Chronicles in Failure: HP Customer Support

My intention had been to use this blog to discuss more useful stuff: programming languages, new games journalism, etc. Unfortunately, in the intervening months my free time has largely been occupied with a single effort – dealing with Hewlett-Packard’s customer service.

The setup is relatively simple. I needed a new desktop machine to work on my thesis project, and had decided to buy a PC from one of the online retailers to “save time.” I had never built a PC from scratch before and was worried about the complexity of shopping for each individual component. This is probably a situation that many users (even those that are technically proficient on the software side of things) find themselves in.

The end result of my limited comparison shopping was that I purchased the HP e9150 desktop. I probably should have done a bit more searching before making the purchase, though, since my own Google search for “HP e9150 problems” find this thread in the first page of results.

That thread goes on for (at last count) 146 pages of customers complaining about random freezes, lock-ups and BSODs relating to the e9150 and its big brother the e9180. Just to put the problem in perspective, in all my discussions with HP representatives they have all plead ignorance of the problems with this product line, despite me providing the URL (on their own customer-support forums) to everyone who will listen.

This is a broad problem with HP’s “top of the line” consumer desktop, and they have yet to acknowledge any responsibility. The best that the unfortunate customers of the product have been able to piece together is that this appears to be a problem with the motherboard used in the e9150 and e9180, but this is by no means a sure thing.

Having established that this line of HP products appears to be irrevocably broken, I’d now like to go over (in as concise of a fashion as my writing style allows) the customer service experience I suffered when trying to deal with this broken product.

Within weeks of getting the new machine I knew something wasn’t quite right. It tended to freeze every night (seemingly while connecting to my backup server) and would occasionally lock up/BSOD during ordinary use. One particular symptom was that after these crashes the BIOS settings would often reset, and I’d get an error message during POST.

I sent a message to HP’s email technical support giving a detailed description of the problems and found the following out:

  • HP’s first “layer” of customer service is clearly following a script where they pattern-match against words in your message. In my case they ignored 90% of my symptoms and homed in on the loss of BIOS settings.
  • HP expects their customers to spend their own time and money on wild-stab-in-the-dark “fixes” for the problems they report. The HP support reps sent me on a trip to Fry’s to buy a new CMOS battery and had me dig around in the PC chassis to reset the CMOS as well (which requires removing the graphics card and using tweezers to move jumpers around).
  • If you respond to the customer service rep to tell them that you jumped through the hoops they came up with, a completely different customer service rep will continue your complaint and come up with a new set of steps.

Once I’d jumped through enough hoops I was allowed to send my machine in for “bench repair.” I included a full page of typed instructions on the issues I was having and how to repro them, including the URL of the other customer complaints. The HP bench repair technicians apparently ignored my repro instructions, wiped the hard drive and shipped the computer back claiming that they couldn’t identify the problem. The paperwork I received when my computer was returned claimed that they had also made “costmetic” fixes to the computer’s case, which was apparently code for “removed one of the rubber feet so that the computer can’t actually stand upright any more.” I plugged the computer in, left it on overnight and found it with a BSOD in the morning.

After a few irate emails with magic words like “incompetent,” “escalate,” and “full refund,” I was finally sent to an HP “Case Manager.” The next layer (or is it “ring” … I think Dante’s Inferno had rings, right?) of the customer support process. My “Case Manager” was named “Faby R.”.

Faby was kind enough to explain that she (and HP) hadn’t the foggiest idea what was wrong with their products (despite me kindly forwarding the burgeoning thread of symptoms and repro cases on their own customer-support forums). What Faby was able to explain to me was the following:

  • HP does not offer customers 100% refunds when they have been inflicted with defective products. They will, however, deign to “buy back” your defective PC for 90% of what you paid for it.
  • HP’s “Case Managers” are (by their own description) the final line of customer service at HP. There is no way to speak to the manager of your “Case Manager,” no way to provide feedback on their performance, and no other way to address customer complaints.
  • HP’s “Case Managers” are (again, by their own description) not allowed to do whatever it takes to resolve a customer’s issues. Instead, they are just as scripted as the first ring of customer support.

Those last two are a frightening combination. HP has constructed a situation where the individuals who are (apparently) at the top of the customer-service food chain are not actually empowered to do their job (you know, serving customers). It should really be no surprise that everything that followed has been just as much of a train wreck as what came before.

I found out that the primary difference in dealing with an HP “Case Manager”  is that you are forever bound to them for the rest of your process. You have no way to get responses from them once they leave for the day (which happened at 3pm for my case manager and time zone), or for the weekend. If you call in to try to speak with your case manager (say after they have committed one of many monumental screw ups that costs you time and money) you will find that the HP receptionist will happily inform you that they:

  • Cannot look up information related to your case
  • Will not let you leave a voice message for your case manager
  • Cannot transfer your case to a new case manager (e.g. in the hopes of finding a literate/competent diamond in the rough)

So, let’s walk through what happened to me next. “Faby” informed me since the bench repair technicians were unable to repro any problems (though not even trying to repro them sounds like a poor excuse), and because HP apparently has no record of problems with this product line (which requires selective vision when it comes to their own customer-support forums), she could not offer me my money back for the broken product that I was now saddled with.

I was left with the choice between having HP “buy back” the PC for 90% of the purchase price, or letting them ship me a replacement PC. At the time, I was naive enough to believe that HP could still do right by me as a customer, and so allowed her to ship me a replacement PC (an e9180 with a higher-specced processor). You can probably guess (by the fact that I’ve written this screed) that the new machine worked no better than the first.

