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The Custom Install Antidote

This week's NY vs Dell lawsuit underscores the need to change the culture of soulless customer service. The CI industry stands to benefit.

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From activating cell phones to paying student loans, the average customer service experience is less service and more Dantesque circle of torment.

Muzak, transfers, hang-ups, phone cooking in your ear during wait times, more muzak, then the reward of finally connecting with a robo-operator who reads despondently from a three-ring binder. (I refuse to blame the reps, however, who just perform as instructed.)

New Yorks Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo is targeting one prime offender in a revolutionary lawsuit against Dell, one of the worlds leading computer companies. Cuomo is seeking to redress Dells abysmal service, demand civil penalties, and an end to aggressive and deceptive business practices.

The lawsuit is against Dell and Dell Financial Services, LP (DFS), a joint venture between Dell and CIT Bank, which offers financing to consumers for their Dell purchases.

From the office of the Attorney General:

The lawsuit accuses Dell and DFS of engaging in bait and switch financing tactics and failing to provide their customers with adequate customer service. It also charges Dell and DFS with perpetuating numerous other deceptive business practices relating to their technical support services, promotional financing, rebate offers, and billing and collection activity.

Attorney General Cuomo said, At Dell, customer service means no service at all. Dells consumers were intentionally misled, and they had to pay for that privilege. I hope this lawsuit sends a message to companies large and small that delivering a product is simply not enough the promises they make must be delivered as well.

According to papers the Attorney General filed in court, Dell deprived consumers of the technical support to which they were entitled under their warranty or service contract by: repeatedly failing to provide timely onsite repair to consumers who purchased contracts which promised precisely that; pressuring consumers, including those who purchased service contracts promising onsite repair, to remove the external cover of their computer and remove, reinstall, and manipulate hardware components; discouraging consumers from seeking technical support.

My webcam is malfunctioning today but I know that if you are reading these allegations right now you are nodding your heads in a cascade of collective agreement. And it is not just Dell. Half-baked customer service is de rigeur. The result is a general distaste and distrust of the very idea of service in these automated off-shore times.

And it isnt just the phone service thats maddening. While great in theory, online customer support is also rife with problems, and about as real time as geologic time.

Its a similar yet different story for the pre-sale and post-sale experience of technology buying at Circuit City or BestBuy. I, for one, would rather chew off my own arm than ask a floor person at the Union Square Circuit City to guide me through an HDTV or wireless gateway purchase. (Again, nothing against these bright and hard-working individuals. They simply reflect a company mandate to move high-volume inventory.)

The good news custom installers and specialty AV dealers are poised to benefit from this culture of customer dissatisfaction. By offering a new standard of excellencealternatives to long wait times, frequent disconnections, and lackluster sales helpCI professionals can offer true value. Genuine human interaction is rare. Rarer still are relationships and artfully integrated solutions.

Yesterday, a founding father of custom manufacturing, ELAN Home Systems, announced a service initiative designed to set a new benchmark for servicethe Five Star Service Standardat its TRIO Dealer Summit in Lexington, Kentucky. The company says this strategy is rooted in the five basic tenants of better service: protection, responsiveness, convenience, cost containment, and satisfaction.

While many custom manufacturers offer warranties and extended care protection, ELAN is elevating the commitment, and making systematic its support for its products and dealers. The new initiative seems to offer an unprecedented level of pre-sale and post-sale technology support. Pricing and availability are subject to change, but the general idea is to set a new standard of dealer and client support: eliminate NTF service fees, implement a new surge policy, offer instant communications on repair status, and many other features.

With 700 product lines and 500 direct dealers, a coherent service policy makes sense to ELANs executives. Paul Starkey, executive vice president of sales and marketing says that excellent customer care is how dealers can differentiate and distinguish themselves from the competition, especially in the industry dip of a slowing housing market. Many custom dealers are doing really well, and many others are struggling, Starkey observed. Things are changing very quickly and we must help our dealers weather the storm of change.

Weve devoted equal time to dealer development as we have to our product development, Starkey continued. If the dealer cant survive or sustain growth, we all lose. We take product reliability seriously and business expansion seriously.

Perhaps this level of commitment is why more than 80 firms and 350 dealers flew down to Kentucky this week for TRIO. That, plus the Knob Creek bourbon and Blues Brothers bash Saturday night.

Mark Farran of Accessible Technologies, a systems installation firm based in New York, and a TRIO attendee, says that ELAN has always offered good customer service, this the companys new service policies just reaffirm that.
Many dealers I spoke with are enthusiastic about weaving this service into their own project proposals.

In a different category, but also motivated by customer care, is Retrevo is a brand new search engine that tracks every known consumer electronics resource and provides installers with support for virtually any question.

Retrevos spokeswoman Stephani Trussell says that Retrevo offers best use cases, troubleshooting, and needle-in-a-haystack product documentation quickly, extracted from the most sequestered areas of manufacturer’s websites. Just type in blackberry pearl, for example, and see how quickly the entire product manual is returned.

Retrevo CEO and founder Vipin Jain says that the company has three different algorithmic patterns dedicated to semantic analysis, is one of the few companies that can search online PDF files and offer instant results.

Jain understands that as products become more complex and multi-functional, the need for clarity becomes even more important. Pre-sale and post-sale education, he argues, could ultimately change the customers relationship with the product. We can turn semi-experts into experts, and we help custom installers do their job even better, he said.

Before Retrevo, Vipin launched Extreme Networks Wi-Fi business, and was a co-founder of Telseon, a pioneer in IP-based Metro Service Delivery where he managed OSS/BSS development and architecture, deploying fiber-based Ethernet networks in more than 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. in less than one year. (Hes also the inventor of IEEE 802.1X, the security protocol in wireless and wireline Ethernet, and has been awarded 13 patents.)

Another industry trailblazer, Helen Heneveld, agrees that customer care and client education will move the entire CI industry forward. As a CEDIA educator and founder of Bedrock Learning, she knows that hands-on education is a critical part of customer service equation, she says. Comprehensive education is key, she added. Bedrock offers non-biased training so it applies to every manufacturer. Bedrock Learning was on of the 10 industry sponsors of ELANs exciting Trio, so she had the opportunity to meet, face-to-face, ELAN dealers devoted to growing their businesses.

Additionally, Heneveld is excited about Bedrocks national training and education Road Show which kicks off this week. Check out for location, details, and times.

In filing his lawsuit against Dell, Cuomo wants the computing colossus to pay restitution to aggrieved consumers, pay civil penalties, and adopt measures to ensure that will end deceptive, illegal, and fraudulent practices. Consumers wishing to file complaints against Dell or Dell Financial Services should visit or has more information.

Ok, now to call customer service about my malfunctioning web cam.