Customer Service: A Tale of Two Very Different Consumer Electronics Companies

Customer Service: A Tale of Two Very Different Consumer Electronics Companies

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.

Sony Corporation

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.

2014-07-24-product-8Last 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.

Apple

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.

airpods-main

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

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.

The new Apple TV (4th Generation): A good upgrade that will likely become a great one

The new Apple TV (4th Generation): A good upgrade that will likely become a great one

Apple TV A few years ago we decided to try an experiment. We disconnected our cable subscription but kept our internet. We bought an Apple TV (3rd generation) and then subscribed to both Hulu and Netflix for a combined total of $16 per month compared to the $80 per month or so we were paying for just the TV portion of our cable bill. My wife and I agreed to try it for 6 to 9 months and then decide how we felt about it.

At first, my wife was unsure this was such a good move. She was used to just turning on the TV and channel surfing until she found something she liked. With Apple TV and Hulu, she needed to actually think about what she wanted to watch and go find it. After a few months we both agreed that being able to watch what we want on demand was better. Occasionally we find a show we can’t watch because it’s not offered but that’s rare. The 3rd generation Apple TV made it pretty easy to find TV shows and movies to watch.

Yesterday I received the new 4th Generation Apple TV. It’s about the same width and depth as the old one but a bit taller and heavier.

Setting it up was quite easy. Plug in the HDMI cable for the TV, plug in the power cable and in our case, an ethernet cable since we already have it in room where our TV is anyway. As soon as you plug in the power cord, the Apple TV starts up. There’s no on/off button. The software setup was quite easy and in fact made even easier because I have an iPhone. It asked me if I wanted to set it up manually or use my iPhone. I chose the latter and it then asked me to move my iPhone closer to the Apple TV. It was then able to get most of the information it needed from my iPhone to set up my Apple TV. After that, I just answered a few questions and I was ready to go.

UIThe overall user interface of the new Apple TV is similar to the previous one. Anyone who had the old one will have no trouble with the new one. The first important difference is that all possible channels are no longer listed on the main menu screen. Instead there’s an app store where channels are treated like apps. You find one, select it and if you want to install it, select the Install button with the included Apple TV remote. I actually like this because there are several channels I never watch so having only the channels I care about on the main menu is a plus.

The new Apple TV can run apps made for it. They are basically iOS apps that have been slightly altered to target the Apple TV. I didn’t think this would be all that useful but after downloading a few games (which is about all there is at the moment), I discovered that it is actually kind of fun to play them on our big 50″ TV. The new Apple TV comes in two versions, one with 32GB of storage ($149USD) and the other with 64GB ($199USD). It cannot be upgraded and I don’t like to run out of storage so I bought the bigger one. The storage appears to be primary used for apps. However, I wonder if it’s also used to store video from the show you are streaming (from Netflix for example). More on this later.

RemoteThe new Apple TV remote is completely different from the old one. It’s got a touch-enabled area at the top that makes skimming through items on the screen a lot easier. This is also used for those times when you need to input text. On the old Apple TV, it was a slow process of clicking buttons to move the cursor from character to character. With this new remote, the characters are listed horizontally and you just slide your finger across the touch pad on the remote to find a character then tap it to select and enter it. It’s much faster than the old Apple TV. However, I found myself wondering why I can’t use the keyboard on my iPhone for text entry. Something tells me that a new version of the Apple Remote app is likely in the works to do just that.

The new remote also has Siri integration. There’s a microphone button you press and hold to activate Siri. You can then give it commands like “Show me films with Tom Cruise” or “Show me the last episode of The Simpsons”. If you missed what someone just said, you can even asked Siri, “What did he just say?” and it will rewind the video a few seconds and turn on closed captions. That’s pretty slick. Unfortunately, the Siri searching is not quite complete. As of today, it only works with iTunes, Netflix and Hulu. In the case of Hulu, it’s not complete. It couldn’t find the Korean drama my wife and I were watching. Apple has said that more channels will support Siri as time goes on. My guess is that Hulu will provide better support in the future as well. I have a friend that works at Hulu so I will be getting on him about that. 🙂

The old remote used infrared and I was reminded of this every time I went to use it just as someone was passing in between me and the Apple TV. The new remote is bluetooth so you no longer have that problem. The old remote didn’t need to be charged nor do I ever remember replacing its battery. The new remote apparently does need to be charged occasionally. Apple includes a cable for charging it. I’m told that when the battery is low, the Apple TV interface will let me know. We will see how long it lasts between charges. I don’t see this as a big deal if it’s not more than once every few weeks.

There is an included Search app that does seem to search a lot more content including Hulu’s Korean dramas so that really makes me wonder why Siri can’t find them. It could just be a bug. I’m sure there will be an update to the Apple TV software soon. No, you can’t use Siri for text input either which is a bummer.

Skimming with the new the new remote is a lot nicer than with the old one. We were watching last night when we wanted to go back a few seconds to review a particular scene. With the old Apple TV this was difficult. I often found that I would think I had gone back far enough only find out that I didn’t. Almost every time I did this I got frustrated to the point of giving up. The touch pad on the new remote makes it easy to skim by sliding your finger and the live preview lets you know exactly where you are. This is a huge improvement over the old Apple TV.

Volume Control – The remote has volume controls as well and can learn to control the volume through your TV or stereo receiver. I have had plenty of learning remotes over the years. They tend to learn in one of two ways:

  1. Hold the remotes end to end and push the same button on each at the same time. This is the most common way.
  2. The Harmony Remote is much better at this. You create an account on their website then tell them what hardware you have and how you have it configured. It then downloads a file to your computer which you upload into the remote. This is easier than holding remotes end to end and pushing buttons one by one. Still, I can see a person not entirely comfortable with technology being overwhelmed by this.

As you can imagine I was genuinely curious as to how Apple would accomplish this. Well, in true Apple style, they figured out how it really should be done. In the Settings app, you choose Devices and Remotes and then choose Add Device. The screen then asks you to hold the volume up button on the other remote until the progress bar on the screen fills completely. This takes about 1 second. Then it asks you to do the same for the volume down button. That’s it. You’re done. This was by far the easiest remote programming I’ve ever seen.

Streaming appears to work better on the new Apple TV. I say this from what is certainly quite limited experience since we have only had it for a single day. However, often when watching Netflix, even with our lightning fast internet connection (900Mbps down), it still sometimes stalls while loading up more of the show. Last night, this didn’t happen once. I wonder if some of that storage is used for the portion of the video you haven’t yet watched.

In conclusion, this new Apple TV is a very nice upgrade from the 3rd generation model. It was very easy to set up, the interface is more well though out, text input is easier though iPhone integration would make it so much better, and it’s nice to be able to play games. The Siri integration is OK at this point but I’m betting that once it’s more thoroughly integrated into the channels it will be the primary way people get to the content they are looking for. Siri is really the game changer for the new Apple TV or at least it will be soon.