From Dell hell to Genius Bar: A customer service journey

How Apple made Rafe a fanboy by selling him a fleet of unreliable, broken machines.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
4 min read

I didn't get how important support was. Then, recently, I had back-to-back experiences dealing with both great and terrible support for products that failed. If you make a consumer product, there are important lessons in these experiences.

Experience number 1: Dell

I bought a cheap computer for my mother, for her birthday. A few months later, but still during the warranty period, it died. Utterly. Power supply, I think, although maybe the motherboard. I started the support process, eventually did a frustrating online chat (we've all been there, right?), and against my wishes agreed to have a Dell tech come to my house to fix the computer. I had really wanted to manage the repair process on the same channels I had used to acquire the product: transactions online; delivery through FedEx. But no: I had to eventually speak to people on the phone (yuck), and then agree to have a tech come to my house to do a repair.

My mom's Inspiron became an Expiron. Dell

Of course, the time window for the repair was an entire afternoon, so I arranged to be home for it, and of course, the technician didn't show up. The next morning, on the phone with the dispatcher, I think I may have raised my voice. More calls and e-mails followed: repair dispatch, tech support in India, and then Dell's social media team (I had gotten vocal on Twitter). Eventually, Dell agreed to accept the machine back and refund my money, even though the return period had lapsed. I pulled the drive and wiped it, then reassembled, boxed, and sent. I don't miss owning this PC, although when it was working, it was a fine computer. And, man, what a deal.

I thank Dell for its willingness to break policy to resolve my issue, but the thing is, I'm still never going to buy another Dell, no matter how reasonably-priced its machines are. It was just too frustrating to deal with not-quite coordinated representatives who seemed mostly checked out, not to mention hemmed in by their scripts. (Except for the nice rep at the social team who got me my refund. You are awesome.)

I fully admit that I bought a really cheap computer and that I shouldn't expect too much. But a whole day of work re-organized for a tech who doesn't show up? The phone call from a rep asking me to rate a support call that didn't happen? Nobody disrespects a customer like that and keeps their business for long. No matter how great the person is who tries to make up for it.

Honestly, fear of support time-sinks like this is why I have, for years, built my own Windows desktop PCs. Although lately...

Experience No 2: Apple

My temple of broken hardware: Apple's downtown San Francisco store. Apple
Now here's the weird thing: I have had four of the six Apple products I've bought in the past few years fail: Two Macbooks (one, the DVD drive; the other, the screen latch magnets), an iPhone (power button), and this week, a MacBook Air (USB port). Why do I keep going back and buying Apple equipment when it should be obvious to me by now that the stuff has a comical failure rate?

Because getting the Apple gear repaired is so incredibly easy it's freaky. There are three Apple stores in San Francisco. One is steps from a major transit hub and another has great parking. Take your pick. You make a reservation online, walk in with your busted product, have a little chat with nice person who speaks your language, and, for computers, leave the product with them. Two or three days later, you go back and get it, fixed.

In the case of appliance products like iPhones, it's even easier. In my case, I took in the phone and showed it to a blue shirt. He said, "Yup, that's broken, just a minute," went into the back, and returned with a new phone for me (actually a refurb, but a cosmetically perfect one). Total time in store: seven minutes. I timed it. (I include the time spent verifying that the tech wiped my old phone before I left it behind.)

So I have no problem recommending that people buy Apple's unreliable hardware. Because Apple has made the repair process close to painless. (And thanks to Time Machine and iTunes, recovering data is pretty easy, too.)

With Apple, you can just tell: service is part of the product. It's not an afterthought, farmed out to subcontractors. Apple, clearly, takes a service call as an opportunity to reinforce the brand message, not just to fulfill a contractual duty to honor a warranty. Not only is it easy to get Apple gear fixed, but if you do your service at an Apple store, heck, you're in an Apple store. Apple stores are great.

Every time I have had to deal with a broken Apple product, the experience has left me liking Apple products more. That is one hell of a trick.

If you run a business, I'll ask you this: How can you turn repeated failures into positive experiences? And if you think you can't afford to put the resources in, the follow-up question is obvious: Can you afford not to? How much more money do you think I am going to spend in my life on Apple products, compared to Dell?