I’ve been a happy consumer of Dell products for at least a decade, both at home and the office. Outside of the office, I’ve purchased at least a half-dozen systems from them and so when it was time to replace Lori’s 4 year old Dell, they were my first choice.

After a little research and sale watching I wound up ordering a Dell Studio 15 via the web. It shipped a little earlier than originally expected and went out DHL 2 day express. Being anxious, I of course watched the DHL tracking website like a hawk and was surprised to see it was given to the local delivery courier a day earlier than Dell estimated. And that is when things went downhill.

The laptop didn’t show up the day DHL indicated it was out for delivery. The next day it didn’t show up either, so around 9 PM local time I called DHL to find out the status. Their representatives were quite helpful and apologized, but the delivery van had been broken into and all of the contents stolen. They said I just needed to call Dell and let them order a replacement and Dell and DHL would work out the remaining details. Horribly annoying, but these things happen…

The next day I call Dell and let them know what happens and immediately I get sent into scripted cue-card land with representatives that are unfortunately not allowed to think own their own. After several attempts, multiple hang-ups, and one elevation to a supervisor I got the same exact story: you must call back after 48 hours elapsed since the estimated delivery date (Dell’s, not DHL’s!) before we can do anything. I mentioned they could call DHL directly and find out the unit was stolen, and they said no, you must wait 48 hours… When I finally got to a supervisor I was very specific about the time frame and if there would be any further delays and was told no: call back after 48 hours have elapsed, as early as 7 AM, and we will take care of ordering you a replacement laptop.

The next day, after the allocated 48 hours since estimated delivery had elapsed, I call Dell back and get a new surprise. Yes indeed, 48 hours have elapsed but no, we cannot order you a new laptop yet. Instead, we have to give you order to Dell’s “Investigations” department and they will need 24 more hours to determine the status of the laptop. Of course, no attempt to contact DHL was offered or possible, simply more scripted cue card reading.

The next day arrives and I give Dell another call back, this time after noon, and try yet again to get something moving on our laptop. At this point it has been a full 4 days since the laptop was originally scheduled to be delivered. The first Dell representative is quite helpful and it almost sounds like, at first, that I am going to get a resolution. But then, I realize the story is just about to get a whole lot worse for me. The representative winds up calling DHL directly to find out the status of the missing laptop. Hmm, isn’t that what the mysterious “Investigations” department was really for?

The representative tries a few times to reach DHL but isn’t able to make it through; I confirmed this later by calling DHL myself and found that while their customer service center was responsive, their local Houston office was not answering calls in a timely fashion. The gist of the whole exchange between Dell and DHL was that the package is being shipped back to Dell (DHL later suggested this was likely due to it being partially recovered or damaged). Dell now required a return shipment tracking # before they could process anything further on my order. I was told to call DHL back the next business day and get a return tracking # and then call Dell back with that information. Once they had it, they would then wait for the shipment to arrive, assess the situation, and then issue me a refund or a new laptop depending upon my preference (you can guess what the preference might be at this point).

At this point, I was livid. In the best case scenario, I was looking at almost 2 weeks past the original scheduled delivery date before I would have a laptop. I asked yet again to be transferred to a supervisor, after apologizing to the nice woman who was helping me for having to deal with my temper. I got the same supervisor I did two days previously and reached a new low in the quailty of customer service. The supervisor would sit there quietly on the phone, not answering for 15-30 seconds at a time when I asked specific questions, such as “is there even such a thing as an ‘Investigations’ department?” or “how long until I will receive a refund?” In the end, would simply wait and repeat the scripted answer: “call us back with the return tracking # and until then we cannot assist you.” I really lost my temper at that point, which is the worst part of the whole experience.

Certainly, at most levels, this experience isn’t worth getting stressed out over. I suspect the Dell customer service representatives working in India weren’t terribly concerned about the rich American who couldn’t have his precious laptop for a few more days, and in the big picture of things they would clearly be right. But great customer service is about exceeding expectations, something Dell has traditionally been known for (let’s ignore phone technical support - that is an almost impossible task to get right). Part of the reason you bought from Dell in the past was great support when things might go wrong with your order.

There are many places where Dell could have done a lot better in this case. Perhaps the most striking is lack of any attempt to engage DHL on my behalf and try and resolve the issue; having me hunt down what was happening and do their legwork is a sign of tremendous laziness on their part and ultimately makes any customer feel as if they are getting the runaround, which clearly, I was.

I’m sure fraud and an attempt to manage the “quality” of the customer service center has resulted in a Dell that no longer truly can offer great customer service in such a situation. And, in any case, losing my business alone will neither harm Dell’s bottom line or cause them any concern. They’re large enough that even if I can convince everyone I know never to buy from them again, or any of the technology companies I own or work for to do the same, it will not reduce their overall bottom line. I can only hope that Michael Dell’s recent return to the company’s helm will result in a refocus on customer service and quality, but those things are very culturally ingrained and can take years or more to change.

Later that afternoon, Lori and I walked into a Best Buy store, touched and felt a few laptops, and walked out with a Sony Vaio VGN-FW170J laptop. It had better specifications than the Dell Studio 15 I ordered, and was cheaper, to boot.