Dell Customer Disservice
January 19, 2005 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Please help my sister out with a huge customer service problem with Dell [MI].

My sister's CD burner was not working. The computer itself would not recognize the drive. So she called Dell. They told her on the phone to reinstall XP. She kept getting an error message- some corrupt file, so it would not reinstall XP. Now she was instructed to reformat and reinstal. The tech on the phone, who walked her through the whole process, neglected to tell her that this would completely wipe her HD (she did not know it would). When she tried to reinstall after the reformatting, it still did not work. The tech then told her that he would send out a tech for a service call to replace her HD, and that they would call Monday. No one called Monday. Tuesday she calls again was told she did NOT need a new HD but they would still send a tech out. No tech Tuesday. NEXT day, today, they told her she DID need a new HD, and that for her trouble she would get more memory and $100 etc. etc. along with a new HD, we are so sorry, blah blah blah. They admitted that they screwed up in having her reformat and try to reinstall. Three hours later they called and said that her contract had expired and now they were not going to do anything at all. She asked to have a tech come out and restore her computer to its prior state, broken CD burner and all, and they refused. She asked them pointedly if before they accepted full culpability for having her reformat her computer over the phone with athe assistence of a tech and essentially broke her computer, but now that they realized her contract was up, they were not going to accept ANY culpablity and were not going to fix what they had broken. The phone tech said yes. She asked for his last name, he refused to give it. She asked how much a new HD and a tech would be, he said he did not know. He would not give her any information, a supervisor, anything. Her only recourse, he said, was to HANDWRITE A LETTER TO MICHAEL DELL. She is in the midst of a job search that requires a computer. What can she do, any ideas?
posted by oflinkey to Computers & Internet (26 answers total)
Either nothing or a small-claims lawyer, if she can possibly document any of this story. Longer-term: never buy a Dell again. Its non-corporate technical support is very poor, and, as demonstrated, seemingly worse than nothing. If she does not know not to reformat her hard drive to keep from losing data, she would probably be better off with a Mac.
posted by AlexReynolds at 6:02 PM on January 19, 2005

Response by poster: It was a gift, AlexReynolds. I think she would have preferred a Mac. She is looking for a job as of now, so this is particularly devastating.
posted by oflinkey at 6:06 PM on January 19, 2005

Damn support. Really, re-installing the OS due to a faulty CD-Burner is ridiculous, the most likely problem is that the IDE cable is loose, or that the drive itself is bad.

Re-installing the OS would not fix either of these problems.

As for the issues associated with the re-installation of the OS, it sounds like you have a bad install disc (I'm basing this on the assumption that this error during installation happens while you are in the "blue-screen" installation period of Windows). Call them and see if it's possible to get a replacement installation disc. I've never done this, so I don't know if it's possible outside of the support contract, but technically, when you purchase a Dell machine, you have purchased a license for MS Windows. They should supply you media, and I can't see the problem with them reissuing you a disc outside the contractual support period.

However, based on the fact that they're treating you poorly already, I'm not sure what could happen.

Your sister has been subject to poor computer tech. support. You need to find good support person (check the yellowpages, or find a relative that knows something about computers) that will re-install Windows off of a good install disc that is legit.

Good luck.
posted by purephase at 6:12 PM on January 19, 2005

Your is sister has two separate (albeit related) problems.

The most pressing is that she needs a computer for her job search. She should assume that whatever went wrong with the Dell system isn't going to be fixed in the next day or two. Can she borrow a old computer from someone, or use a computer in a library? Does she need to retype her resume? Figure out how to get access to her email? In other words, if her computer had been destroyed in a fire, what would she do (other than buy a new one)?

For the other problem, getting Dell (which is highly rated for its customer service, perhaps inappropriately), to fix the computer, you may well have more success by trying again - there is very little to lose. You might call them yourself (or with your sister, via speakerphone), or ask your sister to call again (she'll get another technician) , tell the person that her computer was damaged - in part - through Dell's actions, and ask for assistance. There will be a log of what the various assistance that was offered, and you may get a very different (hopefully more helpful) response.

In any case, your sister should write down, as best as she can, exactly when she called, and what she was told, and what was done.

Finally, it's not 100% clear: was the computer still under warranty (service contract) when your sister FIRST called Dell?
posted by WestCoaster at 6:14 PM on January 19, 2005

I'm not trying to be snarky. Just saying that finding good technical support is not easy, and so it is advised to document everything you do on the phone, from case numbers to job numbers, to when and who you call, and whom you meet with if there is on-site support work done. If she has this information, she might have a way to seek damages through legal means.

