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Taking the Michael – a Tale of Two E-Sites. By Simon Hurst


It's very easy to buy things on line and most companies are very good at delivering orders promptly and accurately. However, when it comes to dealing with problems the level of service can be very different.

A few years ago I stopped dealing with one supplier that I had used almost exclusively for computer-related products. The issue I had was almost embarrassingly trivial. A monitor I bought from them ceased working within its warranty period. I returned it for a replacement. Unfortunately they had ceased supplying that particular product in the meantime so could not replace it.

After a protracted email correspondence between me and their automated response system I received a credit, but one that only covered the cost of the item, not the initial delivery cost or the cost of me returning the faulty product. In an attempt to have a reasonable discussion with a sentient being I asked for a phone number but only received further automated email responses. So I gave up and have never placed a single order with them since.

In more recent months I have had two very different experiences. Let's deal with the bad one first. I use a data projector for delivering lectures and training courses. In March 2005 I purchased a very neat and easily portable one from Dell. I used it a reasonable amount – probably for about 200 hours of bulb life (out of a published bulb life of 2,000 to 2,500 hours). Then one day I turned the projector on and nothing happened until eventually the bulb failure light came on. Fortunately this happened during a pre-lecture test in the office, rather than in a conference room full of accountants.

Given the relatively low use, I doubted that the problem really was the bulb, but contacted the supplier with a detailed list of symptoms and the information that the bulb was unlikely to be the real problem. The email reply read: "I conclude from your mail that the projector lamp needs replacement. Please note that the warranty for the projector lamp is for 90 days from the date of invoice. In order to assist you with a resolution, I would recommend that you contact the sales department."

Assuming that they knew more than I did about their bulbs and that it might therefore be possible that it really was an issue with the bulb, I duly ordered a new one for just under £200 plus delivery and VAT. The new bulb arrived and (as I suspected) made no difference. I informed the company's customer support service who offered the following reassurance:

"However if the issue persists then the projector will need replacement. For your system's service tag, our records indicate that your warranty has expired. Hence, unfortunately, I would not be able to send you the replacement projector or arrange for the service/repair. You may consider getting your system's malfunctioning component repaired/ replaced from some local hardware vendor/repair service provider."

So, now I had one defunct and apparently irreparable data projector – barely more than a year old – and two bulbs – one new, one hardly used. Unsurprisingly, I asked to return the new bulb for a full refund. After some further email exchanges I phoned a support phone number. The first few times I phoned I just heard music – no message, no information, just music. So I phoned early the next morning and actually got to speak to someone who explained that, as I hadn't returned the new bulb within 14 days, they couldn't give me a refund. I explained the situation and the support person said they would authorise the refund and phone me back with the hour. They never did.

A day or so later I phoned someone else and asked why I hadn't been phoned back. They apologised but said that "as I hadn't returned the new bulb within 14 days they couldn't give me a refund". After going through the explanation yet again, they said they'd need to talk to a supervisor and phone me back. Of course I should have learnt my lesson, but I agreed. Three weeks later I'm still waiting for the call. So now, not only do I still have a non-working projector but I've also invested £200+ for a bulb that is as much use to me as a replacement shoelace to a Dalek.

Now on to how to do it properly, courtesy of Ebuyer. Admittedly the product this time was within its warranty period. But having filled in the online returns form I was immediately offered a choice of days – including the next day – for a courier to come and pick the item up at Ebuyer's expense. The returns website even included the ability to print out the returns label. The courier arrived on the chosen day and collected the package. Ebuyer approved the replacement two days later. After a few days delay waiting for stock to be delivered the replacement arrived.

As always, I am sure that many people have had very positive experiences with Dell and others may have had problems with Ebuyer. But I know who I'd be happier to deal with in the future…

But… credit where it's due
Inspired by the effort of documenting the trials and tribulations with Dell, I phoned them again and, after a comparatively short and well-managed call-waiting interlude, spoke to someone who retrieved the history of my case, spoke to a manager, and immediately resolved the issue by agreeing to collect the unwanted bulb and offer a full refund. Not only did I then receive the refund very promptly, but I was contacted several times to explain how things were going and ensure I was happy with the action taken. While it would have saved a lot of time and irritation if this had happened in the first place, in the end Dell did resolve the issue more or less satisfactorily (although I still have a relatively new, but useless projector).

One of the main lessons throughout these various problems is the importance of communication. Most of us understand that things can go wrong, and that people need time to sort issues out, but communicating with the customer is vital. Nothing is likely to worsen the situation more quickly than failure to return calls or emails - even if it's bad news, it's better to talk to the customer than ignore them…


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