Thursday, March 09, 2006

Customer Unfriendly

Apple Computer, with its kindergarten sugarcoating of everything technical, popularized the term "user friendly," but don't be fooled. Apple products are no easier or effective, work no better, than any others.

As a matter of fact, Apple didn't invent the term "user friendly"; that was the work of the late architect and industrial designer, Ronald L. Mace (1941-1998), who pioneered buildings and devices accessible to disabled people.

More to the point of this essay, Apple customer service is decidedly unfriendly. Take my iPod. Please!

I was given the gadget as a present in the latter half of last year but have only been able to actually enjoy it for a few weeks.

First problem: you have to have a Mac (cough, sputter, spit) or Windows XP to load it. I had Windows 98. One of my sons had to format it and load my music on his laptop. Eventually I downgraded to XP.

Second: a couple of weeks into using it the thing simply stopped working. Wouldn't turn on no matter what I did.

I spent weeks trying everything imaginable. I even bought a new USB port card for my computer and downloaded, installed and uninstalled their software for, oh, a dozen times. I thought it was my fault somehow or that, as with most computing things, it was something I could fix.

I can fix most computer things -- short of a hard drive dying or a power supply melting down, in other words, things that you really need a factory to repair.

On the Apple Web site I put the problem and they sent a cute little box with foam in it to put the thing and have their messenger vendor take it back to Apple's Mecca in California's silicon valley. A couple of weeks later, they sent it back -- allegedly repaired.

Third: the iPod worked for a few days until it got a "sad icon." A computer with a frown on its monitor appears and points you to the support Web site, where they give you a list of things to try -- none of which worked.

So once again I played the cute-box game with Apple, this time with two or three of those oh-so-unhelpful corporate public relations e-mails in between, each saying essentially that very little was wrong their machine but they fixed it. The iPod came back in a about a week.

Fourth ... are you getting tired of counting? Me too, except that I'm living through the litany. So let's press on.

The "fixed" iPod worked for less then a day, sputtering between songs until it stopped and got "sad" again.

!@#$%^&* iPod!!!!!!!!!!!!

So I decided to call. (Stop laughing.)

I got someone who would not apologize, would not offer the slightest empathy. They got Bethany from Autism Casting Central -- zero emotion and totally wrapped up in her point of view of things. Bethany unhelpfully pointed me to the Web site, where they would send me a box and ...

I asked if she could actually help me. "I can fill out the Web form for you."

Sigh! Ok, so I answered her questions as she did. I spoke slowly, giving her time to type but she seemed baffled that there would be so many data elements.

"Does your address usually have all that in it?"

Bethany had been absent from school the day they explained that addresses may consist of name, organization, street address, city, state and zip (and, yes, country, continent, galaxy, ending with "The Universe").

Then she would lapse into silence without telling me what was going for two or three minutes at a time.

At the end of it she game me a "case number" ("Doctor, what do you make of this case of Sadiconitis?" "Oh, my, we'll have to fly in a transplant specialist.")

Fifth: My experience left me unconvinced that Bethany had solved matters. So I called their corporate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

I said I was a very dissatisfied customer who actually wanted to talk to somebody who would resolve my problem with some assurance that the person would understand and actually solve it.

I got Jackie. She was kind, said "oh, dear!" at appropriate moments, and generally seemed puzzled that the thing had been sent in twice and still didn't work. She suggested that I go to an Apple store and talk to a "Genius," which is what Apple calls its face-to-face tech support people.

Sounded like a plan. Jackie cancelled the cute box, which was probably already flying over Arizona coming my way.

Sixth: I looked up Apple stores. They have none in that remote, unknown little hamlet I live in called Washington, D.C., where there's a rumor of a village idiot named George B-something. Hmm ... but they have several stores in the suburbs.

The white suburbs, let's make that plain. Washington is 80 percent black -- no Apple store. Washington suburbs are 80 percent white -- 3 Apple stores. You do the math.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Apple store. You have to make an appointment on the same day and they will tell you when there are Geniuses available. I clicked on the Apple store closest to me and it went to a colorful Concierge page, then asked for my name and e-mail, then finished with a notice that they couldn't help me. Then it went back to the page with the store's address and phone number.

What? They won't serve me because they know by Web that I'm a Spic?

Seventh: I called the store. Taylor told me to "calm down." I couldn't be helped because the Bethesda facility is a "ministore" with only 1 Genius. (Somehow, I was not surprised that genius is in short supply at Apple.)

So here I am ... dreading the whole thing. I have to get up early one morning, log in, get an appointment for a time of their choosing, as if I have nothing to do, no work to do, no life to lead.

I don't even know whether the Apple Genius will turn out to be as genial as the iPod they sold and "repaired" twice or whether I will be forever trapped in the quest for the Holy Grail of iPod Repair.

No, that won't happen. One of these days, after my 17th cute box, 103rd telephone customer disservice representative and my 54th Genius, they'll say "The warranty has expired, sorry."
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