Could Tech Support Undo Palm?

I’ve been a supporter of Palm for a very long time (in fact, I’ve been a supporter of Palm for longer than the company itself has existed as I supported it through the first iteration of the company, its subsequent acquisition by US Robotics, then 3COM, then its return to a new company base, its merger with Handspring and its current iteration) so when my last Treo (an unlocked Treo 680) started having issues, I thought that I would go through the usual procedure: call tech support, walk through the questionnaire about soft and hard resets, and then get down to the business of getting a replacement unit. Except this time, it wasn’t to be.

I was first walked through the script by employee C13763, who balked when I told her that I didn’t know the exact date of purchase of my device. Having purchased the device from the palm US store, I thought they could look that up but I discovered that it wasn’t the case. Keeping her on the line while I tried to login in the store, I discovered that palm no longer had any trace of any accounts of mine on their site. With 4 palm devices bought over the last 3 years, I was surprised by that fact, especially after checking the address on the welcome email (palm has a tradition of sending you a welcome note to their world every time you buy another device) and asking for a password to be reset for the email address I had received emails at from Palm.

But at that point, I could say it was all basically my fault for not keeping good records. I asked for forgiveness and gave a date based on my rough rememberance. It was around the end of the year and the Treo 680 has been introduced at a show in New York only a few days before. So I looked up the rough timeline (device introduced late November 2006 and released around December 2006) and gave a date (January 1, 2007). I knew the date was wrong as I had gotten the device later than that but figured I needed to give them a date that was within the range of warranty and on the outside of the date I bought the device.

After doing so, I was told that I needed to do a hard reset (I had already walked through that) and indulged the call center person (I figure they get enough abuse as is). That, of course, did not solve the problem since it was a hardware issue (speaker blown off due to the fact that the volume setting on the palm, if set too high blows off the speakers and the fact that the volume setting buttons do not lock with the rest of the buttons on the device, ensuring that any type of shaking in pockets or bags will ensure that your volume is either set to the top or bottom setting most of the time). After another 15 minutes of walking through the scenario, I was told that the replacement unit would cost me $299.

$299 would not be much of an issue, with one possible exception: the retail price for a brand new, unlocked, Treo 680 is $379. The street price ranges from $200 to $300. A new unit comes with a one year warranty on all parts. A replacement unit does not.

The message this sends to customers is that once you’re a customer, you’re hooked and therefore the company is going to try to milk any profit it can out of you. As a shareholder, I thought this was the wrong message so I asked employee C13763 to transfer me to her superior. After some going back and forth, I was finally transfered to employee C11329, a “senior technician” to whom I referred my case number (case number 1-511-464-84488) before continuing the discussion.

I first voiced my concern about the fact that there was a problem in terms of locating sales data from their own servers. Since I had bought the device from Palm’s website and I had given my serial number while on the previous call, I thought it odd that they could not locate the date of purchase of the device (especially since they consider it such vital data for customer service) . I was told that since my device was sold on January 1, 2007, the date I had given only a few minutes earlier to the previous call center person, it was out of warranty. I’m writing this on December 27, 2007 and, the last time I checked, a one year warranty generally extends 365 days from the date of purchase. My concern as a shareholder now turned to anger and frustration. With 3 other broken palm devices in front of me (2 of them my own fault so I won’t even bother talking to Palm about those), I thought that I could be considered a solid customer. But now I was told that warranties were not real and paying $199 (a drop in price of $100 in only a few minutes since talking to the previous person) was going to solve my problem. In the past, broken devices were repaired for $100 so this was getting closer to reality but I wanted to talk to someone more senior about two problems: first, it seemed that one can give any date and it won’t be checked (or maybe it will) and two, if it is checked, warranty terms do not apply for a full year.

So I asked employee C11329 to be transfered to her manager. She told me she was the most senior person at Palm. I asked her again politely to transfer me to her manager. She told me she had none. I asked to be transfered to the person that was reviewing her work, giving her assignments, etc.. I was told she had none. I told her I felt that was odd as, apart from the chairman and CEO, I didn’t know of anyone in a company not having a manager. She told me she was the CEO.

For a second, I paused. “You’re the CEO of Palm, Inc.?” I asked again, not really believing what I was hearing. “Yes, I am” she replied, now with a defiant tone. “So you’re telling me you’re Ed Colligan?” I asked. “I am the CEO and that’s all you need to know.”

Well, turns out I was now in a very odd situation. I had been at several industry events where Ed Colligan spoke (including a number of product launches from Palm) and, as far as my memory was concerned, his voice was neither feminine nor did it sound south-Asian in its inflection. My memory might have been playing games on me but I was pretty sure I was not talking to the CEO of Palm.

“Do you mind if I start recording this call? I’d like to get your answer to my question about being CEO on an audio record as I’m having a hard time believing it” I asked. The first part of this question is a standard I was taught in journalism school: if you’re going to record a call, first ask if it’s OK to do so. Laws applying to phone taping are a complex mess of regulations with little overlap between different jurisdictions: however, if both parties to a conversation agree to the taping of that conversation, it is generally recognized as OK to do so.

Obviously, I was dealing with someone who knew (or guessed) that I would not legally be allowed to record the conversation so she replied that “no, that would be illegal”. I was stuck so I asked her to transfer me to her manager again. She said no. I asked again with the same result. After another 15 minutes of back and forth, I finally figured that she being CEO, she could transfer me to anyone in the company so I asked to be transfered to the company’s general counsel. The call dropped. I let the line run for another few minutes figuring that maybe it was taking time for the transfer to occur but no, the line went dead.

After a few hours, I realized that while my experience had been horrible, I may have found a great story: PALM, the stock, is not doing so hot. Palm, the company is having its own issues, as are Palm the devices. In the past, the saving grace in all this was that the customer support was very good and decent. So the question is whether tech support (or other forms of horrible customer interactions) could be the straw that breaks Palm’s back. I called Palm’s PR agency to ask some questions about this but most of the people are on vacation. One of their agency’s PR people told me that she’d pass the message on so we’ll see what happens.

On a personal note, I’m joining the many others who are abandoning palm the device. I am also, like Mary Hodder, regretting all the recommendations I made. I’m now shopping for another device and would welcome any recommendation. I also wouldn’t mind getting some information about how other people feel about tech support not only at Palm but also at other unlocked devices sellers. Is unlocked a category of the market that most vendors dismiss, reserving their best services for 3rd party mobile providers and is it something that might change in the future? I don’t know but what I do know is that I am now part of the group of people who must say: “Don’t ever buy a Palm device.”

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