Apple and @CrucialMemory – a tale of two customer service experiences

DISCLAIMER: this is a customer service rant. I usually get annoyed at reading other people’s because I didn’t go through the stresses that they went through, so I thought I owed you, the reader, this warning up front.

The reality of tech today is that hardware is failure prone. If your brand loyalty is dependent on you never having any issues with your devices, then you’re eventually going to give up on every brand of electronics in existence. Instead, a better metric for one’s beloved tech companies is how well they take care of you when stuff does go wrong. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a device failure gives its manufacturer an opportunity to garner perhaps even more goodwill with its customer than if the device hadn’t failed in the first place. Case in point: the i7 iMac + Cinema Display compatibility adventure with Apple. Let’s run this down:

May 6 (coincidentally my birthday): A new iMac was purchased at work, and it was given to me. I begin using it happily that day and because I am quite partial to excess, I hooked up two monitors to it: my 24″ Acer display and my 24″ Apple Cinema Display. It’s pretty awesome, but in the afternoon I discovered that I was getting some random flickers on my Cinema display and I installed a software update to hopefully address the issue. Then I went home.

May 8: Working on a weekend (such a hard worker I am), I notice that the problem persists. I decide to wait it out a couple days, figuring it’s just a software issue.

May 11: The issue persists and almost seems to be getting worse. I checked forums, assuming it would be a relatively widespread issue by this point. Didn’t really see anything, so I began to suspect that maybe there was a one-off issue with my machine. The fact that the issue tends to happen more by midday, when the sun is over my head, reinforces that. A visit to my local friendly (and luckily, nearby) Genius bar is in order. I take it in, and of course we don’t see it happening, as it doesn’t happen until later.

May 13: After hearing back that they failed to reproduce the issue, I sat down with a Genius and tried reproducing it with my monitor which I brought in, and failed to do so. We agreed to check the computer in after the Genius tried (and failed) to get me a replacement iMac (remember, the thing is only a week old and has spent a significant chunk of its operating life back at the Apple Store). They are very apologetic and appreciate my patience. I check in my display and iMac and trudge back to work with just my laptop, like a sucker.

May 14: I get a call that afternoon from a genius who states that after a bunch of stress testing, they reproduced the issue, and were swapping out my iMac with a new one. I requested that they clone my drive and move my extra RAM over to the new machine and they agreed to have it ready for me within a day.

May 15: I go and pick up the sparkling new iMac and my display. Go to connect them all up in the office, and all is well for then. I go home, happy.

May 16: The display’s at it again! At this point I’m pissed, because I’m worried Apple’s going to try blaming the out-of-warranty display, which is a lousy scapegoat given that this display works great with any pre-Thunderbolt Mac. I furiously schedule another Genius bar appointment. In the evening, I go to genius bar with my iMac and explain the issue. After some deliberations with the Geniuses, they decide it’s likely not the Mac, but rather the Apple Cinema Display. They explained that there is a compatibility issue with some of the Apple Cinema Displays manufactured before Apple’s Thunderbolt transition. Genius explained that I should take my iMac back to the office, come back with my display and they’ll give me a new one that was manufactured since then. I come back 30 minutes later with my Cinema Display, the guy I meet with goes in back to get everything situated, and he comes out with the box for a brand spanking new 27″ Apple Cinema Display. He explained that they don’t make 24″ ones anymore so I get a free upgrade. Since it was a brand new display I asked if I could get AppleCare for it, which I was permitted to do. Yay! I walk back to the office with my new 27″ display and haven’t had a problem since.

That was a great support experience. Not all of my experiences getting things fixed at Apple are like this, but they always treat me right and they are prompt about things. When I didn’t live near an Apple store, they serviced my machine by overnighting a box to me, I would ship the computer back (also overnight), they’d fix it and ship it back (almost always the day they received it) overnight to me. When I had a machine that had repeated issues even after repair, they replaced the machine outright for me with a brand new one (which was much faster).

