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Return of the service demon


I've had remarkably good customer service (most of the time) for the past several weeks, so it's no surprise that today saw the return of my customer service demon.

Yes, this is yet another Jed Complains About Customer Service entry. Feel free to skip it.

(For those of you who're new around here: Ever since I moved back to the Bay Area after college, in '91, I've been having really remarkably bad customer service experiences. Sometimes it's at least partly my fault; for example, I often don't speak loudly or clearly enough when ordering in restaurants, and I often fail to make allies out of customer-service people. But various of my friends have long agreed that the kinds of things that happen to me do go beyond what they would expect even taking my failings into account; for example, ordering quietly at a restaurant should not result in the waiter entirely forgetting to deliver my order to the kitchen. I took to referring to the phenomenon as my "customer service demon" some years ago. It disappeared for a while during and after my Wanderjahr in '96-'97, but every so often it pops up again.)

I ordered a nice big flat-screen monitor from Dell on Monday. (Got a special discount through work.) I selected the "three-day shipping" option, which was the cheapest (and slowest) of the available options, though still fairly pricey.

On Monday night, according to the shipment-tracking web page on DHL's site, DHL picked up the package from Dell. Thursday afternoon I checked the tracking page again and saw that there was no update in status since Monday night. I called DHL, and a nice friendly person told me that since it was traveling by ground, there wouldn't be an update posted 'til the package arrived in California Thursday night. "But," she added, "we guarantee delivery tomorrow." I think she even repeated that guarantee a little later. I figured, well, four-day delivery isn't so much worse than three-day; I can live with that. Not a big deal.

But I got home from work tonight and found no package. Checked the tracking page and saw that it had arrived in Fresno at 9:00 last night, and had arrived in Redwood City at 7:15 this morning, and apparently hadn't gone anywhere since then.

I called DHL customer service. The woman who answered was relatively nice, but had no idea what might have gone wrong. She sent a message to the Redwood City office and included my phone number and asked them to call me tomorrow. I said, "Do you deliver on Saturday?" She said, "Only if the shipper sent it as a Saturday Delivery package." I said, "Since I was guaranteed that it would be delivered today, I'd like you to deliver it tomorrow." She said, "I'm sure the Redwood City office will be happy to discuss that with you when they call you tomorrow, sir." We sniped at each other a little longer, then I got off the phone. I had, alas, forgotten the extremely helpful first rule of customer-service interaction, which Arthur H. taught me a while ago (I'm loosely paraphrasing here): treat the customer-service person as if they and you are friendly colleagues working together to deal with a difficult problem that isn't the fault of either of you. But I did more or less remember my second rule of customer service interaction: As soon as it becomes clear that they can't or won't help you, or that they aren't going to be able to understand your question, end the conversation as quickly as possible.

So I thought, hmm, I probably can't get them to do anything to make up for failing to deliver on this alleged "guarantee," because presumably if they made a guarantee it was really to Dell rather than me. So (I thought) maybe Dell can exert some pressure on them to deliver it on a Saturday.

So I called Dell's customer service number. I entered my customer number, and I navigated three or four levels deep into their phone tree. There was a brief snatch of music. Then another, different. Then silence. A minute or so later, the line went dead.

I tried again. Same result, only after the second momentary snippet of music, a recording came on the line:

"Thank you for callatee for callatee for callatee for callatee for callatee for callatee for callatee for callatee for—"

I've never heard a major business's answering system skip before. I pressed zero to see if I could speak to an operator, and the line went dead.

I tried one more time. And after entering all my information again and navigating the phone tree again, I finally reached a recording telling me that it was after hours and there was nobody to talk with me.

So I went back to the Dell website, where I'd found the phone number (with no mention of what their hours were). There was a "Chat With Us" option that said "Get an immediate response from a Dell representative." I followed the link and reached a page of half a dozen possible departments I could chat online with. Only they all said "All agents are currently busy. Please refresh the page to see if agents become available."

Come on, people! Lands' End, not exactly the highest-tech company in the world, has a queue system that lets you line up to chat online with customer service. But all Dell can manage, despite being one of the biggest computer companies in the world (and don't they have a reputation for excellent customer service?) is a page that you can keep refreshing until someone's free.

I came back a couple minutes later and reloaded. It told me someone was free now. I clicked the link and was told to type in info about myself and then to type my question. I did. It told me that now nobody was free to talk with me.

