Get Your Vendor to Do Right by You

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Angry with your computer's manufacturer? Try this simple plan for resolving things happily.

You own a computer, so you know about frustration. Crashes, cryptic error messages, and lethargic Internet connections are bad enough. But when ordinary PC aggravations develop into acrimonious disputes with vendors, things can get ugly.

I've occupied the desk at PC World's complaint department for a long time, and I've heard the horror stories. I've seen faltering computers and uncaring vendors turn mild-mannered businesspeople--and even a priest or two--into furious consumers bent on revenge. Recently, for example, I spoke to Susan David of Fall River Mills,California. After two years of trouble with a malfunctioning computer from Gateway, she wanted the company to know she wasn't going to take it anymore.

"I've e-mailed them, I've talked to them on the phone, I've written to the president," she explains. As a last resort she took the company to small-claims court. But she admits that it has not been a satisfying experience. Gateway responded with an injunction to move the suit to arbitration. That means David has to hire a lawyer to continue. The cost is nearing the price of a new PC and, says David, "[Suing] takes a lot out of you. I can't even look at a black-and-white cow anymore without feeling sick. But I want what is right.

It's the principle of the thing."

Is there a better way to settle a grievance with a computer company? To find out, I offered PC vendors a cloak of anonymity if they would give me the skinny on getting problems resolved. Whom should you call? What should you say? What shouldn't you say? I've taken their responses and mixed in a little advice of my own.

Unfortunately, no plan is foolproof. As a consumer you're a warm-blooded human grappling with a cold corporation. Still, this plan will nudge the odds in your favor.

Initial Contact

Everyone i spoke to agreed that your first step should be to place a calm call to the vendor's customer service or technical support. Though you may be angry or even desperate over a work disaster, you want your problem resolved quickly.

And it's hard to get help from someone who's mad at you. So no matter what you think of the company, the phone rep you talk to, or the advice you receive, try not to blow your top. In fact, some companies permit their representatives to hang up if you start hollering and swearing; others instruct reps to give obstreperous callers a two-minute time-out on hold. Neither response will improve your mood--or get your computer fixed.

On the other hand, don't be too trusting. Keep a notepad handy to document your actions from the start--this record may prove vital later on. Write down the date and time of every call you make or receive, the name of every person you speak to, and the advice each gives you.

Give your initial contact at the vendor at least two tries to set things right.

Well-intentioned people do misplace messages, and e-mail can get routed to the wrong place--or you may reach a representative who's new on the job (or who desperately needs a vacation). So if at first you don't succeed, call again.

Let's Try That Again

If you've given your first contact a reasonable chance but your gripe hasn't been satisfactorily addressed, it may be time to ratchet things up a notch and ask to speak with a supervisor. Or ask what the company's procedures are for escalating a complaint--and then follow them.

If you've done that and haven't obtained satisfaction, the people I spoke to suggested writing (not calling) the company's president. The president probably won't handle your problem personally, of course, but many companies have a staff dedicated to dealing with letters received from unhappy customers.

Your letter should clearly and calmly state the problem and (this is important) identify what would resolve it. Do you just need a part replaced quickly, and you're willing to do the installation yourself? Do you want on-site service?

Have you had so many problems with your PC that nothing short of a replacement system will satisfy you? Be specific, and keep copies of all correspondence.

Lots of people write to company presidents just to blow off steam; if you want action, say so.

Be reasonable, too. Many vendors told me that some consumers consider this an opportunity to ask for the moon. It may be realistic to hope that a vendor will reimburse your shipping costs, or toss in some extra memory when it fixes your system. If you've suffered a truly terrible experience, especially with a PC that's still under warranty, the company may even replace it with a newer, faster model.

But there are some things a company just won't do. Take the case of Gateway 2000 Inc. customer Susan David. She felt that she should receive compensation for some part of the two years of hassles and lost work she has suffered as a result of her struggles with her lemon computer.

Greg Lund, manager of corporate communications for Gateway Consumer, expressed sympathy for David's situation but says, "From a legal point of view, she wants more than she is entitled to. We offered her a replacement system. She wants not only a system but an upgrade, and to be paid for the time she has lost."

Any PC user who has had a brush with a malfunctioning machine or a buggy program can identify with David's predicament. But in all my years of helping people resolve their computer problems, I have never seen anyone obtain the kind of recompense she's seeking. Many warranties explicitly state that the manufacturer is not responsible for lost time.

Date your letter to the president and send it by certified mail or by a courier such as Federal Express that requires a signature for delivery. This won't guarantee that your letter has been read by someone who can (or will) solve your problem, but at least you'll have documentation that the letter arrived.

Bring In The Big Guns

If you honestly feel you're being ignored or that you and your computer maker will never work out the dispute on your own, seek outside help. One candid suggestion I got from a well-known mail-order vendor is to alert your credit card company to the controversy. If you bought the computer recently and paid by credit card, this gives the manufacturer a financial incentive to make you happy. It also puts the credit card company in the position of mediator, since it will contact the computer company and ask it to resolve the situation. If the company wants to get paid, it must respond to this request.

You can also report the vendor to the Better Business Bureau, which provides dispute forms at Don't plan on going straight to the BBB at the first sign of trouble, though. "The first thing we do is ask consumers if they have tried to resolve the problem on their own," says Sheila Adkins, the BBB's public affairs manager. "If there is no satisfactory response from the company, then they should file a complaint with the BBB. The BBB will bring both parties to the table and try to get the problem resolved."

Be patient. This process can take several weeks and does not always work.

Still, Adkins says, "In most cases we can get both parties to come to an agreement."

Court Of Last Resort

Only when all else fails should you think of taking your grievance to court.

But first, check your warranty. It may contain a clause stipulating that you waive your right to take disputes to court and agree to submit disputes to an arbitrator chosen by the PC maker. (This was the case with David's Gateway warranty.)For facts on the pros and cons of going to small-claims court, and advice on how to do it right, see Nolo Press's Web site ( Ralph Werner, author of Nolo's Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, says you should carefully consider whether it's worth the money: "On top of the court fees, you should ask yourself what you think your free time is worth. You will invest about 10 to 20 hours preparing. The next question is, Can you collect if you win? That depends on where you bought the computer. If you bought from a fly-by-night vendor, will they be around when you get the judgment?"

Don't sue just to exact revenge. "A lot of people get madder when they go into court," says Werner. "There are often better ways of dealing with anger. Run a mile or hit a punching bag."

In fact, that's good advice from the get-go: Wait until you're calm before picking up the phone or writing a letter. Dealing with an obstinate vendor may seem like warfare. But you're more likely to win through diplomacy than aggression.

And remember, the most powerful weapon you have is your buying power. All PC companies depend on repeat business. If a vendor doesn't make a good-faith effort to resolve your complaint, don't buy from that company again--and let it know it has lost you as a customer.

Christina Wood is a PC World contributing editor.

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