If you make a product that is so well-designed, so perfect in its production that no customer will ever experience a problem they cannot quickly and easily remedy on their own, you can get by without good customer service. I’ve yet to see such a product.
This of course means that all companies producing products should have at least good customer service. After all, once you have an issue with a product, it’s only as good as the customer service you get when you contact the company to resolve the issue. Let me tell you a tale of two companies with which I have recently had two very different experiences. Both companies make wireless earphones. Both products failed me while in their warranty period.
I’ve written twice before (here and here) about Sony’s apparent disinterest in customer service. I’ve had such bad experiences with Sony that when my son wanted a game console, I seriously considered purchasing the Xbox for no reason other than to deny Sony the sale. I ended up buying the Playstation 4 because it’s the better gaming console and I didn’t feel that I should penalize my son for the problems I have had with Sony.
Last Christmas my wife and I decided to buy our son the Sony Gold Wireless Headphones for the Playstation 4. Recently, a piece of plastic on a moving part of the headphones (the part that makes them adjustable) broke. I contacted Sony and after a very long time on hold, a rep answered who asked me if I had the receipt showing that I purchased the headphones within the warranty period. I did not. It never occurred to me to keep the receipt for a item like this. If it included a product registration card, I don’t remember. I explained that we purchased the headphones from a Radio Shack store that is now out of business. The Sony rep said she would note that and have the repair facility fix them without proof of purchase. Great. She me where to ship them and gave me the case number. I shipped off the headphones that same day.
A few days later I received an email from the repair facility asking me for proof of purchase. I called the phone number included in the email and explained to another Sony representative all that had happened. Her response was, “Well, I don’t know why that other rep told you that because it is not our policy to repair anything without proof of purchase. That rep cannot go against our company policy. Perhaps you should contact Radio Shack corporate and see if they can provide you with a copy of the receipt?”
I contacted Radio Shack who, after a few days, replied that they are in bankruptcy and do not have access to those records. I’m not sure what bankruptcy and access to sales records have to do with each other but it is what it is. I called Sony back and explained that I could not obtain a copy of the receipt from Radio Shack. The Sony rep said there was nothing he could do without proof of purchase. He had no ability to override that requirement. I had already spend $18 to ship the headphones to Sony. I asked if I could pay Sony a fee to fix them. No. Sony ONLY repairs under warranty. They do no out of warranty repair. Unlike the previous Sony rep whose heart appeared to be frozen inside a block of ice, this rep understood where I was coming from and wanted to help. He suggested I bring the headphones to Best Buy as they have been able to repair game controllers for him in the past. When the headphones are delivered back to me, I’ll give that a whirl.
Keep in mind that these headphones are connected to our Sony Playstation 4 which is connected to Sony’s servers through the Internet. Yet despite this, they cannot determine that the headphones were first used on December 25th, 2016. They need me to send them a copy of a paper receipt that I no longer have. They aren’t willing to trust me either. The default assumption is that I’m trying to get some service I don’t deserve.
Sony continues to remind me at every opportunity that customer service isn’t something they care about. That’s surprising given that virtually every product category they are in is one of low margins and high competition. You’d think they would want to differentiate themselves by having great customer service. The likely problem is that they see customer service as nothing but a cost, not a feature of being a Sony customer and certainly not a reason to be a repeat customer.
Last October I ordered a pair of AirPods (Apple’s new wireless earbuds). After waiting many weeks for delivery due to their backorder status, my much-anticipated AirPods finally arrived. They were simple to connect to my iPhone and other Apple devices, they are so easy to use that they are almost magical. I primarily use them when I go for a walk each morning. Should I come across a neighbor and want to talk, just removing one of the AirPods automatically pauses whatever I’m listening to which then begins replaying when I put the AirPod back in my ear. Should my phone ring in my pocket, double-tapping on either AirPods answers the phone. They come with a tiny case that is also a battery and thus when you put them away, they immediately start recharging. As a result, they are pretty much always charged. I just can’t say enough good things about them.
Recently I’ve noticed that the left AirPod was not charging correctly. When you put the AirPods in your ears, a chime is played on the left side to let you know they are paired with a nearby device. All of the sudden, the chime was playing on the right side. A quick check revealed that while the right AirPod was fully charged, the left was not. It had a 23% charge despite being in the same charging case as the right one. After fiddling with the left AirPod a bit, it began to charge. It appeared to take 10 seconds for every 1% of charge. After watching it charge for a bit, I calculated that it would be about another 10 minutes to recharge the left AirPod to 100%. I left it charging and went off to do other things. 15 minutes later it was only charged to 99%. Clearly the charging of the left AirPod was not linear.