Repeat above paragraph, except that this time I just pasted in my question instead of typing it, so it took a total of maybe ten seconds between clicking the "chat with representative" link and clicking the submit button on the form. And it still told me nobody was available to talk with me. So even after you click the link to chat with someone, you still don't get into a queue; it's just pure luck whether you happen to be able to type fast enough to get to the available rep before someone else does.

Third try's the charm. I did it again, fast as possible. And got . . .

. . . a page saying that I wasn't actually a home or home-office customer, so I would have to contact them some other way.

They couldn't have told me that ten minutes earlier; no, they had to wait to tell me that until I was fast enough to get all my info in before the service person was busy again.

At that point, I resorted to their email support system. We'll see if it's any better. (I did get an autoresponse from their email support system; it told me that it might take up to 24 hours for them to reply.)

It's possible that DHL will tell me tomorrow that they're very sorry and they'll deliver it immediately. But I ain't holdin' my breath.

Well done, demon!

I should mention that I'm not actually bitter or angry about this; mostly just wryly amused at this point.


hmm... this seems like a problem that cries out for a solution involving a live-trapped mouse. ;)

i hope you have much joy of the monitor, whenever it does arrive!

It's not so much that Dell has a reputation for good customer service as that Dell has a reputation for spending lots of money advertising their customer service. In fact, isn't their latest expensive ad campaign all about how their customer service people are there all night, and on holidays, and so on? Perhaps it would be entertaining to attempt to figure out how much of what you paid them for the monitor went to that ad campaign, and how much went for the actual customer service you attempted to use.

My own experience with Dell's customer service has been mixed. I've chatted with people who sounded friendly and informed and whose instructions made the problem worse, and with genuinely helpful people, and with really sour unhelpful people who obviously were just trying to get rid of me. But then, I generally needed more detailed help than "Dude, where's my Dell?"


I think Vardibidian may have come up with the solution, a way for you to get your foot in the door with their customer service reps: Try the "Dude, where's my Dell?" approach! Then maybe they'll start playing along like it's one of their commercials, and you can slyly slip your real question in and hope that--in a moment of improvisatory confusion--it gets answered before they realize that your question wasn't in the script.

I deal with Dell support somewhat often, and I've found that the email contact option provides the fewest opportunities for things to go tedious. Maybe it's not the best for time-sensitive things like getting your monitor delivered on the weekend, but the amount of back-and-forthing is considerably diminished compared to a phone call.

Someone from the Redwood City DHL office called me this morning to give me the unpromising news that the local manager was looking for my package, and if he found it it would go out with today's delivery, but if not it would have to wait 'til Monday. She said she would call back if they couldn't find it in time. I figured if she called back I would offer to drive up to Redwood City and pick it up.

A few minutes later, another call, from someone at the DHL central office, to let me know that someone from the local office would be calling me to let me know my package's status.

I just checked the tracking page, and it says the package is "With delivery courier." So in theory it's currently on a truck and speeding toward me at this very minute! I'll keep y'all posted.

Thanks for the various pieces of advice! They cheered me up. ...But I'm so out of sync with the zeitgeist that I was only vaguely aware of the "Where's my Dell?" catchphrase, and I hadn't seen the commercials. If I had, I might've tried it on the Dell people—except that I couldn't actually contact any Dell people; all of my interactions with them last night were via automated systems that were carefully doing their gatekeeper job to prevent any unauthorized access to their humans. Humans' time is valuable! Wouldn't want to waste it interacting with customers.

Huh, that was pretty snide, wasn't it? Maybe I need to go have some breakfast.

In other news, the mousetraps remain empty.

That line about Dell's CS being award winning is all bullshit. ALL! I'm really starting to think that award was given byt he nice folks in the PR department.

Anyway, yes, your customer service demon is quite a nasty one. I have a minor one, but I put him in place by being an Angry Black Woman(tm) to CS people most of the time. Getting angry doesn't always produce results, but I have found that the more abrasive I am the more they are willing to hand me over to a supervisor just to get rid of me. then I become nice once more.

I've told you the whole story about how I got Verizon Wireless to credit my company over $800 just by the sheer force of my angry blackness, right? I did the same with AOL last year.

If you need me to call DHL, let me know. ;)

Well, the actual catchphrase from the ad was "Dude, you're gettin' a Dell!", but that has morphed with the title of the movie Dude, Where's My Car? to the point where any actual human who speaks to customers would be well familiar with that version. Alternately, you could ask "Dude, where's the beef?", which would be a nice moment of cultural whiplash as long as the person on the other end of the line had been born before 1980.

