Buying a PC Online: a 2015 Saga of Customer-Service Inefficiency

In this open letter to Michael Dell, CEO at Dell.com, we relate the saga of a friend I’ll call Russ and his journey to buying a replacement PC online.

Plan A: Lenovo Chokes
Russ had an old, Lenovo one-core AMD workhorse desktop upgraded to Windows 7 awhile back. The box got slower than molasses. After all the usual speed-up remedies failed, Russ decided to buy a new desktop. We consulted as I do for (too) many friends and decided on a modest machine with a solid-state disk. Russ went online and configured-to-order in early November. Problem solved ….

But not quite. Lenovo quoted a delivery date, and when December rolled around, Russ queried when was his new PC going to be built and shipped. The answer was “We don’t know, but hold tight.” Russ replied, “Not good. Cancel the unfulfilled order.” Lenovo said, and I paraphrase, “You can’t cancel the order because we have released it to our manufacturing supply chain in China. It will arrive when it is built and shipped.” Russ called American Express and put the charge on indefinite hold in case it actually arrives some day.

Moral: 1. Don’t take an order you cannot fulfill. 2. Don’t leave a customer hanging.

Plan B: Dell Gets to Bat
With a little coaching, Russ found what he wanted at Dell.com: an Inspiron desktop without an SSD but with a decent Intel “Haswell” Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive running Windows 10. Price was US$449 with free shipping. The clincher was same-day shipping.

The Unboxing: a Moment of Silence and Sadness
The new PC arrived in four days. I came over Sunday morning with assorted tech bits so we could hook up the new Inspiron and to run Microsoft’s sweet Windows Migration Tool to get it into production. Popped open the chassis, added 4GB of memory, closed the chassis, connected the cables and hit the power-on switch.

Nothing happened. Nada. The PC would not power on in spite of trying different electrical sockets and AC cables. It was a 2015 PC Dead on Arrival.

We were sad but not completely surprised as these things happen — presumably very rarely because of the Dell costs to swap a DOA machine. So, we called Dell Tech Support to get started.

Tech Support: Call Triage
It took eleven minutes to wait on hold, enter the PC service tag, explain to the tech we had a DOA machine that we wanted to swap. The information requested included the service tag, serial number, name and address, and other bits of information — all of which is already stored in Dell’s order entry system but was nevertheless verified and keystroked again into the service system.

We made it through triage and onto tech support’s call resolution team.

Tech Support: Call Resolution Team
This call took eighteen minutes, with most of the time spent on hold at the end waiting to be transferred to Sales. The business-process problem with the call resolution phase is simple: the department is a separate information silo from call triage, and no call or problem data is shared.

Russ had to literally spell out the same answers to information questions including the service tag, serial number, order name and address, and other bits of information that had already been amassed at order-taking and call-triage. Besides boring the customer to tears, the process is a poor use of tech support labor.

Reassuring us that the four-day-old PC was still under warranty, call resolution rang off to run down the DOA return process. After seven minutes, we were told that Sales handled returns and “please hold while I transfer you to that department.”

Sales Support: Waiting for Godot
And we waited some more with occasional call-tree clicks that eventually ended with a recorded message saying “Sales is closed on Sundays, so call us during business hours tomorrow.”

Customer time to non-resolution of a DOA problem: more than 30 minutes. Russ was pissed. I went home to lunch.

Luncheon Epiphany
I often skim the Sunday newspaper advertising inserts to keep track of technology mainstream deals and product positioning. For example, Intel’s Broadwell and Skylake 14nm processors only recently started being featured in PCs at BestBuy, and are still not being advertised at Wal-Mart, Target, Staples, or OfficeMax.

That’s how I found the Staples ad for a Dell Inspiron 1300 desktop with a Intel “Haswell” Core i3 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 1TB hard drive running Windows 7 Pro. Price $300, marked down from $580, and $150 less than Dell.com’s almost identical DOA PC.

I telephoned Russ, he picked the PC up that afternoon, and the migration was well underway on Monday morning. The DOA machine goes back to the Dell factory tomorrow.

Dear Michael,
I silently applauded your taking Dell private because the mature PC industry in a slowing global economy does not need a quarterly spotlight on top of all its other challenges. I expected lots of value could be wrung out of the business with greater efficiencies and focus on key business processes. Dell has been a build-to-order online specialist for, like, thirty years.

So, I was disappointed that Dell’s DOA process involved so many steps across organizational and information silos that cry out for a rethink. I hope you’ll take this missive to heart. You know what to do about this.

No, It’s Not Just Dell and Lenovo …
HP has no laurels to sit on. Even Apple has disappointed me on more than one occasion. As this saga illustrates, the PC industry can do better on customer satisfaction.

The future of personal information technology is not one-size-fits all. It’s “buy what you need and want”. That’s going to take a holistic approach to online sales and service. You would have thought that would be old-hat going into 2016, but apparently not.

Follow @peterskastner on Twitter

Dell Inspiron 3000 Desktop

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Sandy Bridge Desktop Enthusiasts Should Wait … for Z68 in May

This post is for a very select segment: desktop enthusiast PC builders who have not yet purchased Intel’s Sandy Bridge but are planning to soon. For you, I suggest a 3-4 week wait until new motherboards come out based on the forthcoming Z68 chipset.

Z68 combines the best features of the H67 and P67 mother-boards already in the market, and adds in a couple of new ones too. Probably for about the same price as H67 and P67 equivalents.

H67 chipsets support all Intel’s great media encoding in hardware, but can’t be overclocked. P67 chipsets support overclocking with K-series processors, but lose the media encoding capability. Z68 marries the best of P67 and H67. (Why Intel came up with P67, H67, and Z68 is a story I’m interested in hearing).

