Keil Hubert: Customer Relationship Mismanagement

There’s no excuse at all anymore for manufacturers to fail at customer relationship management. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert challenges the PC industry in particular to live up to Apple’s gold standard.

When you work in a service-oriented industry, your interpersonal skills often make or break your long-term relationship with your customers. When you’re a consumer goods manufacturer, your product’s performance does the talking for you only up until your widget goes bad. Then, your irritated and inconvenienced consumer has to engage your support arm in order to get their life back to some semblance of normal. This is where far too many good companies undermine their own success – they burn their customers for life. I really can’t fathom why this still happens in the modern economy.

This issue came up last week when I exhausted my patience with a consumer goods manufacturer and had to replace our dishwasher. Two years ago, our old Whirlpool brand washer gave up the ghost after a solid, respectable, ten year run. We didn’t have a lot of money at the time, and went down to our local appliances shop to see if we could find something equally reliable – but a bit more affordable. We looked at 20 different makes and models, and decided on a Samsung model DMT800. It had all the features that we wanted, it fit in the space we had, and it was on sale.

We took a chance on the Samsung because we’d owned a Samsung model HR32M9 television for over ten years, and it had never once given us a hint of trouble. The bloody thing was a tank – it weighed as much as a small adult, and appeared to be built from battleship armour plate. Its picture was great, though – especially for a 2002-vintage HDTV. We bought it on clearance at our AF Base Exchange – it’d been returned and repaired, so it was flogged for two-thirds off. It was a risk, and it worked like a champ. No trouble, ever. We figured that if Samsung tech was solid enough that a refurbished TV could soldier on for a decade without complaining then one of their dishwashers should be able to do ten years in service as well.

Turned out that the DMT800 couldn’t even make it a year. Within a month of getting it, the bloody thing was the source of a constant rows. We’d tell our boys to do the dishes before they went to bed. When we found the dishes undone the next morning, there’d be a lot of arguing back and forth about who did or didn’t do what they were told. I got suspicious, and experimented with the darned thing… and learned that it would inexplicably turn itself off three minutes after you started it about 50 per cent of the time, with no warning and no evidence that it had ever started.

If our dogs were smarter, I might have suspected that they were conspiring to shut down the dishwasher as soon as we left the room so that they could get to the leftover food residue.
If our dogs were smarter, I might have suspected that they were conspiring to shut down the dishwasher as soon as we left the room so that they could get to the leftover food residue.

Then, before our first year with it was up, it threw a ‘5E’ error – claimed that it couldn’t function because its drain hose was kinked (it wasn’t). 50 quid dropped on repairs later and it was supposedly ‘fixed’… a fix that lasted less than a year. In late January, the darned thing threw us the same error code and shut itself down for good. We read online that the problems that we were experiencing were most likely the result of some bad sensors – a well-documented design flaw with the sensors in our model. A flaw that was corrected halfway through manufacturing.

When we called Samsung tech support, they brusquely told us that our unit was out of warranty and that it would cost us 200 quid to have it repaired… and to have its warranty extended for a single year. One year. If the problem happened again, they’d fix it again… for the one year. After that, we could pay them another 200 quid for another year’s service… for a known defect. This, on an appliance that’s supposed to run trouble-free for a decade. Worse, it took an entire work day of arguing with tetchy customer (dis)service people for us to get that far.

To blazes with that. We bought a highly-rated Bosch unit from a builder’s supply house. As the appliance installers were hauling the old Samsung away, I asked (half-jokingly) if we could set it on fire and perhaps bash it into unrecognizable scrap first. The lead installer smirked and said that he was awfully familiar with that response from exasperated homeowners when it came to Samsung kit. He didn’t install them anymore – just hauled them off.

Now, if I’m rational about it, I understand that Samsung is a global mega-corp; it’s the largest chaebol in South Korea. If Wikipedia’s stats are accurate, Samsung had 427,000 employees in 2013, and brought in over $327 billion in revenue. That’s just massive. It’s a certainty that Samsung’s television and dishwasher factories have nothing at all to do with one another. The TV designer was at the top of his game with the HR32M9, while the dishwasher engineer was probably having an off day when he phoned in the DMT800. Or the designs were both fine, but the dishwasher factory was plagued with a gwisin (a Korean-flavour poltergeist) that distracted the assemblers. Or Samsung foolishly decided to roll out a bunch of short-sighted ISO-9000 initiatives and thereby forgot how to build things correctly. The logical adult in me knows that one bad consumer appliance experience shouldn’t damn an entire brand.

On the other hand, the consumer reviews of the DMT800 on Amazon very closely match my experience – the general consensus is that the DMT800 is a poorly made, unreliable product. Consumers took the time to relate horror stories about poor build quality, units falling apart shortly after installation, and terrible customer service. The later gripe was, for us, the damning. As reviewer ‘Basic Extinct’ wrote in 2011: Once your warranty is up, you will be paying dearly for the above as Samsung (even though they know the issues) will not honor anything beyond that point. Even if they replace the defective parts multiple times.’

'It turns out that the number of angry mobs besieging our factories isn't as high as we'd projected, so we can keep making our products out of scrap metal for at least another two fiscal quarters before we take a hit in after-tax profits.'
‘It turns out that the number of angry mobs besieging our factories isn’t as high as we’d projected, so we can keep making our products out of scrap metal for at least another two fiscal quarters before we take a hit in after-tax profits.’