Unless you are a corporate/gov/edu customer, you might as well not waste your money on a Dell warranty because of situations like the above. Outsourced support for individual consumers really has become that bad for most major vendors, probably with the sole exceptions of Apple and IBM.
posted by AlexReynolds at 6:16 PM on January 19, 2005

Response by poster: I am sorry, Alex, I did not mean to sound snippy at all. I think she would have liked a Mac better.
Thank you so far for all the advice, everyone.
posted by oflinkey at 6:19 PM on January 19, 2005

Something similar happened to a good friend of mine. Her Dell kept rebooting without prompting and eventually died. It was just barely past warranty. She wrote a long, angry, yet well composed letter to the president of the company, and lo and behold, they gave her a new computer. We were all shocked, but it worked.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 6:31 PM on January 19, 2005

Get a man to phone for her. It's sad but true that many tech support monkeys seem to think that any information given them by a woman is incorrect. A similar, but not uncommon situation happened to a friend recently. They spent several hours on the phone, and then a ten minute call from her less technically able brother resolved the situation.

Sad but true.

Option b is to say "Arghhhh - I give up" to Dell and find a small local computer firm that has decent customer support and cares about their customers. Will cost more, but probably save time and money in the long run.
posted by seanyboy at 6:32 PM on January 19, 2005

My uncle had a run-in with Dell. They argued that his problem was a software issue, it wasn't, and it took a law suit to get a service visit. It's not the easy-going way to get things done, but he's a lawyer. He filed papers in Texas, and had a tech out in about three days. Bad motherboard.

Writing a letter may work as well, dunno.

If a CD driveless PII laptop with a bruised screen is of use in NYC, it's gathering dust.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 6:55 PM on January 19, 2005

For a quick fix: Try opening the case and disconnecting the power on the burner. She probably doesn't need it to do the work she needs finding a job. Reinstall after disconnecting the device. If it's a problem with the burner itself, taking the faulty device out of the equation might resolve the issue. Since, Per Dell, the warranty is expired, cracking the case won't hurt anything.

If you want to try to get her old data back, buy a new hard drive for the install and see if you can find a computer shop that does data recovery to work on the old one for you. A lot of stuff can be recovered even if it has been over written multiple times. You are probably looking at spending a couple hundred bucks for the new drive and the recovery if you go this route. Male Computer Nerds are very susceptible to flirting though, so she might be able to get the XX discount.

She wrote a long, angry, yet well composed letter to the president of the company, and lo and behold, they gave her a new computer. We were all shocked, but it worked

This Works more often than most people think. The important part here is "well composed". Screaming at someone in print probably won't get you squat. A courteous, professional, and well-documented letter is much more likely to get a positive response.
posted by ad hoc at 7:06 PM on January 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

If using the quick fix listed above, Make sure the computer is off before going inside and make sure to touch the case to ground yourself before touching anything.
posted by ad hoc at 7:19 PM on January 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest posting to Craigslist with the story. Maybe someone will offer her a free computer. I would, but I have a new baby due this week, and I have no time to configure anything. But I'm not the only one out there with a couple of extra computers lying around.

Tell her to take a few minutes and write that letter to Michael Dell. She might get something out of it. Make sure she explains exactly why she will never deal with Dell again.

Also, seanyboy has a point. Last time I talked to Dell tech support (for a consumer PC), they were still routing calls to India. A man on the phone might get more results.

AlexReynolds - good points, but I have some bad news. I called IBM 2 weeks ago, and I was routed through India. Even with my super-duper megacorp/government almost-new-Thinkpad-with-extra-depot-service warranty. I wasted about 10 minutes just getting to the right department. Much better than my last call to Dell, but still bad. But once I got through to someone in the US, they overnighted the CDs I required. I don't have a problem with India, but when my company spends $5K on a laptop, I need to be able to call a person that can solve my problem immediately.
posted by bh at 7:28 PM on January 19, 2005

Like WestCoaster said, she should probably seek a friend's computer or the library to continue her search.

If she has dealing with a low-level tech on the original call, then they were probably reading from a script and not actually thinking about all the possible solutions (loose cables, etc) that could have solved your sister's problem. Your sister, who is not tech-inclined, followed these directions. So it ended up with the blind leading the blind and hosing up the HD. I'm not defending the lame tech support, I'm just saying the original Dell tech was just "following orders".

If the computer was not under warranty, then there is no breach of contract for failing to provide adequate serivce. There may be some sort of small-claims negligence involving the first tech not warning her that re-installing the drive would wipe her data, and then proceeding to screw up her machine. However, she may still be bound by the shrink-wrap contract with Dell that she agreed to when she opened the box and turned on the computer to only sue them in some certain state (California or Texas or Delaware, most likely), so she'd have to file papers there. Then again Dell may not even want to put any effort into defeating her small-claims claim and just fork over a new computer or send out a tech even if she files a claim in the wrong place.