In addition, Z68 motherboards support RST SSD Caching, a feature which enables a solid state drive to be used to cache frequently-used data found on a hard drive. This will speed up boot times and application start times. Its competition is Microsoft Readyboost with a thumb flash drive and using the SSD as a boot drive with a separate data drive.

Look for motherboards that include LucidLogix’s Virtu software (which will be supported by some vendors, including Intel), and you’ll have a system that switches between integrated and discrete graphics, cutting power consumption along the way.

Expect all this in May, according to this post in techConnect.

 

MSI’s Z68 Motherboard on Display

Computing in the Third World: A Success Story

I just got back from my third trip to Haiti, a third-world country hampered by numerous problems. Nevertheless, after two years in operation, our school installation is reporting 100% uptime. Careful planning on electrical infrastructure proved to be worth every penny.

The First Problem is Power

Funny how AC power, which in the U.S. we take so for granted, is completely problematical in the third world. Endemic power problems are the worst threat to achieving widespread computer adoption in the third world.

In Haiti, my recorded observations in two cities posit total AC power grid failures at least once a day, and at random times.  Duration is from several minutes to several hours.  In addition, power spikes and voltage problems are common.  The results to personal computers are predictable: premature failure.
For example, I am involved in a 2008 project that put PCs into a K-12 school and teacher’s college in the city of Jacmel, on the Caribbean.  To overcome the unacceptable mains power problems, our technology team undertook the following infrastructure to support a 20-PC classroom:
– Industrial window air conditioners to cool and dehumidify classroom air
– Roof-mounted solar panels, lead-acid batteries, and an AC inverter
– 35 Kw diesel generator for backup power when solar is not available
– Installed costs including freight and duties were US$35,000; the PCs represent 40% of the total cost.
Side-by-Side Test: Protected Power PCs Keep Running
Five, unprotected, three-year old Dell Dimension computers in another classroom at the same Jacmel school are all dead with motherboard failures.  The capital is not available to replace these computers which failed well before expected useful life end.
The solar-to-battery classroom has 20 PCs that are all operating after tow years of operation that includes a Category 4 hurricane and a devastating earthquake.
PC Education Starts With the Basics
It is common for first-world students to get hands-on PC experience during their K-12 years, and to expect college-level students to have basic computer competency.  In the third world, it is common for even college-level students to have essentially no hands-on PC experience.  Therefore, education needs to start with basics like mouse movement, menus, folders and all the UI concepts needed as a base for application-level experience.
At the Jacmel school, hands-on computer training starts at age 10 with a classroom-hour a week. Teacher training receives extensive computer familiarization. However, the school population has doubled in the two years since the computer room was opened. Up to fifty students at a time now use the twenty PCs, so actual hand-eye skill training are not ideal.
Microsoft Has an Important Place in the Third World
Outside the U.S., it is common in the first and second world to see deliberate moves away from Microsoft operating systems and applications (e.g., EC).  I am quite surprised at the third world demand for Microsoft software.  The key reason is job skill development.  K-12 education is much more aimed at building usable work skills than in the first world, and here Microsoft operating systems and applications are — and buyers expect will continue — thoroughly embedded in business, commerce, and government.
Do Child Laptops have Limited Interest?
I have evaluated EePC, Intel Classmate, and OLPC laptops and extensively discussed the pros and cons with prospective buyers.  Some observations:
– The screen size is only personal; a plurality want desktops with large (19″) LCDs in order to sit two students per PC to maximize equipment utilization.
– Microsoft applications and Windows (see above).
– Concern for theft and loss.  Lack of capital for loss replacement.
– In general, laptops were of lower demand/interest than desktops.
In spite of these objections from Haiti and Brazil, Intel is making slow progress convincing governments to invest in country-wide child laptop deployments. Haiti, which lacks a fully functional government, is a poor candidate for country-wide PC deployments.
Classroom PCs Must Come Without IT Infrastructure
Classroom PCs need the same backup, anti-virus, software update, and other mundane but necessary care and feeding as a small business.  However, the lack of IT personnel skills and availability makes even routine IT infrastructure and management exercises difficult.  In short, a server is not much good if there is no administrator or operator trained and certified to keep the infrastructure running.  Our solution to date is to use LAN-level automated backup products.  I think it is a chicken and egg problem where lack of interest in learning about proper IT infrastructure management is tied to a lack of jobs related to IT infrastructure management.
Conclusion
By focusing 60% of our infrastructure investment on clean, reliable electrical power, our PCs are delivering the uptime needed to meet a demanding 14-hour-per-day usage schedule. The feared infant mortality was averted. The costs of that electrical infrastructure, which took an exorbitant 60% of the overall budget, are projected to support at least a decade of operations. That translates into about two generations of PCs.
The doubling of the school size was not forecast. Nor was the growth through success; adding more student classes to younger grades based on early success and the installation’s reliability. We’ll put in another six PCs this year to lower the students-per-PC ratio. However, the situation will never be ideal.
Looking to the Future
The rapid decline in desktop electrical usage makes it possible, in a couple of years, to think about doubling the number of PCs into an adjacent classroom — without increasing the solar-battery infrastructure. Stretching that existing solar-battery infrastructure is the obvious lever.
Netbooks are another future alternative for the classroom. At another Haiti project, a jobs-creating business was started with a pallet of 24 netbooks costing about $10,000. With wireless LAN and a router, this computer services business was in business in hours. However, unlike the take-it-home approach Intel advocates with the Classmate PC, these netbooks stay on the desks at night.