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What the Muses Deign: Customer service surprises, pt. 1

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, December 21, 2001

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Mr Barnard: Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke! You vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert!

Man: Look! I came in here for an argument.

Mr Barnard: Oh! I’m sorry, this is abuse.

Man: Oh I see, that explains it.

– Argument Clinic, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Even the best organizations can screw up. Others, well – some organizations should just be glad there are billions of potential new customers on Earth. So many times, all that’s written about is the second type of company, the type that generate complaints.

It’s not unusual, either. Poor (or worse) service generates anger and energy. The recipients of poor service are more likely to take the time to complain in some form or fashion, while the satisfied customer generally takes such service for granted and goes on about life. Once their problem is resolved, of course.

In this column I’m going to spend a bit of energy on exposing a company for actually meeting the expectations and solving problems. Not once, but twice over a few weeks (though I’ll only discuss one event here). Even more importantly, this company was able to counter an even stronger force in the customer service world: the preconceived notion of the outcome of a complaint.

What company is this that I’m raving about? None other than Apple Computer.

Don’t believe everything you read

Apple has attempted to reduce the cost of providing support in several ways. There was the infamous attempt to redefine “lifetime” in the course of product support; however, there have also been attempts to actually improve the service. For example, Apple provides message boards in its support area to empower users to help each other. Here, common problems can be spotted and simple answers delivered to many users for the cost of a server-farm and software. Or so the theory goes.

There are times when a little information is dangerous and a lot of information can be downright scary. Such was the case when I went looking for information concerning problems setting up the new AirPort hub (Dual Ethernet). Boy did I find what I thought was going to help me. There was a whole thread (AppleCare ID required) devoted to an error that I had seen (-3278), one that prevented communication between the base station and my TiBook.

Now, before anyone reads that thread and gets scared witless, allow me to say this is the point I’m trying to make. That thread is scary! There are tales of dead AirPort cards in TiBooks. There are tales of needing new hardware. There were tales of the AP 2.0 software doing all sorts of nasty things like eating the last chocolate chip cookie from the fridge (no, not really on that one). Suffice it to say, I was sufficiently riled by all the reports of serious problems that there were small flecks of foam around the corners of my mouth. To add to it, I was out of town – away from all my normal resources – and that the other laptop I had with me was running 9.02 (and hence couldn’t run the AP 2.0 software), and you have a recipe for disaster.

That is, until I gave up trying to fix it myself and called Apple Support.

Sometimes Customer Support means just that

I didn’t get the names of the people I talked to (and they might not like being highlighted here anyway) but the first person I talked to was quite friendly. It took a while to get all the info registered (both the AirPort hub and the TiBook were new and unregistered) but there were no roadblocks there. When I had to call back (the original call was on a cell phone that dropped connection) I got someone else who was able to take the original call and pick up where the first person left off, including telling me that it is Apple policy to call back if a call is cut off during a support incident. I didn’t get to test that policy, but it sure sounds nice.

Anyway, the short version is that this person was able to help me perform a hard reset on the base station (the procedure is different from the original AirPort hub and while Apple needs to get dinged for not making this easier to find, since I did try to find it before calling, the procedure can be found in Knowledge Base article 106602). Once this was done – the tricky part is knowing the default IP address of the base during the reset – all became well and good.

Unfortunately, I have to admit this is not the resolution I expected. Where were the ongoing difficulties? Where were the multiple calls, the frustration, the angst that was so expected? What of all the trials and tribulations found in the support boards? All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t have a helping of whatever it was they had, since my problem, as similar as it seemed, was much easier to answer. How many of those posters would meet similar satisfaction, I wonder?

It’s an odd feeling to be let down by receiving good customer service. Expecting the worst was my misconception, though, and Apple showed that at least in this case, the long-fabled “helpful support” still does exist.

Is there a moral to this story? I suppose there is, both for Apple and its customers. For Apple, it’s a reminder that self-help can only go so far. At a certain point, a company representative should step in and help out, or Apple will get blamed for things that it has no control over. For the customers, it’s the message that while making that support call doesn’t have to be your first resort, it shouldn’t be your last. You never know, you just might get the solution you’re looking for.

Do you have a tale to tell about Apple support? Let us know in the feedback below.

—porruka
Editor-in-Chief, MacEdition

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