* I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, get your own lawyer *
posted by falconred at 7:31 PM on January 19, 2005

I had a similar problem, and I called* Michael Dell--writing takes too long for me. Michael Dell doesn't answer his phone, of course, but his uber-competent assistant does. Victoria (I think that's her name) will take care of your problem immediately and with flair. Best of luck!

*I don't remember Mr. Dell's phone number, but it's listed in some trade magazines and may be findable via Google.
posted by equipoise at 7:38 PM on January 19, 2005

I have had several similarly frustrating run-ins with Dell service, though not as dire. Definitely have a man call.

Beyond that, I ended up sending email to and actually got a call from some assistant a few weeks later offering to do whatever it took to fix things.

Sneaky bit, if you're up for it: in the letter tell them you're a freelance journalist and they just made you miss a big deadline. (They really did in my case) "Journalist" rings all sorts of bells at Dell HQ.
posted by words1 at 8:39 PM on January 19, 2005

Really, re-installing the OS due to a faulty CD-Burner is ridiculous

I'd just like to second this emotion. And as a tech-support person, why on earth would you pick the longest, most arduous, most destructive method to fix a computer--over the phone!--when there are a number of other more reasonable solutions?

From your description, it sounds like someone fucked up, and someone's supervisor decided to try and fix things by hoping she'd just go away. This probably works more often than it should. I wouldn't blame Dell for this--any company as large as Dell is going to have their fair share of idiots.

You might get lucky by sending an email to, or you could try this person:

Sharon Brantley
Assistant to Bert Quintana, Vice President Customer Care, Tech Support and Operations
Nashville - Ext. 57309
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:39 PM on January 19, 2005

File a complaint with the BBB and the state Attorney General's office.

Call back, and let them know that "this may be used for broadcast on a national public radio show," and why you've been given the level of service that you have. This worked for the phone company hassle on This American Life, they were immediately transferred to someone in PR, who took care of things mighty quick.

From what I've read, don't try to contact Michael Dell--that's what *everyone* is going to do. Go to Dell's website, and contact a couple potentially appropriate Senior VP's. They get many fewer customer complaints and calls, but have just as much power in the matter as Dell himself probably does.
posted by gramcracker at 8:43 PM on January 19, 2005

If you don't get help from Bert [his email is ], his boss is John Hamlin []. Hamlin's assistant's name is Veronica Hadderton.

Letter writing works. Michael@dell will eventually get read, but I think executive services responds to postal mail and faxes faster.

You may also want to have sis contact PC Mag and PC World. They both sometimes run letters in print and online and try to get the company to explain the snafu [and get the computer fixed].

And Dell will respond to BBB complaints.

Definitely have the timelines and notes of the conversations. And as mentioned above, the communication should be direct, but civil.
posted by birdherder at 8:57 PM on January 19, 2005

I'll fix your sister's computer if she's in Boston. I'm married, so I promise not to hit on her.
posted by roue at 9:02 PM on January 19, 2005

Response by poster: Oh, roue...she is in NYC. And very, very cute. Like, natural Barbie cute.

Thank you all!
posted by oflinkey at 9:28 PM on January 19, 2005

And very, very cute. Like, natural Barbie cute.

I think that giving you Bert's secretary's extension warrants pics.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:05 PM on January 19, 2005

I third the "have a man call" suggestion. I have had many, many problems with tech support for my Toshiba laptop, to the point of the rep saying things like "I don't believe that." But a call from my technically inept father (with me coaching him in the background) and the support rep has no problem believing HIM.
posted by sanitycheck at 11:39 PM on January 19, 2005

It's so unfortunate that the "have a man call" thing works. I've been in IT for 10 years. I speak regularly at industry conferences. I have written two books on major enterprise server software. Yet I get to deal with some lady at my DSL provider reading from a script that refuses to transfer me to level 2 or 3 support till she runs through her "do you have it plugged in?" script.

Aaaanyway. She should disconnect the burner and use the computer without it. If it doesn't work without that, it's probably a software issue- but she could run a linux bootable cd from linuxiso on boot to see if it's a hardware issue. Or, you could, since she's not technical. Linux tends to tell you when hardware is broken moreso than Windows does.

Also, if she's cute, um, give her my number. Hey now!
posted by bedhead at 12:49 AM on January 20, 2005

Preface: I work in last-tier support for another major PC company (Dell hates us.)

