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Onions and Pearls
(The Customer Service Chronicles)
By Ethan Winer
(This article first appeared in February, 2000 in ProRec, the online audio magazine.)
I'm going to let you in on a secret you won't read anywhere else: A lot of audio vendors and manufacturers provide lousy customer service. In a previous ProRec article I talked about the evils of copy protection, and pointed out that few magazine reviews ever mention this important "feature." Likewise, it is rare for a product review to mention the quality of technical support, and it's about time someone blew the whistle. I can, of course, relate only my own personal experiences. Further, I've had plenty of good ones as well as bad, and in the interest of fairness I'll relate both.
One of my first experiences with poor customer service was about twenty years ago when I owned a large professional recording studio. This has nothing to do with audio, but it illustrates the fundamental problem. I was a regular lunch customer at a nearby diner, and one day I noticed that the root beer was very weak. When this continued for a few weeks I decided to mention it to the woman who owned the diner, fully expecting a response like, "I'm sorry, I'll check the syrup and make sure the mix is correct." But no. Instead she dismissed me with, "Nobody else ever complained." True, I was young and had long hair, but as a regular customer for two years surely I deserved better treatment. Worse, this was the owner of the business, not some unhappy and underpaid employee.
Even when customer service is not openly hostile, it is often incompetent. Years later, when I had just started a software company, I called the local Pitney-Bowes office and asked to speak with someone about renting a postage meter. "He's not available now," I was told, "but give me your phone number and address, and he'll contact you." I carefully explained that I'm often out of the office, so the salesman should call me back and not just show up. Two days later I find a business card waiting with my mail. My secretary tells me, "Some guy was here and left this for you."
Generally speaking, large companies care less about their customers than small ones. They get used to making a lot of money and develop the attitude that they're invincible and customers should "take it or leave it." Lily Tomlin exemplified this wonderfully as her telephone operator character Ernestine in an old Laugh-In sketch. She looked straight into the camera and said, totally deadpan, "We're the phone company. We don't care. We don't have to."
Sonic Foundry is a perfect example of a company that was great when it was small, and is slowly getting worse as it grows. When it was small it cared about its customers; now Sonic Foundry uses copy protection and its technical support is only mediocre. I've had an ongoing problem (described below) with CD Architect that, after five months, is still not resolved.
FIRST THE ONIONS
I've used Passport Designs' Master Tracks sequencer since the days of Windows 3.0, dutifully upgrading along the way, and I'd had no problems for many years. Recently I was hired to sequence an entire symphony for a local composer, and I was surprised to discover a timing error when I reduced the tempo to record a complex passage.
A few years ago Passport went out of business, but its product line was taken over by GVOX who continues to sell, and claims to support, the Passport product line. So I sent GVOX support an email describing the problem, and asked if they had a solution. Even though the GVOX web site promises a 1-2 day turn-around on email queries, it took 15 days for a rep to get back to me, and all he had to offer was a $79 upgrade.
I replied that I was willing to buy the upgrade if I knew it would solve the problem. I asked if he wanted me to send the file in question so he could verify that the problem was fixed, or if he'd promise me a refund if the upgrade has the same bug. It's now been four months and I never heard further.
My friend Phil has Logic Audio's MicroLogic sequencer, and for the most part it works properly. But every time he starts the program it displays a cascading series of 22 "Out of memory" error message boxes, which he has to close one by one before he can use the program. Once he does that MicroLogic appears to work as it should. But closing all those error boxes is a nuisance, so he sent an email query to Logic Audio tech support asking if they know of the problem and have a solution. After five months he hasn't received anything - not even an automated acknowledgement - and he continues to deal with this obnoxious behavior.
One of my worst experiences with customer service was this past December when I ordered a pair of SoundFont sample CDs from the Sonido Media web site in Canada. I buy products on the Web all the time, and every company I've ever dealt with sends a separate email to confirm the sale and give the order and customer account numbers. After a week had passed with no confirmation, and the CDs hadn't arrived either, I emailed Sonido asking them if they received the order and when the CDs would be shipped. Nothing.
A week later I called Sonido on the phone and got an answering machine. (Yes, this was during normal business hours.) Again nothing. A few days later I phoned and left yet another message. In the mean time my credit card statement arrived, and I saw that Sonido Media had charged my account. Clearly they had received the order, and by this point I was furious. Tell me you're out of stock. Tell me your computers are down. But tell me something, don't just ignore me!