So I was still saddled with a defective product. I’d spent even more of my time trying to help HP fulfill their promise to deliver the functioning,  time-saving PC that I already paid them for. Still, I was informed by Faby that I couldn’t have my money back. I could either stay home from work to let an HP technician come and look at the PC to make sure that I (the customer/victim of HP) wasn’t just making up tall tales of defective PCs, or I could relent and submit to their clever 90% “buy back” scam.

Given the precedent of my bench repair process, where HP’s “technicians” had failed to follow the complicated crash repro instructions of “leave on for 12-48 hours straight, or use for ordinary web browsing and coding for 8-10 hours,” I was understandably dubious that whatever rent-a-geek HP sent on my house call would have the wherewithal to recognize an obvious hardware problem. After two months of doing all of the work in this “customer service” process, of trying to give important technical information to barely-literate service reps who just pattern-matched my email and followed their scripts, I was finally willing to let HP keep their 10%.

They didn’t/don’t deservice it in the least, but believe me: if you ever find yourself dealing with HP customer support, and have the option to spend $120 or so to never speak to them again, take it! It’s kind of like handing a bully (HP) your lunch money in the hopes that they won’t beat you up, I know. The fact is, though, that dealing with HP was actually making me more stressed and aggressive every day (I don’t suffer fools gladly, but who does, right?). My wife and I have a baby on the way, and the last thing I need is to be a gruff, angry person in those first weeks and months.

So yes, I’m letting the bully keep my lunch money. Congratulations, Hewlett-Packard – in the fight against your own customers you are winning.

You’d think that would be the end of it, right? I let HP keep their ill-gotten gains, and they let me FedEx their broken chunk of plastic and metal back to them (probably to pawn off on some other poor SOB, collect $120 in ransom, and keep the cycle going). How could they screw that up?

Well, they can screw that up by completely misinforming their customers (or lying to them, but I think incompetence is more likely than overt malice in this case). My good friend Faby told me to put the machine back in the box it shipped in, remove/cover the existing shipping labels (I tore them off), and write a special sequence of letters and numbers of all sides of the box. She arranged for a FedEx pickup, and I begrudgingly stayed home from work (losing even more money, but at least HP didn’t get to tally that on their bottom line) to wait for the FedEx guy.

Of course, once the FedEx guy got there, he explained that there was no way he could pick up a pacakge without tracking info, or an account number, or a shipping label. I drove the box over to a FedEx office, where the kind receptionist actually told me that this is a common problem with HP! She explained that apparently HP’s customer service people are under the delusion that they have some kind of special deal with FedEx where customers can just write the HP-internal return/remittance number on a box and FedEx will magically be able to accept it without any other accompanying information or documentation.

That’s right, my local FexEx has actually seen enough irate customers trying to return defective merchandise, all of whom have fallen victim to this mass delusion on HP’s part, that when I explained my plight they just said “oh no, not this again!”

I brought all of this to my good pal Faby’s attention, and she helped explain that:

  • Apparently all the FedEx employees are lying to me about how their own company operates. It of course makes sense that Faby would know more about when FedEx will or will not pick up a package than FedEx employees, right?
  • Despite having wasted a whole day of my time and money on her fool’s errand, Faby cannot offer me anything in compensation for her complete and utter failure to perform her stated job. I still only get to keep 90% of my money.

This is of course what happens when you don’t empower your employees to do their job. If your customer service staff aren’t actually allowed to serve customers, you should call them something else. I understand that “team of people designed to tire you out so you keep a broken product or at worst scam you out of 10% of the purchase price” isn’t as concise, and probably doesn’t look as good on advertising materials, but let’s be honest.

Maybe you read this whole thing, maybe you just skimmed for the highlights. If I’ve convinced you that buying a product from HP might not be as good of an idea as it first appears, I’ve done my job.


3 thoughts on “Chronicles in Failure: HP Customer Support

  1. I too have a e9180 which, after two months,
    has not seen any useful service – after two returns to the factory plus one replaced hard drive. However, I am still buying HP products, and recommend no other maker of laptops at all – because of superb customer service on those and on all in ones. There are serious issues – organizational issues related to testing and customer service – but I hope to get HP to address them – and as a test engineer and significant HP buyer – I have some hope of being listened to. I think the high road will prevail – even if it means high level heads must roll. Fingers crossed – but I don’t give up easily – and I almost always get what I want. And I always want a GLOBAL fix – not just a personal one.

  2. @Sid:

    I have had other HP products before this fiasco – a laptop and a “MediaSmart Server”. I actually went with HP for the desktop machine because I liked the experience I had with those products – especially the laptop.

    Given my experience trying to get customer service for the desktop, I have decided to vote with my wallet and never buy an HP product again. I do respect your desire to keep fighting the good fight, though. 🙂

    As an aside, my HP laptop has since developed a defect where none of its USB ports work. It doesn’t seem to be a software problem, and I’m out of warranty now. This happened in the middle of my customer-service marathon over the desktop machine, leaving me with *no* machine I could use to synch my phone.

    In a world where I built a faster machine than the e9180 for less money (using peripherals I already owned plus an employee discount on the processor) in a week’s time (from ordering on newegg to assembling), I don’t see much reason to go to one of the big IHVs for a desktop.

  3. My effort to reform HP ended in abject failure. Although I did manage to reach the Board of Directors, and pointd out that the HP failure rate exceeded that of Packard Bell when it made headlines in PC Magazine as “the worst in the industry,” all my suggestions were disregarded. Eventually I rebuilt the computer on a different motherboard – which fixed the problem.

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