Customers share Linksys' growing pains

It was a simple job. The small accounting firm hired New Jersey consultant Keith Krebs to network three computers. Since all the equipment resided in one room- two PCs were within 12 feet of each other, the third, 25 feet away - Krebs suggested 802.11b wireless networking gear. Since he'd been a long time Linksys Group customer, he recommended its products without hesitation. But five weeks later, and half a dozen lengthy technical support calls later, the network still doesn't work.

Krebs' problems ran the gamut. The network would work for a while, then data throughput would drop. With WEP encryption enabled, the computers couldn't see each other. The wireless router's LEDs (light emitting diode) would go dark, then light up in sequence, blinking like lights on a Christmas tree. Was the wireless gateway overheating and resetting itself? Krebs wondered. Was there a problem with the way the router tables were being read? Was it buggy firmware?

Calls to tech support were a nightmare. Hold times ranged from 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours. E-mails went unanswered, promises of same day call backs were broken. Techs advised him to try obvious things he'd already tried: uninstall and reinstall everything, update the drivers, disable WEP. On the fifth call, a tech suggested he download the new version of the router's firmware. What new firmware?

The new firmware seemed to help some, but connections were still intermittent. The last straw? A wireless USB (Universal Serial Bus) adapter Krebs plugged into a notebook worked for a few hours, then died. Today, all the hardware is on its way back to Linksys, and Krebs has connected two of the three PCs via an unmanaged hub.

"Linksys has cost me virtually the entire contract," Krebs says. "I must thank them for irreparably damaging my reputation with a long-term client," Krebs says.

Long known for its low prices and good service, small office/home office network vendor Linksys has grown phenomenally since 1998. Last year revenue jumped 75 percent, and it's the No. 3 wireless network vendor (behind Cisco and Agere Systems). Seventy percent of broadband routers in homes and small businesses carry the name.

But such meteoric growth brings problems. Product support call volume has jumped 30 percent to 50 percent in the past six months. Linksys' reputation is suffering, and complaints about tech support and buggy firmware are commonplace on message boards. Moreover, calls to the company's free technical support lines are costing Linksys a fortune.

"They've been sitting here with a tablespoon trying to dig out from under an avalanche," remarks Linda D'Amato, Linksys' newly hired senior manager of customer care.

To keep pace with demand, Linksys has relied heavily on outsourced tech support. And that firm has had to increase its dedicated Linksys staff from 200 to 350 in the past six months, hiring about 30 new people per week. Such a system is supposed to be seamless but it's not. Because Linksys tech support reps work 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts, Monday through Friday, and the outsourced reps - who may be considerably less experienced than Linksys dedicated staff - take over beyond those hours, so customers get inconsistent service.

Even with the increased manpower, customers continued to sit on hold for hours. In desperation, Linksys hired an additional dozen "support operators" who take down customer complaints and promise to have a product support rep call the customer back. What seemed like a good idea quickly soured as product support reps found themselves playing unending games of telephone tag.

Things should start getting better, though. In December, the firm opened a second 120,000 square foot facility in Irvine, California, to complement its 25,000 square foot headquarters nearby. The new building houses primarily product support, as well as customer service, quality assurance, and IT. With the new space, Linksys has doubled the number of in-house product support representatives from 45 to 90, and plans to hire another 40 in Irvine and as many as 500 more in its Manila facility within six months.

As important, Linksys has spent US$1.5 million to upgrade its automatic call directory equipment. The new Lucent Definity PBX will allow calls to be routed to particular types of support reps based on product, and route calls to the other facilities depending on time of day. In beta testing now, the equipment should be online in a week or so.

And in an effort to cut down the number of product support calls - Linksys pays about $250,000/month in phone charges - it's also revamping its product packaging, literature, product installation wizards and Web site. Even so, it finds some customers call the 800 number before reading the quick start guide, or try to set things up cold and cause problems. "Some people will call three times in one hour," product technician Arturo Gamino says.

What about allegations of buggy firmware and weak quality control? While Linksys president Victor Tsao claims the number of "defectives" is "way under 1 percent" and returns average in the "acceptable" 5 percent to 8 percent range, the company admits in order to deliver innovative products quickly and cheaply, it often adds new features and enhancements after the product has shipped. Each new tweak requires a new firmware upgrade.

"For what you pay, you're getting a good deal. If it flakes out, I just get new firmware," offers Steve McNutt, president of LightningCloud Technologies. "But," he adds, "It's not hardware to run a business on."

A former Linksys product support manager himself, Tsao is determined to turn things around. "I'm not going to hide behind the issue. There's no change in our philosophy. I'm sure there's a portion of customers not getting good tech support right now. I know if we do a lousy job we're gone. My goal is to have all calls answered in five rings. We're serious. Life will be better. Hopefully, quickly, please!"

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