I went to Apple’s website and was given the option to receive a call from Apple. I entered my phone number and began the estimated 2 minute wait for the phone call. It was more like 20 seconds. The rep that answered understood the problem and asked me to verify the serial number which was easy to find from the iPhone. She told me that I received them in February so they were obviously still under warranty and suggested that she make an appointment for me at the local Apple Store. There wasn’t a time available until Monday so she recommended that I head to the Apple store early, arriving before they open. She said if I’m there when they open, there’s a good chance they will be able to see me right away. It was worth a shot. She warned me however that AirPods are still back-ordered so if they have to swap out my AirPods there was a good chance I’d have to wait for the new pair to be shipped to me some weeks from now. It was unlikely they would have any in the store. The idea of having to go back to my wired earbuds for a few weeks was not a pleasant one but if that’s what had to happen, so be it.
I headed down to my local Apple store. Sure enough, there were 5 or 6 people like me waiting to get in as soon as they opened. About 10 minutes before opening, two Apple Store employees came out and went over each of our issues with us so their technical people would be ready to help us as soon as the store opened. A few minutes later, a friendly Apple Store technician named Coby was helping me with my malfunctioning AirPods. Every time he wanted to examine then, he asked my permission. That was surprising and delightful at the same time. While he examined them he reviewed the notes from my case that had been entered by the rep I spoke to by phone. He added some of his own while explaining to me that either the left AirPod was broken or the case itself was. He suggested we replace the left AirPod and if that doesn’t resolve the issue, he would replace the case. I agreed. While he typed a few more notes, what seemed like a disembodied hand appeared and left a small box on the table next to his iPad. I never looked up to see who it was nor did Coby. He thanked the hand and the hand disappeared, no doubt off to deliver other small packages to waiting technicians.
Inside the box was a left-side AirPod. Coby went through the process of pairing it to the case (a process that is normally done ahead of time for you but since this was a replacement, it was being done now and takes 10 minutes for some reason). He asked me if it would be OK if he help others customers while we waited the 10 minutes. I told him that would be fine. Almost exactly 10 minutes later, Coby reappeared, we paired the AirPods to my iPhone and tested to make sure they work. He suggested that I take them home and see if the issue is resolved. If not, I could come back and he’d replace the battery case as promised. That sounded fine to me.
The difference between these two experiences cannot be over-stated. Every contact with Apple was quick, efficient, helpful and facilitated by Apple representatives that appeared to genuinely care about making me happy. In both cases, the wireless headphones were connected to another internet-connected device made by the same manufacturer and yet, while Sony had no clue at all about the purchase of my son’s wireless Playstation headphones, Apple knew not only when I ordered them but when I received them. Apple told me that my AirPods were still under warranty and was not only able to resolve the problem the same day, but within 3 hours. It’s been 3 weeks now and the $99 broken headphones Sony was unwilling to repair have yet to be returned.
This isn’t just me. There is a methodology many companies use (including my own) to measure how well they are doing in the eyes of their customers. It’s called a Net Promotor Score or NPS. It indicates how likely your customers are to promote you to their friends and colleagues. Research shows that companies with higher scores are more profitable and faster growing than those with low scores. Scores vary depending on the source but Apple’s appears to often be between 70 and 80. They are amongst the highest if not the highest in consumer electronics. Sony’s score is about 44. Apple’s percentage of net income for the most recently reported 12 month period was 21%. Sony’s was 1%. Not all of that difference can be attributed to customer service of course but bad customer service certainly does not lead to higher profits.
Apple, the largest consumer electronics company in the world, sees great customer service as an important part of their relationship with their customers. Every customer service interaction I can remember with Apple has been excellent. The best I have managed with Sony after repeated attempts is poor to down right awful. I look forward to never again purchasing a Sony product and will continue to remind the many people I interact with that Sony is not a company that cares about its customers. Apple has made me an enthusiastic promoter. Sony has made me an equally enthusiastic detractor. It didn’t have to be this way. It would have cost Sony so little to make me into a promoter.
As the saying goes, a fish stinks from the head down. Clearly it’s time for a change at the top of Sony Corporation.