our poorly made products to wherever we choose to offer “service” because you might buy a better brand, one that, unlike us, has some level of actual respect for its customers! Hey, we already have your money so who cares what you think or how badly you are inconvenienced?”. We have learned that their service policies are kept as difficult as possible to determine before the sale so that they can then offer as little as possible after the sale. We have also learned that Compaq doesn’t want to hear your complaints about their practices and equipment, so they simply refuse any access to anyone above the level of mere technical support. That way, Compaq Computer Corp. can honestly claim, as Catbert of “Dilbert” fame once said in defense of his mean spirited corporate policies, “I haven’t listened to even one complaint!”

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Copyright 7/11/00