This whole story reminds me of my own customer service demon, which was once vanquished mysteriously by an anonymous customer service angel? non-demon? benefactor?: After my senior year at Bryn Mawr I shipped back all my stuff, except a sturdy cardboard paper-shipping box with all the silkscreens prints I'd created during my time there, which I checked onto my United flight (direct flight, Philly to SFO). When I arrived in SF, my box of irreplaceable art did not arrive with me. I filled out the forms, spent the night at my aunt's, and by morning United still hadn't found my box, but promised they'd keep looking. I drove back home to Fort Bragg, and kept trying to track down what had happened.

After several days and several phone calls, I was on the phone with a United rep, who said that they just didn't know where my box was, but that they were mailing me a form to fill out, which they would send out to all their international carriers to try to find it. As we were discussing the likelihood of my box ever being found (the rep was uncertain), up drove our Rural Route postal carrier; she honked twice, got out of her car, and brought my box of artwork up to the front door. It was postmarked San Francisco. I was still on the phone with the United rep, to whom I explained that my box had arrived by U.S. mail, baffling both her and myself. They had no record of it anywhere in their system. All I could figure out was some person at United at SFO had come across it, knew it had gone missing, and as my name and address were on it ready for shipping (I had been planning on shipping it but thought checking it would be safer!), just took care of it. The rep sounded extremely glad to be off the hook.

I wrote a letter to United Customer Service, telling them the story I've just told here, and also how United had once been my airline of choice, but I didn't know if I would be able to use them anymore after what had happened (fishing for a free ticket, anyone?). I got a very nice letter back (but no free ticket), apologizing for what had happened, grateful my possessions had been returned to me, and hopeful that it wouldn't keep from using Untied Airlines in the future. Yes, Untied. I photocopied it, highlighted the word Untied and mailed it back to him with a note in the margin that said, "That was the problem in the first place." It was low of me, I know, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I actually still use United all the time, but in my head they'll always be Untied.

Jed, I hope your story ends on a similarly positive note, and that you not only get your flat screen monitor, but that you like it and want to keep it! Sending it back might unleash horrors!

Hee! Excellent story.

It obliquely reminds me of the story of how my father and mother met, or at least how I remember the story, which may not have anything to do with reality: they were both in line at the post office, and Peter looked at the package Marcy was carrying and saw that it was addressed to him, and introduced himself. (They had a mutual friend who had recommended that Marcy send something or other to Peter.) Some day I'll have to ask Peter if that's really true, but it's such a good story I would hate to have to stop telling it. ...Perhaps it has something to do with why the USPS has always been good to me, though I'm not sure which direction is cause and which is effect.

I still use United too. I actually did get a free ticket from them after I complained about a serious problem with their security screening in Boston. (This was years before September 11.) But mostly it's just that they seem to generally have the flights that are cheapest and/or most convenient for most of the places I'm going.

When things are FUBAR (customer-service-wise) and after I have tried everything in terms of calls to customer reps, e-mails, etc., I have had had great success with one method, which I have used twice in the past seven years, namely the ol' letter to the CEO.

Two keys: (1) Get the Corp HQ street address and FedEx the letter to the CEO; and (2) realize that the CEO will likely never read it. Instead, you can hope that it is put in the hands of the CEO's "fast action corporate response team" (or some such silly name) who deals with your problem rapidly and effectively.

This worked for me with HP and CitiGroup. In both cases, the companies delivered exactly what I asked for within days after I sent the FedEx's. And in both cases, I had been battling the companies for months on issues that I had nearly perfect documentation for, and any reasonable person would have agreed with me.

I had an extremely unpleasant experience in December with Dell Customer Support, where they completely screwed me over, and were rather rude about it too, such that I will never buy another product from them again, and I won't recommend them to anyone buying PCs, either.

On the bright side, my new Powerbook shipped today! Yay, replacement laptop!

my worst customer experience with dell

8 hours on hold, 3 hours talking with customer service, 1 hour on hold for shipping 10 minutes with shipper

my computer before it finally was stabbed by a classmate, i mean this literally, had the motherboard, fan and keyboard replaced 3 times, hard drive twice, screen once, mouse once.

the final death was a classmate stabbing the laptop right before finals, he stabbed the screen 5 times, by which point a friend told him if you do it again i will throw the notes out the window into a puddle. he did not stop, he stapped the pcmcia slot with a mechanical pencil, the lead broke off and short circuited the pcmcia slot and partially the mobo, was able to boot for 5 minutes to get notes off but welll... he bought me a new computer.

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