• Apple Technical Support: Ready to Take a Dive?

    March 11th, 2006

    I approach the news that Apple will be equipping a new call center in India with up to 3,000 people with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m pleased to know that the company is growing and that more people around the world will benefit by getting paid gigs, although it would be nice if it could happen in the U.S. As you probably know, offshore support centers haven’t always fared so well.

    Take Dell, the number one PC box maker and all that. When it first set up a support center in India back in 2003, it had to reroute some calls back to the U.S., because of various and sundry problems. The most common issue was lack of proper language skills. It doesn’t matter where the support person was born, his or her nationality or race. But if they cannot understand you and vice versa, the game is over. The company loses your confidence.

    Now Apple, despite the occasional problems, continues to earn number one ratings for its technical support. I’m sure it doesn’t want to hurt that status. Published reports indicate that Apple has promised that “This call center will be managed and staffed by Apple employees with the same award-winning service for which Apple is known around the world.”

    All right, that is somewhat reassuring. It shouldn’t make a difference if the call you make to get help for your Mac or iPod is directed to Sacramento or Bangalore. Proper training, and hiring people with the requisite language skills ought to be sufficient to ensure that service quality remains top-notch.

    But at the same time I can’t help but feel a little queasy about the whole thing. You see, offshore technical support often gets a bad reputation, and my own experiences haven’t always been very promising. Now it is true that some companies seem to regard such services as an annoyance, not as an essential element of running a good business. So they offload the tasks to a third party, someone who doesn’t necessarily have a commitment to a company beyond the payments they receive to provide the service.

    One troubling example occurred quite recently. I ran into a file sharing problem shortly after installing a Netgear GS608 eight-port gigabit Ethernet switch. Now I bought the product for three reasons. The first is that my previous switch had a noisy fan, and I needed to reduce the ambiance level for both comfort and to provide a relatively silent background for the radio shows, which are streamed from my home office. There was also the promise of 24/7 technical support, and a low purchase price; these days, you can buy the GS608 for around $65 at Amazon or other discount electronics retailers.

    Normal diagnostics failed to reveal any specific issues with the Macs on my network. There were no problems with printing or Internet access. The Netgear switch appeared to function normally. A few episodes of cable swapping, restarting, reloading system updates and so on and so forth failed to reveal a solution, so I returned to the switch as the possible culprit, and telephoned Netgear to see if it could help me find a solution. That’s where the troubles began.

    Now the fact that the person at the other end of the line spoke English with a robust accent didn’t faze me. Unlike some call centers, he didn’t identify himself with a faux American name, such as Fred or Scott, but a name with a foreign derivation that seemed genuine. What’s more, he admitted that he was based on India. All right, the honesty was reassuring, as were the first few moments where I attempted to explain the problem and the steps I’d taken to resolve it. At the start of the call, he checked the serial number in the company’s database to make sure the product had been registered and was still under warranty. But the seeds of frustration were sown, because the problem didn’t have a ready solution, the support person suddenly reversed himself and declared that the warranty had expired, which was not true. At this point, further conversation was fruitless and I asked to speak to his supervisor. He put me on hold, and disappeared, for good! After 20 minutes of background music, I hung up and redialed. This time I asked to speak to the head of customer support.

    Imagine my surprise when I was informed that the person in question was out for a few days, and nobody else could assist me. Yes, I understand that a single support call is apt to wipe out the profit margin on a cheap network device, but when 24/7 support is promised, I expect that promise to be filled. As it turned out, the person in question did telephone me several days later, after I left several messages, and he did demonstrate a fair amount of patience in attempting to help me resolve the problem.

    In the end, it actually took a clean system reinstallation on one of the computers, my 17-inch PowerBook, to resolve the problem, although that seemed the least possible cause. Yes, it had nothing whatever to do with the Netgear switch. But the possibilities of offshore support continue to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

    Now Apple is not Netgear, and I have my hopes that Apple will continue to do the right thing, regardless of where it support centers are located. But please forgive me if I have a few lingering concerns.

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