Think Again, Think Technical Support

On December 1, 1997, in The Mac Factor, by Mick O Neil

In the early days of Apple Computer, when the company shipped equipment that required hands-on intervention by the customer, Apple worked hard to create a dealer network that could provide quality technical support. The company helped to support the dealer chain by training technicians to a required standard and by ensuring that sales were completed soley by authorized dealers. In those days, mail order Apple Equipment was virtually non-existent as Apple kept a close legal eye on the “grey market.” The system seemed to work fine as Apple made fat margins on its sales and a local support structure ensured customer satisfaction.

Competition changed all that. Apple was forced to lower dealers’ margins and technical support became more and more of a local burden. Today, you can purchase Apple Macintosh equipment from mail order houses, directly from Apple, or from your local dealer. The dealer technical support system seems over-stretched at best, and though Apple’s Web-based support is impressive, hardware problems require direct, hands-on support. Software glitches too have now grown in complexity to the point where Web-based technical support databases are not sufficient to resolve the average customer’s problems.

Then there is Apple’s elaborate telephone based support system. My sister Cathy and I had the “pleasure” of dealing with this system during this past summer. What follows is a true account of our experiences though all dates are approximate. (I recount these experience here not to bash Apple, but to point out that the company has a problem that it must confront and overcome.)My Annotations
Thumbs Up/Down
27 June
Acting on my advice, my sister Cathy took delivery of a Power Mac 6500. This was Cathy’s 3rd generation Macintosh having previously used a Mac SE and a Mac LC. Though not a computer ‘expert’, she is an experienced user and had expert support from two of her brothers who used Macs for years.
As an incidental Apple Evangelist, I’ve recommended Macs to almost everyone I know and many have listened to my advice. Apple recently passed through a stage featuring shoddy workmanship and inept technical support (as noted here) that put a lot of supporters in pretty awkward positions. Hopefully, that dark period is now over.

27 June
After setting up the PowerMac 6500, she noted that Windows were transparent – that is you could see one through the other. She immediately called Apple Technical Support. (In actuality, she spent an enormous amount of time trying to get through to a human voice practically everytime she called Apple – so I suppose ‘immediately’ is a bit misleading.)
The Help Desk first suggested zapping the Parameter RAM and when that didn’t help, asked her to run Disk First Aid. Again, this made no difference.
There’s something wrong with a help desk system that keeps customers waiting for long periods of time. Apple should look at this problem.

27 June
She then ran Norton Utilities – the current version – and it indicated something seriously wrong. So, once again, she called Apple Technical Support
She was then told to reformat the hard drive.
Reformatting the hard drive sounds simple enough but your average user shouldn’t have to deal with this type of technical detail.

28 June
Reformatting the hard drive helped solve the transparent windows problem, but her sojourn into support hell was just beginning.
How about an explanation about what was wrong with the system and an apology for the amount of time wasted on the phone trying to get it to work.

2 July
Cathy noted that on occasion the CDROM drawer would not open and the Zip drive didn’t work. When she inserted a Zip cartridge, she couldn’t eject it. Again, she called Apple Technical Support.
Apple Technical Support told her a technician would call her right back.
When you tell a customer something, you should follow through or recontact the customer to explain the delay.
2 July
After several hours without a return call, she again called Apple Technical Support. (When she gave him the serial number for the PowerMac 6500, he informed her that Apple had identified her machine as a PowerMac 6400.)
Apple finally scheduled a service call and a technician for a local dealer called back to set up an appointment.
Finally some action.