Now, let’s look at my experience with Crucial. I’ve always bought memory only from Crucial, because they make the best RAM and it comes with a lifetime warranty. I figured I’d try my hand at getting one of their SSDs. The first year or so it was great. The SSD was crazy fast. Then, I started getting performance degradation at the beginning of the year. It was really gradual, so I didn’t quite notice it, but once I started to have apps hanging routinely, I decided it was time to try to pin this on something.

I ran Xbench and compared results against the time I ran Xbench when I first got the computer. Looking at the results, it was clear that the hard drive was failing. Performance was sometimes as much as 90% worse than when I originally got the drive. Decided to try to call their tech support, but their hours of operation are ridiculously restrictive (closed at 5 in my time zone). So, I tried emailing their support. Couple business days later, got a typical canned response asking me a bunch of questions that were answered in my initial message. Peeved, I responded and waited another couple business days for a response. They suggested I do a firmware update on the drive. Process was a little bit of a pain in the ass, but simple enough. I ran the firmware update, booted the old machine up, and…

Bam! This sucker’s running fast again! I ran some Xbench benchmarks to verify and they were indeed right back on top again, just like they were when I bought the computer. Great, right?

Well, not so much. I was fixing to copy a VM to the hard drive one day when suddenly performance hit a brick wall. Immediately upon doing this, the drive was right back to its old shenanigans. Not quite as bad as before the firmware update, but still pretty bad and visibly affecting OS X. I begrudgingly emailed them back to let them know that the issue is acting up again, and waited the obligatory 1-2 business days for a response.

Their response was that I needed to call them. Apparently the solution for this problem couldn’t quite be put into words that could be typed out; it had to be verbal. This would piss me off substantially less if it didn’t require that I take time out of the middle of my day to call them (and use my precious anytime minutes).

So, I called them up. Based on the options I was given, I was directed to someone who I thought would handle the return, but apparently because it was an SSD she couldn’t handle that because only the tech support department handles that. So she transfers me to a gentleman in tech support. He was able to read up on my conversation with their crack email support team, and determines that replacing the drive is what needs to be done. Because I didn’t buy the drive direct from Crucial and its price changed since I bought it, I had to pay for an advance replacement and front them $450 to show that I wasn’t just going to defraud Crucial out of a dead drive (which is a totally reasonable policy on a large scale but still annoying for me). He was even nice enough to upgrade me to two day shipping (which became moot since it took them an extra day to ship the drive out anyway).

Two-erm, three days later, a new drive was waiting for me. I was busy with work so I didn’t get a chance to make the switch until Saturday afternoon. After connecting the new SSD to an enclosure, I started trying to clone my drive to it. Oddly, the enclosure didn’t see the disk. Probably no big deal, I thought, it just needs to be formatted. I cracked open my laptop and stuck the SSD in there and booted from an external drive to clone my drive to it. After formatting it and trying to clone, Carbon Copy Cloner said it failed, and then OS X told me I ejected it (it being the internal SSD) without unmounting it first. Being quite suspicious at that point, I tried rebooting to a Snow Leopard disk. Nada. Being more suspicious and slightly pissed, I pulled the SSD out and stuck it into one of my enclosures, hoping to get some life out of it. Nothing at all. This drive was DOA.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just call up their tech support and let them know what’s wrong and surely after having the replacement drive fail, they’d be groveling, trying to make it right. Of course, they were long closed by that time. So I just emailed them and told them what happened.