Two days later I left a third message stating that this phone call was per my credit card company's rules for contesting an improper charge, and they should cancel the order and credit my account. The next day I received an email apologizing for the problem, with a promise to ship the CDs by 2-day air to make up for my inconvenience. It took a week for the CDs to arrive and - this may come as no big surprise - the products were among the poorest I've ever heard.
When someone asks for help with a software product, it's not unreasonable for a company to demand a serial number or other proof of ownership. That's how support was handled when I owned my software company, since our products not only lacked copy protection but even included the source code. So how do you explain Creative Labs' policy of requiring both the model and serial numbers for a sound card before you can even fill out a web site problem report? If someone has a problem with a SoundBlaster card, you can be sure it's not a pirated copy!
I bought a new SoundBlaster Live card a few months ago, and on two occasions the right channel suddenly stopped working. The first time I took the card out of the computer and reinstalled it, which seemed to fix the problem. Then a few weeks later it happened again, though this time shutting down the power was enough to bring it back.
When I went to the Creative web site looking for advice, the model and serial numbers were required. Unfortunately, there's no model number anywhere in the owner's manual or on the registration card. The web site offers the helpful advice that these numbers are on the sound card itself - accessible only by opening up your computer and removing the card! I eventually managed to complete the problem report form, though after two weeks I have yet to receive an answer.
As many of you know, Opcode was recently bought by Gibson, and there's much concern that Opcode products will no longer be updated or even supported. I own an Opcode Studio 64X MIDI interface, so I figured it would be prudent to download the latest driver files. Right now I'm using Windows 98, but maybe next year I'll have Windows NT or Windows 2000. So I went to the Opcode web site looking for the latest drivers, figuring I should get them now while they're still available.
The Downloads page was inaccessible, but a note elsewhere said the web site was being worked on and to check back again soon. After a few weeks the Downloads page became available, but trying to download any file gave an error message. So I sent Opcode an email asking for assistance. It has been many weeks now without so much as a peep, and at this point I don't expect to ever hear from them.
Finally, CTX (video monitors) gets both an Onion and a Pearl for my recent experience with its customer service department. CTX did right by me eventually, but it took way too long.
When I bought my previous computer three years ago, I also bought a 21-inch CTX monitor. At that time it was the least expensive brand of that size, though at $1500 it was hardly cheap. It worked flawlessly for 2-1/2 years, and then one day the image started to jitter up and down 1/8th inch for a few seconds every half hour or so. Over time the problem got worse, and several times per week the screen would also go completely blank for a few moments.
I called CTX and got a return authorization, and drove two hours each way to its New Jersey repair affiliate. The monitor was there for a month, but every time I called I was told, "We haven't seen the problem." I explained that it was intermittent, and they couldn't just leave it on a test bench. Someone had to actually watch it, and they should give it to a secretary to use, who could then notify a tech when it acted up. But it seems that was more than they were willing to do.
Eventually they convinced me to take it home, with the explanation that such a large monitor draws a lot of power, and the real problem must be my UPS. They assured me the monitor would be fine if I plugged it directly into the wall outlet. Of course, as soon as I got home it flickered within half an hour. So back it went. This time I demanded that a tech stare at the screen with me until it went blank, which took 45 minutes to happen.
By this point I'd been without the monitor for nearly two months, but at least now the repair people believed me, and they convinced CTX to give me a brand new monitor. But it took CTX another two months to deliver the new monitor to me! So now they are out not only the cost of a monitor, but also the good will of a previously happy customer.
THEN THE PEARLS
I've been a CompuServe member for about ten years, starting when I was a contributing editor for PC Magazine who paid for the account. In all that time, I've had to call for technical assistance only rarely, and every time the problem was solved with the help of technicians who truly know their stuff. And it never cost me a dime since there's a toll-free phone number for tech support.
When I bought my current PC I installed two 20 GB disks, with the second drive serving as a parallel backup to the main drive. I use Norton Ghost to backup the 3 GB boot and programs partition, but files in my data partitions change daily and it's too much trouble to clone an entire partition just to copy the few files that changed.
I discovered and bought the excellent shareware file compare and backup utility DirPrudence (no longer available - now I use THIS excellent and free backup program.) When I really like a program, I often take the time to send the author suggestions for changes or new features. In this case all three of my suggestions - two of them major - were added, along with several that other people must have asked for, and I received three free updates over the next few weeks.
