HP support: Cross-eyed and brainless

I have to admit, Hewlett Packard has kind of fallen off my radar lately. It hasn't had a spy scandal in months. (Though it is getting sued by four of the reporters who got snooped on.) It continues to sell PCs at a feverish pace, while Dell sinks further into the muck of its

Well, HP landed on my radar Tuesday with a vengeance when my power went out during a freak storm, taking my computer (and my column) with it. You might ask, why isn't my machine plugged into a uninterruptible power supply? In fact, it is (thanks for asking). It's plugged into an HP 400VA battery/surge protector, purchased four months ago but apparently deader than a week-old mackerel. All my sweat-stained prose had vanished.

The dingus was covered a two-year warranty, so I decided to call the 800 support number printed on the box and get a replacement unit. That was my first mistake.

You know how they make you repeat and spell your name, your phone number, your product name and your problem every time you get transferred? Or how when you're talking to someone who speaks English as a third or fourth language across a crappy phone connection 10 time zones away you have to repeat yourself and/or shout -- a lot?

I got transferred 12 times in 90 minutes. Every time the tech figured out I was calling about a UPS and not a computer, I was booted halfway 'round the globe to another support queue. I bounced from desktop support to notebooks to servers to pre-sales and back. Finally I demanded to talk to customer service so I could get a refund.

Now I've had really bad support experiences in my time -- truly, mind-bendingly awful -- and talked to some surly phone reps. But there is a special Circle of Hell reserved for Sanjit, the customer service drone who flat out refused to issue me a refund or escalate my call to his supervisor. Instead he kicked me back into the general support queue.

As I was languishing on hold between techies #9 (Manila) and #12 (Hyperabad), I began to experience a strange sense of deja vu. I had been here before. Like when I tried to buy memory for my HP laptop and bounced endlessly amongst HP sales reps, none of whom could identify the type of memory I needed. (A call to Kingston solved that one.) And when my HP laptop kept freezing up, and the only solution was a firmware upgrade that could only be installed via floppy disk, and HP didn't make my notebook model with a floppy disk drive! I was cheerfully advised to drop $100 on an external floppy so I could install my free firmware upgrade. That was a special moment.

After 90 minutes of frustration, I hung up. I dashed off an email to HP's media team, requesting some quality phone time with the company's director of worldwide support. A few hours later I got a callback from an HP fixer, whose job is to soothe the ruffled feathers of outraged VIPs. (He begged me to not identify him here or he'd be besieged by requests for help -- including those from fellow HP employees.) Mr. Fixit is shipping me a new UPS. But when I asked him how mere mortals who are stuck in HP Support Hell could reach people like him, he was flummoxed.

As an aside, after my troubled HP laptop got too decrepit for day-to-day use I bought a nifty Lenovo desktop. When I ran into a couple of minor problems, I called Lenovo's Atlanta-based help desk and got terrific support -- clear, calm, and competent. So it is indeed possible to deliver good service, if you make it a priority.

Judging by the letters I receive, I know I'm not the only one who's been run through the ringer by HP support. (Or Dell, Gateway, Sony, and so on down the line.) So let's hear it: Have you had a Kafka-esque experience with technical support? Have you undergone Trial by Phone?

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Robert X. Cringely

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