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For Want of a Nail ... the Customer Was Lost!

One of the great things about writing a self-guided technology blog is that I can use it as a platform for information and education, as the spirit moves me. Last weekend I got a warning from my Dell All-in-One (AIO) 968 printer, warning me that my color ink cartridge was almost exhausted. Because I try to keep one spare for each of the black and color cartridges that go into that machine, I simply popped out the old one and popped in a new one.

My Dell AIO 968 is a workable printer, copier and fax machine

My Dell AIO 968 is a workable printer, copier and fax machine

Later that day, my wife tried to print a yellow smiley face to put on a headband for my son to wear to school on Monday (it’s the last week from May 21 to 25, and then comes summer vacation) but the output was completely missing the color yellow. A couple of quick tests later, I came to the conclusion that this color cartridge must be defective because the other two colors printed fine (blue and red, that is). My hunch was confirmed when I dug the old cartridge out of its return mail envelope, popped it back in, and was once again able to get full-color output.

I purchased my last batch of print cartridges in November, 2011. I finally got around to calling Dell product support on Tuesday (May 22) and had to endure a 75-minute telephone runaround before I got to a support tech who was able to confirm that my cartridge needed to be replaced, and have one sent to me. It just showed up at my door via Fed-Ex after lunch today, and no sooner did I pop it in than I once again had full-color capability.

Getting there was something else entirely, however. I couldn’t find a category on the Website for defective supplies, only for primary products. And it turns out that printer supplies have a 90-day warranty which had already expired. When I got on the phone for the first time, after a modest three minute wait, it was with a general support tech who took me through the litany of “what’s wrong? what did you do? how do you know it’s the cartridge and not the printer?” (it’s no longer under warranty, either). After about 10 minutes, he realized he couldn’t help me, and I was routed to someone else in product support. Then came an 8-minute wait before my turn in the wait queue came up. The same drill, same information exchange, and same outcome took 12 minutes: I needed to be transferred again to a support tech who would be authorized to replace the cartridge if it was indeed defective. At this point, I was about 35 minutes into this adventure, with another 40 to go.

Then, tech number 2 shared the information with me that always makes any experienced IT person cringe: “We are experiencing unusually large call volumes. You may have to wait some time to speak to the support tech. Please write down this 800 number . Call it if your connection is broken before that happens.” I did write it down, and sure enough, about 12 minutes into my wait, the handset produced a fast busy signal, indicating that my connection had been dropped (now, we’re at 47 minutes).

So I called the 800 number, got back into the wait queue, and about 10 minutes later (57 minutes) I spoke to a support tech who said he was indeed authorized to swap a replacement cartridge for the defective unit. After we went through the litany, and he agreed with my diagnosis that it was the cartridge and not the printer that was acting up, he asked me to wait so he could give me information about the replacement. This took about 7 minutes, so we were 64 minutes into the call when I finally got the resolution I was seeking. When he came back 9 minutes later to give me a confirmation number for the shipment of the replacement, we were able to conclude the call in another minute, for a grand total of 75 minutes.

At some point about halfway through the process, despairing of obtaining an actual replacement, I ordered another color cartridge for the printer through the Dell online store. It cost about $46 including sales tax and shipping and handling fees. While I decline to say exactly what I think my time is worth, if you divide $46 by 1.25 you get $36.80 as the “per-hour value” for what it took me less than one minute to order and pay for online versus obtaining a replacement through official channels by phone with Dell. Let me simply say that my usual hourly rate is higher than $37 or even $46 an hour, and leave it at that.

Why didn’t I do this over the Web instead of by phone? Good question! I could find no way to request a swap, replacement, or credit for defective consumables on the Dell Web site. And because the printer into which the cartridge goes is no longer under warranty (according the My Products page in my Dell account, I bought it in July, 2008) I wasn’t allowed to open an online chat with Dell support to get instructions on how to expedite handling of the process. After poking around online for 10-15 minutes (and I didn’t count this as part of the 75-minute call, though perhaps I should have) I started the phone process, having been unable to find a way to seek resolution in the virtual world.

What would I like to see Dell and other companies do for such situations? Provide a FAQ with common questions, and keep it current, so people like me can find as much information as possible before going through a general intake process. Offer a “Chat with Dell Support” or “Ask Dell Support Your Question” link on all customer account pages (people must provide name, address, phone, and credit card info to get an account, and will usually also have purchased one or more products from Dell to have such a page. I’ve purchased at least three laptops, half-a-dozen monitors, a printer, and lots of other stuff from them over the years myself). Provide easy links to user self-help forums and social network points of access, so people can help themselves (and each other) as much as possible. Dell’s great at social networking, so this should be a slam dunk for their organization. May it happen sooner rather than later, so what just happened to me need not happen to you!

PostScript: As I was finishing this blog, the color cartridge I ordered from Dell also showed up at my door, two days head of its promised Friday delivery date. Now I have a spare, for when the present cartridge is exhausted. That’s when I may order some more, or decide perhaps that it’s time for a new printer. If Dell ups its online support access options, I will probably buy my next printer from them, too.

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