Some of the best support I've ever encountered is from Innovative Quality Software, which makes the SAW line of PC-based multi-track recording software. I've had to call for help maybe three or four times, and every time I was connected immediately with someone who knew more than I about the software. (Don't laugh. Half the time when I call a company, I know more about the product than the support techs.) Moreover, IQS maintains an excellent and very active newsgroup. As often as not, IQS owner Bob Lentini will answer questions personally and offer his advice.
I've also received excellent support from Jasc, makers of the popular Paint Shop Pro graphics program. As with IQS, I have never once waited on hold, and every time I called I got an answer that solved my problem. I'll also mention that no program from either IQS or Jasc has ever crashed on me. Not once, not ever.
Symantec (Norton Utilities) has a great public forum with trained techs answering questions quickly, and also an extensive - and searchable - list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that address the most common problems people have with these sometimes complex system utilities.
Likewise, Microsoft hosts several excellent newsgroups that provide timely answers by paid professionals. Whenever I've had a problem with a Microsoft product, I received a solution from the newsgroup within a few hours of posting my question.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
When I bought CD Architect a few years ago from Sonic Foundry, the program supported only SCSI CD burners. A year later I decided to buy an IDE CD-RW burner, and went to the Sonic Foundry web site to download the newest version that works with non-SCSI drives. Unfortunately, the update refused to install, claiming it couldn't verify an existing installation of the program. That was five months ago and I still have no solution.
For three months the support rep promised me there would be a new update file "Real Soon Now" that would install properly on my computer. But when the new update was finally posted on the Sonic Foundry web site, it had the exact same problem as the previous update! Last week one of the support techs agreed to mail me the current shipping version of CD Architect on CD, so there is still hope.
In all fairness, the two support people I've dealt with at Sonic Foundry have been great, and I understand it's not their fault that the programmers cannot seem to compile a version that will install without error on my computer. But I also have to point out that the root problem here is Sonic Foundry's paranoia about piracy, to the detriment of legitimate customers. I've downloaded updates for SAW several times and never had this problem. I run the Install program, enter my serial number, and it works without a hitch.
IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY
Technical support is viewed by too many companies as a burden, and that attitude is often plainly visible. But in reality, offering quality support is an excellent way for a company to grow customer loyalty. I will never hesitate to buy anything from IQS because I know I will always get help when needed. Further, when a bug is found IQS always posts a new version on its web site within a day or two. How many software companies can truthfully make that claim?!
The convenience of email and web access can make support easier and less expensive for both companies and their customers. A well-designed web site can offer patches and updates, FAQs and answers, tutorials, and additions to the printed manual. The more information a company puts on its web site, the less time support technicians must spend handling every customer problem personally. And when an answer can wait one day, email support saves customers the cost of a toll call while saving a company the cost of hiring enough staff to handle peak-period phone calls. But this works only if the company actually answers their email!
Often companies get away with poor customer service simply because we let them. My friend Phil dropped the ball and has resigned himself to the fact that he'll close 22 error boxes every time he runs MicroLogic. But you don't have to be so accepting. If you aren't satisfied with the way you've been treated, demand to speak with a supervisor. I've had a problem (not with a software program) with a rep from Microsoft that's been ongoing for six months, and I finally got action simply by asking to speak with someone else there.
Complain to the dealers you bought from and ask them to get involved. Most dealers won't continue selling products that leave their customers dissatisfied. Go to user group meetings when products you've bought are being demonstrated and explain your problem to the manufacturer's reps. Usually they aren't the people who set company policy, but if enough folks complain, you can be sure the higher-ups will hear about it.
Finally, tell your story to friends and in newsgroups, beginning right here at ProRec. If you have tales of either praise or horror to relate, please consider sharing them with other ProRec readers in a letter to the editor.
It's been two months since this article was written and posted on the ProRec web site, and here's what has happened since then. Sonic Foundry finally came through and mailed me a new physical CD of the current CD Architect program which installed properly. GVOX finally came through - also with a new physical CD of the latest version - and moreover they didn't charge me the $79 upgrade fee. Creative Labs finally answered my email, and was even kind enough to send me a new SoundBlaster Live card in advance so I wouldn't have to send back my defective one first. One story that was ongoing as I wrote this article concerns the SoundFont Librarian that E-mu includes with their Module Mania SoundFont collection. The program did not work at all and crashed constantly. I sent them email and also called their tech support number (getting an answering machine). They never responded to either. Fortunately, I discovered that the current version of the Vienna SoundFont editor has a librarian built in, so as it turns out didn't need the dedicated librarian program. But E-mu should be ashamed for never answering my phone and email queries.
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