6 July
The CD-ROM and Zip drive were still non-functional and the desktop was still acting strange.
The Apple technician installed a new logic board and noted that he would replace the CD-ROM and Zip drive when the parts came in.
At this point, instead of replacing the logic board, Zip drive, and CD-Rom drive, Apple should have delivered a new system.
13 July
She reported the CD-ROM and Zip drive still non-functional
The Apple technician finally replaced both the CD-ROM and Zip Drive.
Another week of ‘down time’ and totally because of Apple’s incompetence.
20 July
She reported intermittent problems with hardware/software
Apple Technical Support indicated possible wiring problem and a few days later the dealer technician returned and replaced the chassis. Again, Apple should have replaced the entire system.
20 July
While the technician was at her house, the monitor turned yellow and stayed yellow despite the technician’s efforts to fix it.
The Apple technician replaced the monitor. (So far, her ‘new’ PowerMac 6500 sported a replacement motherboard, Zip drive, CD-ROM drive, chassis, and monitor!)
The new monitor actually seemed to work okay for a while.
13 Aug
I arrived on the scene and noted that the new monitor still showed a very yellow tint and the CD-ROM drive would only open intermittently. I called Apple Technical Support and after over an hour of wait time with transfers from one desk to another, was disappointed with the manners and attitude displayed by the help desk employee.
We were told to start the computer with the extensions off using the system CD. We were told to run Disk First Aid and then Norton Utilities (the latest version) and then told to zap the PRAM. We were told to unhook the monitor at the computer and start the computer. Then we were told to rehook the monitor with the computer still running. Nothing changed.
There is never an excuse for rudeness, particularly when it is the customer that is being inconvenienced by the company failing to provide a proper service.
13 Aug
Requested the name of the help line technician who was working with us.
He refused to give us his last name and would not allow us to speak to his supervisor (We’ll refer to him as Technician X)
The policy of refusing to provide names and not allowing a customer to talk to a supervisor precludes the company from getting the kind of feedback it needs to improve its support staff.
13 Aug
System still not working despite Apple’s ineffectual attempts at support.
Technician X finally gave us another customer service number to call.
The onus should not be on the disatisfied customer to call another number. Rather, the company should be concerned enough to have another manager call the customer.
14 Aug
After another interminable wait and several phone transfers, we got through to support person (Technician Y) who was willing to give us his name and who seemed very patient and empathetic.
He also indicated that he could not understand why our PowerMac 6500 had a serial number for the discontinued Performa 6400. (Legal advice suggests that this is a violation of the warranty of merchantibility) He told us Technician Z would call within forty-eight hours – unfortunately Technician Z was the only one who could make a decision about the possible replacement of our system was in a meeting that day.
I am concerned about the 6400 vs 6500 issue. I wonder if it’s possible that after Apple discontinued the Performa 6400, they continued to sell ‘upgraded’ 6400s under the guise of all new Performa 6500s. I have nothing to base this on other than the mixup in serial numbers, but it does make me wonder…
18 Aug
After not receiving a call from Apple, Cathy called and spoke to Technician Z who had been placed in charge of her “case.” He seemed aggressive and uncooperative.
Technician Z suggested she try yet a 3rd monitor. After explaining the litany of steps that she had taken to get her “new” computer running, he relented and agreed to replace the CPU.
Can you imagine the audacity of an Apple help desk employee acting agressively with a customer who had already been through hours and hours of turmoil trying to get her new system to work?!
21 Aug
Machine still malfunctioning.
Technician Z called her a few days later and told her that he was having a hard time replacing the same machine. He asked if she wanted the Ethernet connection that was in it. She told him she wasn’t interested in Ethernet but the video card was important to her as an artist.
At this point, the company should have simply given her an upgraded machine and a profuse apology.
25 Aug
Cathy finally received a new Performa 6500. She had to install the video card as it came separately. It took her eight or more hours to set up the system and transfer all her files via AppleTalk.
Technician Z insisted she take the modem out and send it back to him.
I find this almost unbelievable.

05 Sep
She called Technician Z and told him she needed the rear knock-out door for the modem to prevent cat hair and lint from getting into this gaping hole in my machine. (The long metal strip that finally arrive clearly was not a knock-out door and so she placed tape over the hole).
He indicated that the computer needed to ‘breathe’ and that the knock-out door was unnecessary. He finally agreed to send it.
It just gets worse and worse. At this point, it was the customer that needed to breathe – not the computer.
12 Sep
The monitor continued to be a problem – it flickered and turned blue. Cathy once again called Apple Technical Support..Technician Z suggested it must be due to a software problem and that any software not designed for a Power Mac could cause a conflict.
Specifics please.

30 Sep
She removed all software dated prior to 1996 and this seemed to fix things for a couple of days and then, suddenly, the monitor turned deep gray and then light gray. Because Technician Z was so aggressive and hostile, she tried to get through to a regular Apple repair person.
Because her 90 day warranty had expired, she could not get through to voice mail. When she called the number that was suggested, she was required to give a credit card number. Apple suggested if the problem was software, she would be charged an additional $35.
Working with Apple Support sounded increasingly like dealing with an old Communist bureaucracy.

Many of these contacts with Apple support entailed long phone waits listening to Apple news or obnoxious music and being transferred from pillar to post prior to speaking to a human. To date she is still not satisfied with her system and Apple have not sent the paperwork necessary for her to return what’s left of her PowerMac 6500 that she purchased back in June. Meanwhile the monitor flickers and changes colors on a regular basis to the point where she wonders if it is getting worse. She remains reluctant to call Apple because she does not want to deal with the kind of hostility and frustration she has already met.
We still have a very disatisfied customer – one who has been and remains a Macintosh enthusiast – despite her frustrations in dealing with Apple Computer this past summer. If Apple really has changed, I expect Cathy along with other users who have experienced similar frustrations will have their problems comprehensively resolved. FACE=”Palatino” COLOR=”#1822CD”>How about some help Steve?

Apple might be excused for becoming complacent about their customer support as the company continues to get very high customer satisfaction ratings. After this summer’s experience, however, I suspect that customer satisfaction and company loyalty has a lot more to do with superior Macintosh hardware and software, rather than with after sales support. If the company truly believes that ‘the journey is the reward’ it has to accept that the ‘journey’ for its customers starts not in a sales room, but in their homes when they set up their computers. In the words of Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Chairman & CEO, IBM Corporation, “Everything starts with the customer.”

Mick O’Neil (mickoneil@mymac.com)

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