So, first of all, Dell fucked up. Big time. On our side, the big thing is customer expectations and boundaries- what the customer is entitled to, what they can expect, and how far you can take support with them (IE.. simple stuff vs. registry hacking).

Because they went ahead and troubleshot the computer like it was under warranty, and botched it, it is now for all intents and purposes UNDER WARRANTY. The first agent who spoke with your sister should have properly discovered whether the system was entitled to support or not, THEN proceed to mess things up. Not the other way around. So, your sister now has leverage in the future to get this issue resolved.

The computer's true warranty status will dictate the outcome of the situation: If it's under warranty, they should replace the computer. If it's out of warranty, they should assist her every step of the way to get it fixed, including the replacement of parts if necessary. A new computer may be out of reach here, but still possible.

She can fight this, but now is not the time if she needs to be looking for a job.

My advice is to get knoppix. Knoppix is a free linux distribution that runs completely off of CD. After that, she should get a hotmail, yahoo or other free e-mail account to do her correspondence. With the knoppix + web e-mail combo, she will be able to do what's necessary for job hunting.

If she cannot run knoppix because the CD-writer is the only drive in the system, buying a CD-ROM drive is another option. Have her to go the closest Best Buy (evil, I know) she can, and buy the cheapest CD-ROM they have. She can return it within 30 days. Make sure she does this on a credit card, for her protection. CD-ROM drives are less than $40 these days.

For her to get a copy of knoppix, I would say either do the coffee shop route, or be a nice sister and burn the thing for her, and fed-ex 2 day it. Total of $10 damage to you.

Now, for her problem? CD-Writers are simple pieces of hardware. Plus, with Windows XP, there are very few things that can go wrong. If the drive wasn't showing up at all in My Computer, that could have been a registry hack (UpperFilters and LowerFilters... google that and you have a quick fix)... it could have been bad cabling, or a dead controller or drive. Very simple.

The current issue worries me some. In fact, it may be related to the CD-Writer problem. Find out if the corrupted file is the SAME FILE, or if it changes from install to install.

If it's the same file each time, then her media could be bad or there could be a bad sector on the hard disk that's exposed to the file system. This means that her hard disk is on the way out the door.

If it's a different file each time, this definitely means a hard disk issue is in order. She will need to replace the hard disk drive.

The bad sector could have coincidentally been the same that a storage subsystem Windows file could have resided on. The probability of this is far off, but damn, you wouldn't believe some of the things that happen to PC's. People win the lottery all the time- just the wrong lottery!

At any rate, I'm exhausted for now, and hopped up on Nyquil. I'll post a coherent follow up tomorrow afternoon.

Good luck!
posted by id at 5:11 AM on January 20, 2005

If she's still looking for a computer (either to borrow or have), try It's organized be regions, which have message boards that advertise goods for free. I see many computers and parts locally every day and have to think in the NYC metro area, this would be even greater. Many people have borrowed laptops for several months.

Good Luck.
posted by RobbyB at 6:25 AM on January 20, 2005

She's not talking to the right people.

#0. The moment things seem to be going sour (as in after the first call not returned) LOG THE CALLS. Write everything down in a log, including dates, times, technicians spoken to, demands, offers, and anything else about the conversation you can.

#1. If you're told by the base tech that something can't be done because of a rule at the company, you ask "I'd like to speak to someone who can authorize a variance" (or you can ask it in a less complicated manner if you think the tech didn't make it past grade 9).

#2. Ask this new person point blank "Can you authorize the following?" -- if they say no then ask again, "I need someone with authorization to solve this problem on the phone. Please forward me to someone who is equipped to deal with this problem."

#3. When talking to the other person it's not their fault... tell them the situation and tell them what you'd like done. Ask them to think about it and call you back in a day or two.

#4. If they don't call you back, it's time to hound that person. Since you logged their name you should have no problem talking with them again. If you do, you should get their extension next time! :-D

#5. If you end up going nowhere, small claims costs around $50 to start with (that's the papers with evidence you'll be sending the defendant), and will probably end up costing you up to $250. However, it's quite likely that once you make it known you won't be taking any BS, and you've sent them copies of your notes, they won't be ignoring you. When this happened between me and UPS their lawyer called me within 2 weeks. I'll have to call him back again. Depending on jursdiction, loser pays court costs + lawyer fees. And, again, depending on jurisdiction, there may be a cap on lawyer fees (in Ontario, Canada it's something like $300) so don't think they're going to bury you. :-D

If you're wondering what's involved in a small claims court claim, here's what I sent UPS that got their attention. Notice how I documented EVERYTHING. You'll definitely need to do that as well.

Well, good luck!
posted by shepd at 8:52 AM on January 20, 2005

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