1-2 business days (and 1 27″ display upgrade from Apple) later (yes, I’ve been dealing with a lot of tech issues as of late), they emailed me back and told me to call tech support. Which, of course, would have to be during the day again. Yippee. When I called, I was treated to a 30 minute wait time. Why tech support companies find their customers’ time so worthless that they have 30 minutes to spare waiting to talk to a support specialist who apparently is so expensive they can’t afford enough of them to keep wait times down, I don’t know, but after about a 30 minute wait I was on the phone again with Joseph, a familiar voice (because he was the guy I was talking to the week before). He seemed skeptical of the fact that Crucial could possibly have sent me a second defective drive (never mind that it was a refurb drive and they probably didn’t test it that thoroughly anyway), and upon learning that I’m using it with a Mac, immediately decided that the cause of the issue must be an OS X update that was reportedly having some issues with TRIM. Because clearly a TRIM issue manifests itself in the form of a hard drive that goes cold suddenly after a few minutes of use. In any case, that’s not my problem; it needs to be worked out between Crucial’s and Apple’s engineers. But, he was a sport about this and said that he’d be happy to replace the drive, and asked if I wanted the privilege of fronting Crucial another $450 to get another (clearly stellar) replacement drive in advance. I politely declined and said I’d rather just send the current drives in and get a replacement one shipped. After this 45 minute (again, using my anytime minutes) call ended, I was on my way. The next morning I sent back the drives Priority Mail with USPS to the proper address.

Two days later (a Friday), the drives reached their destination. Crucial promptly notified me four days later that they got one of the boxes. A day after that they notified me that they got the second box. The email said they’d work “as quickly as possible” to process my RMA. It is now Friday and there is no word that a replacement drive has been shipped to me. When said replacement drive arrives, my confidence in its performance will be tenuous at best.

Granted, Crucial doesn’t have a network of flagship retail stores where they can provide the level of service Apple can. However, Crucial could have done any of the following things to make me hate them less:

  • Include a shipping label with replacement drive #1
  • Send me a shipping label for either of the replacement drives to send back to them. Expecting me to go out of my way to ship the drives to you is inconvenient. Expecting me to pay for the privilege is bullshit.
  • Use overnight shipping. I didn’t buy an SSD at 600% the price of the equivalent platter drive because I don’t mind waiting a few extra days for things. If I’m buying the most expensive and highest performance type of drive on the market, it’s because I’m impatient, and I also expect to be treated like I bought a premium product.
  • Send me a new drive as a replacement as opposed to a refurb. I am extremely wary of refurbs anyway, because SSDs have a very finite number of write cycles, and if I’m getting a used SSD back, I have no idea how close this thing is to being worn out.
  • Send me a newer generation of their SSD as a replacement as a gesture of their appreciation of my business (upgrading me from 3 day shipping + indefinite wait time to 2 day shipping + indefinite wait time really doesn’t cut it).
  • Send me a higher capacity drive as a replacement. That would be a hell of a gesture since their next higher capacity is twice the capacity of my drive, but in my case it would likely have made the difference between me buying my next SSD from Crucial and not. I already was asked a recommendation for an SSD this week and I immediately recommended an OCZ one.
  • Let me call them later in the evening. Even being available until 6 PM PST would have been nice.
  • Let me handle the return via email.

Perhaps Crucial’s just used to dealing with things like RAM, where you can live for a few weeks without a module in there. Given that they have some experience with NAND flash with their flash drives, I would have expected better from them with their SSDs, and given that a dead SSD means a dead computer altogether (most people don’t have 2 in their machine) it would have been more appropriate for them to have pulled the lead out on helping with this. I’ve been dealing with Crucial for nearly two months now just to get this resolved (which pretty much negates any time I saved from performance when the SSD was working). Worst of all, this isn’t some horror story of things going wrong with customer service policy; everything about this service has been completely to Crucial’s spec. Again, these replacement policies might be okay for RAM, but Crucial better be appreciative of the fact that I have been relatively calm with them on this issue on account of me owning a second hard drive that I was able to put in my laptop as a backup. Otherwise, heads would be rolling.

I’m not upset that Crucial’s drive failed (twice), though that really shakes my confidence in their SSD quality control. I’m upset that they are so quick to advertise what is supposed to be an amazing warranty but when it comes time to make good on that warranty, they’re a huge pain in the ass to deal with. I’ve wasted a good 8-10 hours of my own time actively trying to resolve this issue, and many more hours putting up with the poor performance.

If you run a customer support team, understand that your department shouldn’t be treated as an expense that should be minimized. You are damage control, and you should be treated like a team of retention specialists who are dealing with customers that haven’t yet said they have given up on you, but probably plan to, because that’s exactly who you’re dealing with.

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