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3/7/2007
06:03 PM
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow
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The Web Can Humiliate Dumb Companies. Can It Make Them Smarter?

Dysfunctional consumer companies know only two modes of customer service: abusive contempt or slobbering, cringing remorse. Cory Doctorow describes how broken companies can make good customer service the standard.

On Feb. 1, my girlfriend, Alice Taylor, joined the legions who've used their blogging platforms to publicize bad customer service they'd been victims of. She wrote:

My laptop had HD failure and shipped with its Bluetooth chip missing, and my PC died horribly after a restart.

Long story short: Sony sent out an engineer who replaced the parts, but didn't put my machine back together properly, and now won't send out someone again because I've had my quota of home visits. Yep, even though their work was shoddy, and even though I paid an extra 300 bucks for an extended policy. I also had to bribe the engineer to let me keep my dead HD, because otherwise Sony's policy is to keep it (and all the data!) -- because a customer shouldn't get a replacement drive for free.

It turns out that the organization that offers Sony Extended Warranty is a separate entity from the organization that offers Sony Warranty, which is also a separate entity from the Sony that runs the Sony Store. What's more, all these sonies outsource their service calls to yet another company.

That meant that although Sony Extended Warranty was convinced that Alice had exhausted her service calls by having a series of nonexistent repairs -- in fact, she only had the one visit -- they couldn't even tell Alice the name of the technician that they'd sent to her home.

I posted Alice's story to Boing Boing, the popular Weblog I co-edit, where it was seen by hundreds of thousands of potential Sony customers. By close of business, her cell phone was ringing -- it was Sony.

They had assembled a team of five senior managers to cluster around a speaker phone at their end. They called Alice up and offered anything she needed to fix things. In the end, they agreed to dispatch their very best in-house technicians to put things right.

And so they did, sending a businesslike, expert technician who had her up and running moments after his arrival, providing the kind of service that you'd happily recommend to your friends if you could be sure that your friends would get that kind of service.

But that's far from assured. Just a few hours before Sony's customer service SWAT team called her, she had spoken to a call center supervisor who assured her that he was as high as she could go within Sony service and that he would not, under any circumstances, be sending out a technician to perform warranty service on her machine.

It's easy to think of this as yet another heartwarming story of a corporation brought to heel by the glare of bad publicity -- the Web version of the Fight Back with Irv Weinstein segments I grew up watching on the Buffalo ABC affiliate whose signal reached us in Toronto.

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