Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Thanks, Sony

There are many things I like about Sony the corporation, and many things I dislike. In particular, I like their electronics products, and I dislike their greedy, customer-hating music label. (At least the rat bastards at Sony's music division were forced to withdraw their ill-considered copy protection scheme, and are now in the process of settling the resulting class-action lawsuit.) But Sony's service, however, leaves something to be desired.

As I said, I like Sony's electronics products. For many years I had a series of Sony A/V receivers, which I only recently moved beyond when I purchased a set of higher-end B&K separates. I like Sony's TVs, so much so that my home theater system is centered around a Sony rear projection set. I even like Sony's computers, as witnessed by my year-old water-cooled Sony desktop unit.

In fact, I like Sony's computers so much that when it recently came time to choose a new laptop PC, I chose a Sony. I had the choice narrowed down to a Sony FS-790 series or a similar Toshiba, but I really liked the feel of Sony's keyboard (important for a writer) and the look of Sony's LCD screen. So I went with the Sony.

And that's where the fun began.

I decided to place my order from Sony's website; none of their stock models was spec'd precisely the way I wanted, and Sony offered some customization from their site. I checked all the right check boxes and made all the proper selections, so far so good, and clicked the "buy" button to finalize the order. A few seconds later I received a confirmation email, which unfortunately told me that the computer I just ordered was not available for immediate shipment. Not sure what that meant, I look up the status on Sony's website and found out that one or more components of the computer were out of stock. I wanted the computer by Christmas (this was about two weeks before), so this wasn't good. It was time to call customer support.

The good news is, Sony's customer support is in the U.S., not in India as it is with many electronics companies. I talked to a nice American gentleman (in California, I believe), who looked up my order and confirmed what I already knew, which was that some part of the PC was out of stock, and he had no idea when it would ship. He certainly couldn't guarantee shipment by Christmas. So I told him I'd have to cancel my order and buy something by another manufacturer.

At this point the polite young gentleman kindly cancelled my order, but then made an interesting suggestion. Sometimes, he said, customers place a custom order through the website but then cancel the order before the unit ships. This leaves Sony with a brand-new custom-built PC in inventory, and maybe they had one of these sitting around that might come close to the PC I originally spec'd out on the website. He offered to transfer me to a salesperson, and I took him up on the offer.

The salesperson I was transferred to was every bit as helpful as the first gentleman. He did some searching of their in-stock inventory, and found a pre-built computer in their warehouse that exactly matched the specs of the unit that I originally ordered. It was just sitting there, having been cancelled by another customer after it had been built. He could ship it to me immediately, and at a $400 savings, to boot. Good deal.

So, a few days later, I received my brand-new Sony laptop, and I was happy. But only for awhile.

My first disappointment had to do with ordering accessories. I needed a spare AC power pack and a bigger battery. The original salesman had told me to call him after I received the PC, and I would get a 20% discount on any accessories I ordered. He even gave me his name and extension. But when I called the number, I got voice mail, and after leaving my number, he never returned my call.

Okay, so I just wouldn't order from that salesman. I could still order from the website and receive a 20% discount, after receiving an electronic discount coupon after registering my computer online. I registered the PC, but never received the coupon via email as promised. I needed the accessories, unfortunately, so I bit the bullet and ordered at full price. A happy camper I wasn't.

Then, just a few days ago, I got an email from Sony telling me that my new computer was now in stock and that it was being shipped to me. Having received my new computer several weeks earlier, this intrigued me. So I looked up the order on Sony's website, and discovered that they were talking about the original computer I ordered online, which had been cancelled. In fact, Sony's order status for the computer said "Cancelled." However, the cancelled order was still being shipped. Grrrr.

I called up Sony's customer support and inquired about the situation. Yes, the only somewhat helpful lady on the phone said, that order had been cancelled. And yes, she continued, it had been shipped to me the previous day. How, I inquired, had a cancelled order been shipped? A glitch in the system, she replied. Indeed, I responded. And had my credit card been charged for this computer I had cancelled? Of course, the nice lady said. But she would be glad to issue me a return slip, and Sony would pay to ship the computer back. After they received the returned computer, then my charge card would be credited for the full amount. So I have a $2,000 charge on my card until you receive the computer back, I said, which could be two weeks or more? Yes, she said. But we're paying for the return shipping, she added. As well you should, I said. I don't consider that a gift, but a given, I added. She didn't comment further.

So sometime today or tomorrow, computer number two (or is computer number one?) will arrive at my doorstep. I will then print out the return shipping label, lug the thing to my nearest FedEx location, and ship it back to Sony. Sometime in the next few weeks, if all goes well, that $2,000 charge will be taken off my credit card. And Sony might, depending on my mood, lose me as a future customer.

I do wonder how a company that sells electronics products at very slim margins can afford to build and ship PCs by mistake, as they did with me. After all, my experience can't be unique; it takes a bit more than a "glitch in the system" to create this kind of error. It seems to me that Sony needs to examine their systems to find out how this sort of thing can happen, and how often it happens, and then make the necessary changes to ensure that it doesn't happen again. I certainly couldn't stay in business if I made a lot of $2,000 errors. Sony needs to fix their broken system.

Still, I like my new laptop. I'm using it right now, to type these words. The keys feel good under my fingers, and the words look good onscreen. I just don't need two PCs to get the job done.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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