I’m willing to forgive the occasional flaw in a product, especially if the manufacturer is willing to make things right and to stand behind their product. In Samsung’s case, their combination of crap manufacturing and lamentable customer service constitutes sufficient grounds for me to walk away from their brand – completely away. As in, when I stumbled across an offer for a brand-new Samsung Galaxy tablet for half-off on a retailer’s clearance rack, I dismissed the thought immediately. I’m not having that tainted brand in my house again anytime soon. Just seeing the brand name triggers an irrational twinge of anger, all thanks to one terrible product experience.

By way of comparison, my family has owned (at last count) 24 Apple computers since the late 1980s, from the SE/30 up to the MacBook Pro that I wrote this columns on. They haven’t all been winners; some of my Apple machines have featured manufacturing defects. Others suffered from component failures. The reason that I keep buying their kit is that I’ve never once gotten any static from Apple’s formidable tech support arm.

For example, my wife spent all of 2013 and 2014 saving up to replace her five-year-old Core2Duo iMac. When she finally saved up enough to get a new Core i5 model, we bought it and set it up, restored her last backup, and discovered that the factory-installed OS was, for lack of a better word, kaput. Corrupted beyond repair, the bad OS install wouldn’t allow the machine to boot at all. That was annoying as hell… But it only took two phone calls to the AppleCare support line to get everything fixed: one call to Tier One screening got us expedited up to Tier Two engineering in less than four minutes. Our Tier Two engineer – a young lady named Amy – was an absolute delight to work with. She knew her stuff as if she’d designed all of the parts herself. She helped us to isolate the problem to a software glitch (we were afraid of a hardware failure), and walked us through a complete OS rebuild in just over an hour. Sorted the problem on the first try, and with no drama.

Our experience chatting with Amy went a long way towards reinforcing the strength of Apple’s brand for us. She demonstrated empathy, a sense of humour, and mad tech skills. More importantly, she expressed her commitment to making things right no matter what the root cause of the boot failure turned out to be. That’s why Apple consistently scores so highly in Consumer Reports reviews of computers. When I logged into their site this morning to fact-check that last statement for this column, the opening text of their desktop computers reviews page read:

‘Apple was the most reliable among desktop brands. It also had the best technical support, so Apple owners are far more likely to have a positive tech-support experience than those with Windows computers.’

I fully endorse CR’s view. They’re dead-on right, and that’s why I recommend buying the AppleCare extended warranty to my friends and co-workers when they’ve purchased new machines. Apple once replaced an entire desktop PC logic board for me on a four-year old (and out-of-warranty) machine for free because they knew that there was a bad chip in their design. They screwed it up, so they owned the fix. I had a colour laptop screen replaced for free under warranty in 1995 because they acknowledged a design flaw with the screen’s mounting. Apple has never once (that I know of) tried to evade responsibility for their product designs. The also don’t ever try to blame me (as the consumer) for something that they might have had a hand in. That’s the professional and responsible thing to do, and it engenders powerful brand loyalty.

I’ve also owned several PCs over the years, too – most recently, an Alienware model X51. Some PC brands have given me decent technical support while others [1] did an absolutely abysmal job of it. Not one of the different PC brands that I’ve owned has ever measured up to Apple’s standard. Some tried. Many came close. A few brands have earned my eternal searing enmity.

'He appears to have been run through with an extended warranty form.'
‘He appears to have been run through with an extended warranty form.’

The good news for Alienware (a wholly-owned Dell property) is that they’re about to get thrust into my customer service crucible: my youngest son worked all last summer and saved his earnings from a year’s worth of mowing lawns and raking autumn leaves to buy the aforementioned X51. Three days after we took it out of the box, we discovered that it featured the same sort of corrupt-from-the-factory operating system as my wife’s iMac had experienced. I’ve performed a full repair of Windows 8.1 from its restore disks, but the bloody thing keeps crashing and rebooting itself at least once every hour, no matter what it’s being used for. The support forums haven’t been particularly helpful, so we’re going to need a call to tech support in the near future.

So, here’s your chance to win my loyalty, Alienware: you know that I’ll be bothering you in the near future. I don’t represent a mega-corp that buys thousands of your products each year. I’m not a media mogul or a celebrity. I’m just a consumer who happens to work in the tech industry, and am (currently) inclined to buy a few more of your machines in the next few years. It shouldn’t be a surprise at all that I’d prefer to have an Apple-like tech support experience when I speak to you (as opposed to a Samsung-like experience). What I’m after is simply this:

  1. Respect my time
  2. Demonstrate some empathy
  3. Fix my problem – I don’t want to have to re-engage with you on this multiple times
  4. Convince me that you value my future business

That’s it. Any freshman-year university course on customer service essentials will teach you the same principles. Customer support for technology products is often the make-or-break encounter that end-users will use to judge manufacturers for life. We’re pretty laid back when it comes to stuff breaking – any rational tech user knows that highly-complex kit will inevitably break. Just deal with it in stride, and help get us back to a stable state as swiftly and as drama-free as possible. Do that, and we’ll stand proudly by your brand. We’ll also give you another chance to do right by us by buying your stuff again. So long as you uphold your side of the relationship, you’ll keep getting our business.

I really can’t fathom how some outfits managed to deliberately and repeatedly screw this process up. There’s nothing mysterious about it. There are no ‘secrets’ to decent the customer relationship management game. If you can’t figure it out for yourself, go buy something from your local Apple store and then call their tech support number. Take notes. Mimic what they do.

We’d all appreciate it.


[1] Who shall not be named here as a professional courtesy. Not for the brands, but for the reader. Some of my rants could easily go on for a dozen more pages each.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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